Cayucos pair was witness to history on Sept. 11, 2001

Jim and Elizabeth McCoy were within blocks of the twin towers on a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange when the first plane hit. A panicked guide yelled for everyone to evacuate. No one knew why.

The Cayucos couple went onto the street and saw the smoke-filled sky.

“We didn’t know what had happened,” Elizabeth McCoy said. “We saw smoke and ashes falling through the air and thought that it must have been a bomb.”

Two women, who had watched the planes slam into the towers from their nearby office, wept as they told the McCoys what had occurred.

That morning, the lives of many were forever changed. It happened abruptly for some — the grief for loved ones lost as instant as the attack. For others, such as the McCoys, the change was more subtle.

Ten years later, what stands out in the McCoys’ recollection of that horrible day are the poignant gestures of individuals — such as a painter who gave them face masks to protect them from the pungent dust. Or of strangers who gathered by candlelight, trading fear and anguish for empathy and prayer.

That morning, the couple followed others toward Battery Park on the tip of Manhattan — thinking that it would be safer there. In the distance they could see flames and what seemed like an infinite amount of smoke rising from the buildings — the same ones they’d planned to visit later that day for lunch.

Crowds of people, fearful of what was happening, could be seen hiding in cars or restrooms. Others ran toward the water’s edge.

Once at the park, the McCoys gathered with strangers around a radio someone had placed on top of a car and learned about the attack on the Pentagon.

It was then that the McCoys felt the magnitude of what was happening. Moments later, the first tower collapsed, and the sound was heard throughout the city. When the second building fell, the smoke and debris became choking. A painter handed out masks to those people gathered at the park. Elizabeth McCoy still has hers tucked away.

Buses slowly evacuated people, including the McCoys, from Manhattan.

The images of the burning towers, and the sorrowful eyes of those around them as the tragedy unfolded, are forever etched into the McCoys’ memory. So also are the moments of intimacy shared by strangers amid the confusion and despair.

That day, time stilled, and a new appreciation of life was born.

“Everyone was looking one another in the eye in appreciation of humanity,” said Elizabeth McCoy, who had once lived in Manhattan and remembered how self-involved people become in a large city. “For a moment everyone slowed down and came together. There was a whole new feeling of caring about one another.”

That night, people gathered in the streets, lighting candles in honor of the lives lost that day.

“We were struck by how the spirit of caring humanity rose immediately from all New Yorkers who have witnessed the attack,” Jim McCoy wrote in a recounting of the day. “Sorrow for the victims, gratitude that we had escaped danger.”

The image of candle flames lit in selfless unity remains a memory as vivid for the McCoys as the image of the towers burning.

“Complete strangers just showed up and mourned together,” Jim McCoy said.

The couple has traveled back to New York several times since that day. They visited the gaping hole in the ground where the towers once stood.

Never have they been angry — nor felt the need to blame anyone for what happened that day. Rather, they both are resolute that the wars that ensued in Iraq and Afghanistan were not the answer.

“There were a lot of unfortunate anti-Muslim feelings after that day,” Elizabeth McCoy said. “That type of resentment doesn’t have a place anywhere.”

Instead, they are grateful to have been so closely involved in a moment of history and to have shared in the compassion of those around them as life paused and for a brief moment strangers became friends.