During the chaos that ensued in the hours after the attack, traffic was gridlocked, making it difficult to move around the city. Wachsman, who was alone in his SUV, offered rides to people fleeing on foot. Six people ended up in his SUV, including a young couple and their toddler.
The child was clutching a dark brown stuffed monkey with wide eyes and a stripe of bright yellow fur on its forehead.
After Wachsman dropped his passengers off at their requested stops, he said he noticed that the child had left the plush primate in the back seat.
“I’d let the couple and the child out of the car somewhere between Chelsea and Midtown, and I knew it would be impossible to find them,” Wachsman recalled. “I can’t remember whether the child was a boy or a girl, but I had the impression they were visiting New York on vacation.”
He couldn’t bear the thought of throwing out the monkey or giving it away, so he decided to keep it in his car, thinking that he might one day reunite it with the family, he said.
“I knew the likelihood was pretty low, which is why so many years went by,” he said.
Now two decades on, that wish is getting some new attention.
After the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last month, Wachsman’s daughter, Jessica Wachsman-Selznick, told him that she would like to try to find the monkey’s owner — a person who would now be in his or her early 20s.
“I get emotional about 9/11 every year, but this year, the 20th anniversary really got me thinking about the monkey,” said Wachsman-Selznick, 47, who now lives in Chicago and works as a voice-over artist.
“I told my dad, ‘Maybe there’s a way to do this — it’s worth a try,' ” she said.
“This year, I decided that after 20 years, it’s time to put an end to an enduring mystery,” she wrote. “Help us reunite ‘9/11 Monkey’ with its rightful owner!”
One man who commented about her post said he was a primatologist who believed that the stuffed monkey was a mandrill of some kind.
“Only a couple of U.S. zoos have them, so it could possibly narrow down what city the family was from,” he noted, adding that the Bronx Zoo had mandrills.
For Wachsman, who has toted around the plush monkey for 20 years, finding the owner would bring some closure to that part of the horrific day.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was about a quarter-mile from his office at a computer company in Lower Manhattan when he noticed a blizzard of white paper floating across the East River shortly before 9 a.m.
Wachsman, who regularly took FDR Drive to his office, turned on his car radio and heard that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers, he said.
“I figured that some hotshot Cessna pilot must have miscalculated,” Wachsman said. “But then when I got to my exit, I encountered a solid wall of traffic.”
“At 9:10 in the morning, I heard the second jet pass right over my head,” he added. “I couldn’t see it, but the altitude was low enough to give me pause.”
When the horror of what had happened set in, Wachsman said he sat in traffic until New York Police Department officers helped get everyone’s cars turned around so they could leave the area.
“I felt fortunate to be headed safely in the opposite direction,” he said. “But then I saw something really disconcerting. People were walking down the busy highway, covered in ash and debris. It occurred to me that I should take some of them in my car and get them away from Ground Zero.”
Wachsman offered three men a ride and they all piled into his black 2001 Lexus.
“They were either Russian or Georgian and wanted to get back to where they lived in Queens,” he recalled.
Shortly after that, he spotted a young couple in their 20s pushing a toddler in a stroller, north of Battery Park. Wachsman helped them to get the stroller in the back and everyone squeezed in, he said.
“They wanted to be let out somewhere in the low 20s to mid-30s [streets],” he said. “I didn’t get the impression they were from New York, and we rode pretty much in silence. Nobody was in the mood for small talk. We were all in somewhat of a state of shock.”
Although his passengers weren’t covered in ash, Wachsman’s SUV was, he said. So after he dropped everyone off, he drove straight to a carwash near his home in Queens.
That’s when he discovered that the monkey had been left behind.
“The child’s parents were in such a hurry to get to safe territory, that the monkey had been overlooked,” Wachsman said. “I made my peace that the monkey and the toddler weren’t going to be reunited — at least, not right then.”
Wachsman, who is married, said he thought that if he brought the monkey inside the house, he and his wife might become too attached to it, as the plush animal would forever be linked to an emotional event.
“In the back of my head was the conviction that if the monkey was ever reunited with its owner, I didn’t want to have separation anxiety,” he said.
For the same reason, Wachsman said he decided not to give the cuddly primate a name.
“I never considered it mine,” he said. “I saw myself as the monkey’s caretaker. My wife and I have had several cars over the years, and the monkey has ridden along in each one.”
He was thrilled, he said, when his daughter suggested that they post about the monkey online.
“I have no reasonable expectation that a reunion will happen, but why not try?” he said. “It must have been traumatic for the child to lose the monkey. Twenty years later, I’d love to give it back.”
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