September 11, 2001: A Letter Carrier’s Story


By Nancy Pope, Historian

This post is part three in a series on September 11th and the postal service. Click for parts one, two, and four.

Mail destined for the World Trade Center (WTC) was processed by the Church Street post office located across the street. The WTC complex was so large that it encompassed two zip codes, 16,000 addresses and required ten letter carriers whose daily rounds were made within its corridors. I’d like to relate the story of one carrier, Emma Thornton, whose daily rounds took her through the upper floors of one of the twin towers.

A long-time New Yorker, Emma worked out of the Church Street post office for over 20 years. She remembered watching the towers be built, and then watched in horror as they collapsed. Her route, 24D, covered floors 77 through 110 of the north tower, which was hit by the first plane that morning. Among her patrons were people she'd gotten to know over those two decades, including staff from the Windows on the World restaurant and financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald. As she said, "Every time I think about it, tears come to my eyes. A lot of my friends didn't make it."

Remembering September 11, 2001: Letter Carrier Emma Thornton
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In this video, Emma describes her experience that day and in the weeks that followed.

Emma Thornton: The ZIP Code for my route is 10048.

Route number 99.

[text slides]

...there off the elevator, everybody was looking up.


What happened?

So I went to the door.

So I said, what happened?

Somebody said, I heard a plane went through the Trade Center.

No, this is not good.

I said, okay, so I go outside.

And I look up.

And I said, oh my god, who would set the World Trade Center up on the, you know, 89th floor.

I mean who would go up there and set the World Trade Center on fire?

Oh my god.

I was, you know, blabbering to yourself.

Oh my god, who would do that?

And so a man was on a cell phone.

And he said, a plane just went through the World Trade Center.

I said, oh my god they done bombed the World Trade Center again!

And he looked at me.

I said, oh lord I don't know what I'm going to do.

And then, you know, oh man, I was getting frantic then.

So I start running.

So I went around the corner some.

This guy said, what's the matter?

I said the World Trade Center is on fire.

He said, well why are you whispering?

I said, I don't know, you know, I don't know.

I said, come on, let's go back, let's go back and find out where our coworkers are.

I said because, I don't know what's going on.

By the time I got back, in a couple of minutes, people start falling out of the windows.

Oh my god!

I start screaming.

I went to my knee.

Oh my god!

I can't take this.

Oh I was screaming and hollering.

Somebody later picked me up.

I was dying, you know. And my niece? Oh my head was...

Oh men I don't even want to think about it.

I think about it now I get crazy, so...

I said, oh my god, and my niece works in the building.

I said, I wonder where my niece is?

Oh, I was screaming and hollering and I didn't know what was going on.

So we went back around the front of the building.

Second plane hit!

Oh I thought the building was going to fall in.

So we start running, me and another lady.

So ran out of the building.

So I said, I'm going up by City Hall.

So I ran up by City Hall.

Before we can get there, next 10 minutes,

people were screaming, and hollering, and crying.

Building came down.

Like it just...

Like you grind, you know you take something and grind it up.

Like glass.

White stuff was...

Oh man!


It looked like snow.

You ever seen anything?

I can't believe this.

It looked like snow.

I didn't go to work for three days.

I reported three days later.

[text slides]

Everybody was hugging each other when they saw 'em.

Oh man, when you saw your customer and your customers saw you, we would embrace each other than just cry like babies.

Yep, sure did.


And every customer would come there, you would ask them, did everybody make it?

Did everybody survive or did anybody go down with the Trade Center?

And they would tell you.

Such and such didn't make it and that's how I know a lot of people didn't make it because when they came to pick up the mail I would ask them.

And they would tell me, you know, such and such didn't make it.

They would come and get their mail, and some of them never came.

You never knew what happened to 'em.

They just disappeared.

Refer to caption
Postal Museum curator Jeff Brodie, dressed in protective hazmat gear, examines sorting units at the Church Street building prior to selecting objects for the collection.

Due to the severity of the damage to the Church Street building after the attack, its employees were detailed out to other buildings. Delivery and customer service employees were re-assigned to the Farley building on 33rd street. Processing staff were told to report to the nearby Morgan processing center. The ten carriers who serviced the World Trade Center complex spent the next several months sorting WTC mail into sorting units in the Farley building. They continued to work the mail for the 16,000 addresses that made up the twin towers.

In the weeks following the attack I spoke to Emma Thornton a number of times by telephone, making sure that the museum was able to record her thoughts and memories of her route. While I was working on the story from the museum, two staff members traveled to New York to select additional items for our permanent collections. Among those items were Thornton’s sorting units.

Pigeon holes in her package sorting unit, 24D-2, have labels listing the names of the larger firms on her route. This unit simply consists of a table with a mail sorting wing hinged to its proper left side and an attached sorting case with a light fixture to illuminate the shelves. Six cardboard shelves have been added to provide slots for additional customers. The smaller unit, 24D-3, was used for letter mail.

Refer to caption
Emma Thornton’s sorting unit.

After the units were delivered to the National Postal Museum, we invited Emma to join us at the museum. She walked through the various markings on her sorting units, letting us know everything she could about the pieces. Emma’s visit was a high point in the story for museum staff. Her enthusiasm for her job and patrons was delightful to witness and helped bring these objects to life for our staff.

Refer to caption
Letter carrier Emma Thornton (center), reunited with her sorting unit and looking it over with curator Nancy Pope (left) and Linda Edquist, Head of Preservation.

Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she has curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.