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‘You either got married or broke up’: 20 years later, a Seattle couple on falling in love in NYC in the wake of 9/11

It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and Emily Cherkin was headed to her job near the World Trade Center.

“I was cranky, I was running late, and then the subways were delayed,” Cherkin said. “I was so mad, my first emotion was irritation.”

Meanwhile, Ben Gitenstein was headed to his office in Manhattan’s Union Square.

“I got out of the subway and I could immediately tell something was going on,” Gitenstein said. “There were cops everywhere, people were running.”

Cherkin eventually caught a train into the city.

“We finally emerged over the bridge and I just remember this collective gasp as people looking out of the window saw all this smoke,” she said. “They started to exclaim, ‘It’s the Trade Center! The Trade Center is burning!’ I got out of the subway and it was like a salmon spawning upstream. Everybody is going the opposite direction and running. Not just walking, running the other direction. I saw someone from my office and she said, ‘The courthouse is closed, go home.'”

Cherkin turned around, walked back to the subway, and went back home to Brooklyn.

“I will never forget the screaming of sirens, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks,” she said. “I realized that the towers were probably going to fall at that point and I made a very intentional decision not to look. I decided I didn’t want that memory of watching them fall.”

Gitenstein left work, but he couldn’t get a cab so he hatched a plan to walk home to Brooklyn with two coworkers.

“I watched the second tower collapse,” he said. “I watched it fall. Your mind does not know how to process that. To be honest, I thought it was fake.”

Cherkin and Gitenstein were 22 years old. They were working at their first real jobs out of college and they were falling in love.

“I was frantic, trying to figure out where she was,” Gitenstein said. “I kept calling her number and she wouldn’t answer or it wouldn’t go through.”

“It was all about trying to get in touch with Ben,” Cherkin said. “We did reconnect. He ended up walking across the Williamsburg Bridge.”

“There were thousands of us, a giant march of human beings,” Gitenstein said. “I was surrounded by office workers; we all had our sport coats over our arms and our shirts unbuttoned, and we were all hot and tired from walking in shoes that weren’t meant to be walked in. It was very quiet. Everybody was scared and confused. I remember when we got over the bridge, all these Hasidic Jews came out with black hats and their tallit and they were handing out water to people as they walked across the bridge.”

Cherkin and Gitenstein were a new couple.

“Our first date was sometime in June of 2001,” Cherkin said. “It was only a couple months.”

“It’s funny to hear you say that we’d only been together for three months because in my mind, when 9/11 happened, we’d been dating for years,” Gitenstein said. “When we first met, I immediately knew that I was going to be with this person for a very long time. Sometimes you meet a person and you didn’t realize that’s what you’d been looking for, but you’re like, ‘Ohh, that’s what they’re supposed to be like.'”

The couple eventually connected in Brooklyn and met at a restaurant to have lunch.

“I remember sitting there and being like, I’m eating lunch at a restaurant and people are literally dying right now. Or died an hour ago, a massive number of them,” Cherkin said. “And I’m just doing this weird, normal thing. I think reconciling that; you know, how do you live when people are dying?”

The trauma of the terrorist attack instantly brought them closer together.

“What we realized later is that everybody we knew who was dating somebody on 9/11 either got married or broke up within a few weeks,” Gitenstein said. “It was very clarifying. You either desperately wanted to be with that person and make sure they were OK, or you were like, you know, I don’t think they’re that important to me.”

“It’s really weird to me, looking back, how much of the foundation of our relationship was because of, and related to, 9/11,” Cherkin said. “The vulnerability was what made us close.”

Cherkin had kept a detailed diary during that time, handwritten pages describing the aftermath of the terrorist attack and her budding relationship with Gitenstein.

“You want me to read this? Oh my gosh,” Cherkin laughed and began to read. “He said it, at 12:30 p.m. in the sunshine in Union Square Park, standing by a black wire fence overlooking ducks and squirrels on the grass. I thought I almost didn’t hear him right. I said, ‘What?’ And he whispered, ‘You heard me.’ I clung to him and whispered back, ‘I love you, too.'”

“It is kind of romantic to be in a disaster movie,” Gitenstein said. ” I think it was about two weeks after the event, Emily was spending the night at my apartment and there was a gas line leak in our neighborhood. Manhole covers started exploding upwards underneath cars and setting off the car alarms and lighting the cars on fire.”

“It sounded like a bomb, and in that moment it was like, oh, it probably is,” Cherkin said. “We were so raw, on edge.”

“Freaked out,” Gitenstein added. “You just hold each other really close and it’s really intense. That kind of fear is romantic.”

Twenty years later, Cherkin and Gitenstein are married, living in Seattle, and raising two children. Cherkin said she was recently unexpectedly triggered by the trauma. After the towers fell, smoke lingered in Brooklyn for months.

“After a couple weeks, we would open our door and be like, ‘I smell the Trade Center today.’ So I think for me, there was a connection to the wildfire smoke that we’re getting here in Seattle,” she said. “I feel it physically, my ears will swell, that’s what happened in New York. But it’s just a reminder of something traumatic.”

“When COVID started, when we had to leave our offices pretty suddenly, when my kids had to leave their school suddenly and come home, it’s not so much that it triggered 9/11 feelings so much as it felt familiar to me,” Gitenstein said. “The things you take for granted can sometimes disappear.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.

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