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Contributed photo / Chattanooga native and writer Melanie Young witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center from her Fifth Avenue apartment on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the aftermath would lead a feeding campaign for first-responders at the site.

One Chattanooga native saw the terror attacks from her Manhattan apartment, witnessing the deaths of people she knew.

By nightfall on Sept. 11, 2001, she launched a grassroots effort to begin feeding emergency workers at Ground Zero.

Melanie Young, a 62-year-old food industry writer, speaker, public relations business owner and certified health coach who works all over the country, had a Manhattan breakfast meeting 20 years ago with a publisher who also happened to be a former airline pilot, she said in a recent telephone interview.

"It was a gorgeous, sunny, blue sky September day," Young recalled. "It was stunning."

A member of the wait staff came to the table with an earth-shattering message: "An airliner has hit the World Trade Center."

"We both said OK, we've got to stop the meeting now and figure out what's going on," Young said. "So I hopped a cab down to my office on lower Fifth Avenue, and I could see the World Trade Center — there was a clear view — I could see tower one burning with the smoke."

Young realized she knew people at the top of the north tower who worked in the finance industry and at the expansive Windows on the World restaurant complex. The complex was located on the 106th and 107th floors, several floors above the impact site of the first airplane.

(Read more 9/11 20th anniversary coverage from the Times Free Press here)

"So who was there? The pastry people like Heather Ho, the pastry chef, because the pastry department starts early, the banquet staff because there was a breakfast meeting going on. They were all there," Young said, her voice filled with memories of the loss.

"Those breakfast folks had lots of big families, and a lot of them were immigrants who worked there. It was really, really sad."

Young wanted to take care of her office staff, so she took them to her apartment, where she thought they would be more comfortable.

"My apartment was on the second floor on Fifth Avenue, with a big patio overlooking a clear view of the World Trade towers and to the north, the Empire State Building," she said. "By the time we got down to Fifth Avenue, both towers had been hit."

The south tower fell while she and her staff trekked to Young's apartment, and they had their backs to it, she said.

As they made their way along Fifth Avenue, "it was chaos," she said.

"People were running around crying and screaming. It was like a horror movie. People were hugging and crying all the way down Fifth Avenue.

"We got to the patio, and as we were watching the flames coming out of tower 2, we watched it collapse," Young said. "It just melted to the earth."

She then called her mother, Sonia Young of Chattanooga, who said she'd been watching television coverage of the attacks in New York.

Melanie Young also contacted the Times Free Press and West Coast media friends to relay what was happening. Her account was in the special extra edition of the Times Free Press the afternoon of the 9/11 attacks, in which she said that she'd "witnessed the entire landscape of New York change."

Young's immediate response to the horror was to find a way to help, and her immediate focus became emergency workers at the collapsed twin towers.

"For me, I just had to figure out what I could do to help. That's how I process fear and stress — what can I do to help? And I just went right into it — crisis mode — and stayed in it for a very long time."

Young said she first wanted to help victims by giving blood.

"We were hoping that we could help anyone who was surviving, but there really were no survivors," she said. "I remember at New York University Hospital there was a line of first responders and hospital beds outside waiting, and they were all empty."

Balancing her sorrow and fear, Young got to work using her restaurant connections.

"I kind of stationed myself at the James Beard House, and word got out, and we started letting people know," she said of the feeding mission she launched. "We asked restaurants to bring any food that they could not use to the Beard House and we would set a way to feed first responders and use that as a gathering place."

Manhattan's James Beard House is on 12th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, within walking distance of Young's apartment and several blocks north of the disaster area near the hospital at New York University.

"I went and bought what I could at the grocery store and took it to the James Beard House and said, let's work on setting up a place for people to come get food — the rescue workers and the first responders — because they were across the street," she said.

In the wake of the attacks, Young also launched a fundraiser called "Dine Out" for the 120 families of Windows on the World workers, seeking donations from restaurants around the globe. The effort in its first 10 years raised almost $4 million for those families, and now the fund continues to aid the families with educational expenses, according to the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund mission statement.

For Young, the feeling of being attacked — not just a victim of some accident — would stick with her for "a very long time over the weeks," and the fear of another attack kept lurking in the back of her mind.

What was lost still lingers in her memory as an image.

"For years later, as long as I lived in that apartment, I could see the silhouette in my brain of the two towers because I would go out and look every morning," she said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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