No one I knew or was related to died on that awful day, and I was neither in New York nor Washington D.C. when it happened; like most, I listened to it on the radio and watched it on TV. The people who experienced it firsthand, and the people who lost loved ones, are the people who have truly meaningful stories to tell about Sept. 11, 2001.
Still, for eight years, I’ve always felt the need to write about it, both for myself, and for my children, so that, when they’re old enough, and if they care to, they can read about
the worst the second-worst day of my entire life.
I can still recall most of that day with as much clarity and detail as if it just happened.
It was an absolutely gorgeous morning. Bright sun, clear blue sky, T-shirt-and-shorts weather … which is what I was wearing as I drove from home to the train station. I was splitting my time between working from home and working from an office in Boston back then, and on any other day, I’d have probably stayed home, but I was scheduled to interview Seal that afternoon, and the device with which I planned to record our phone conversation was at the office.
It was just before 9 a.m. and I was listening to “The Howard Stern Show” as I headed to the station. I can see in my mind exactly where I was when Howard announced that a plane had apparently crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Like many people — myself included — Howard and his crew assumed it was a small, private plane of some sort.
A few minutes later, I was on the train, listening to the show on my Walkman (yes, children, there was a device back then called a “Walkman,” which was big and bulky and played these things called “cassette tapes,” and which also had an AM/FM radio tuner … much different than the microchip-implant that broadcasts music straight into your brainstem nowadays, I’m sure).
A second plane flew into the South Tower. Oh my god. This isn’t an accident; we’re under attack.
For the entire 30-minute train ride, I listened to Howard and the gang — who were broadcasting from a skyscraper just a few miles away from what would come to be called “Ground Zero” — talk about what they were seeing on the news, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I arrived at my office and spotted the television. Holy shit. The Towers … so much smoke … and fire …
And then the unthinkable happened: the South Tower collapsed into a cloud of debris. In a day filled with more surrealism than the human mind could ever be expected to process, the collapse of that first tower stands out to me as the most surreal and incomprehensible moment of all. The planes and the explosions and the fire and the damage and the people, dear god, the people, all of that was terrifying and horrifying and unimaginable, but when the fucking Twin Towers actually came down … that was when I felt like reality had been completely torn to shreds, and that the world might truly be ending.
It was time to get back home. I emailed my co-workers, all of whom were on the West Coast.
Date: September 11, 2001 10:02:59 AM EDT
I’m in the city, but I’m taking my ball and going home. There are three federal buildings surrounding the one I’m in (and I’m on the top floor), so, while in all likelihood nothing’s going to happen here, I’m leaving in a few and taking a train back to the ’burbs. I’ll be back online from home ASAP.
The train I rode out of the city was full, and quiet.
A third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. My sister was, at the time, living in Arlington, VA. Her apartment building sat atop a hill, and the view out her window encompassed, among other things, the Pentagon, less than a mile away. I tried reaching her on my cell, but all of the phone lines in the Northeast were melting down. I reached my mom, who said my sister was OK, but very shaken.
Here is part of the email my sister sent to us a couple of days later.
A deafening, high-pitched shriek tore through the sky above my roof. My nail clippers fell to the sink, and I cowered down next to my toilet, a complete instinctive reaction to hide myself from harm. “Oh, boy, that noise is unusually loud, I hope to God that a plane hasn’t lost its engine…maybe a plane did lose its engine, and can’t make it to Reagan National to land. Maybe it is an Air Force jet formation — you know, 3 or 5 of them together, flying low, showing off their expertise, and they are going over the Pentagon for some sort of ceremony”… All of those thoughts within a few seconds.
The building shakes from the velocity of whatever had made the deafening sound, but no plane came crashing down. I am safe. I run to my window to look up to the sky, to see what sounded so dangerous a moment ago, the noise that made me think for a split second, “Holy shit, we’re going to get hit.” I look up to the left, following the noise of the engine that was ripping through the sky — nothing. I look straight ahead, nothing but a clear blue September sky, you can see for miles … Wait, what the hell is that? That doesn’t look right … The flying object, the object that was sailing through the sky at unimaginable speed, impacts the side of the Pentagon, and bursts into 200 foot flames upon impact. Orange and black fire soaring hundreds of feet into the air — the sonic waves of that mind-boggling impact ricochet off my building, and a breeze of hot air enters my apartment through my open window. I am trying to understand, what did I just see? What could have gone so wrong that something, a plane, perhaps a missile because of the speed, just slammed into the Pentagon?
So, yeah, I’d be rattled, too. (My father manned up in a big way and flew down to see her as soon as air travel resumed. I don’t think you could have paid me to fly at that point.)
Off the train, into the car, dazed. Home. Hours and hours and hours of watching the television … the second plane slamming into the South Tower, over and over again, in slow motion, from different angles. The towers coming down repeatedly, the huge cloud of pulverized skyscraper chasing New Yorkers down the street, engulfing some who later emerged covered in gray powder from head to foot. The Pentagon — the fucking Pentagon — burning.
Chaos reigned. Unconfirmed — and, thankfully, erroneous — reports claimed there were other planes in the sky that had been hijacked (aside from Flight 93, which crashed into the ground in rural Pennsylvania, apparently brought down by passengers who decided to die in order to prevent the hijackers from hitting their intended target, believed to be the White House), that Chicago was going to be hit, and possibly Los Angeles, and that a bomb had exploded in D.C. at the Capitol Building, and on and on it went, for hours.
Thousands dead, among them hundreds of firefighters, policemen and other first-responders who ran toward the danger to help. Fire trucks and police cars and ambulances sitting half destroyed amidst the rubble. All too horrible to comprehend.
Terrorist “sleeper cells” … anthrax in the mail … bomb threats … military troops patrolling New York City and Washington, D.C. … duct tape … fucking duct tape. The world is ending, and the government recommends duct tape.
Fuck duct tape. I want weapons. The ex-soldier in me wants guns, big guns, and ammo, lots of ammo, because surely there are going to be more terrorist attacks, and the country will soon slip into anarchy and martial law and, yes, honey, I know you said you would never allow guns in our house, but, you see, that was before the United States of America was getting blown the fuck up by suicidal terrorists, so try and be a little flexible here, would you? Work with me, baby.
No, seriously, that’s how I felt. I was sure that America would soon descend into the kind of daily chaos and carnage that we Americans had, up until then, equated with places like Israel and Palestine and Lebanon and Somalia.
I seethed with anger, and fumed that the assholes who hijacked the planes already were dead, because we’d never get to exact upon them the kind of mind-numbing, frightful revenge they so richly deserved. It tortured me that they died knowing they had succeeded. The thought of the terrorists who hijacked flight 175 seeing the North Tower engulfed in flames and smoke just before they smashed their own plane into the South Tower … the satisfaction I imagine them feeling at the sight of it … it made, and still makes, my blood fucking boil.
I put my dog tags back on and wore them for days. I don’t know why; it just felt right.
I contemplated re-enlisting in the military. I wanted to kill the motherfuckers responsible for what had happened to my country, and I believed that the inevitable war against whomever had done it would be the first conflict of my lifetime based on a cause worth fighting and, if necessary, dying for.
I pondered whether or not I wanted to bring children into such a fucked up world, and felt inclined not to.
I was in shock.
In the days and weeks that followed, I was overwhelmed by the patriotism that I and so many others felt, and by the way it unified us as Americans. The American flag became a more meaningful symbol to me than it had ever been before.
I was sure that our society’s priorities were going to change, and that frivolities such as Britney Spears’ new video or the latest episode of “Survivor” would soon go the way of the dinosaur (or at least, I hoped so). How could things ever go back to normal?
Would anything ever be funny again? (Thankfully, yes … and it didn’t take too long; The Onion helped break the ice for me with their positively brilliant take on the attacks.)
In the immediate wake of 9/11, not only were we unified as a country, but the entire global community was united. We had the unconditional support of the entire free world. It was something that, in my lifetime, was completely unprecedented. In wiser, more capable hands, it was a moment that could have been leveraged to make the world a better place, and to make some greater good come out of such unspeakable evil.
I couldn’t imagine then that my life would ever get back to anything even vaguely resembling “normal” … or that, eight years later, my wife and I would have two beautiful children … two beautiful children who I hope will never, ever know what it’s like to experience the horror we experienced that day.
When I picked Zan up from school today, he said to me, “Daddy, today is a special day.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, not thinking that my 6-year-old son’s first-grade teacher would have introduced such young children to the story of 9/11. (Of course, I also didn’t think his kindergarten teacher would introduce 5-year-olds to the concept of racism … and I continue to see the allure of homeschooling.)
“Because there were these two big buildings—,” he began.
“Yes, you’re right, Zan,” I said, not wanting him to tell the tale in front of his 4-year-old sister. “It was a horrible, horrible day. Why don’t you and I talk about it later, OK, pal?”
At bedtime tonight, he said, “Daddy, can you tell me about the buildings and the airplanes?”
“Well, there were two very big buildings in New York, and some really bad people flew planes into them and ruined the buildings, and a lot of people got hurt,” I told him. “It was awful … but you don’t have to worry, pal, because Mommy and Daddy will always keep you nice and safe, and nothing like that is ever going to happen to us,” I said to him … because he’s a worrier, and I really can’t stomach the thought of those fucking assholes who brought down the towers instilling fear in my young son eight years later.
But the truth of the matter is that a lot of mommies and daddies and kids died that day, despite similar assurances that those same mommies and daddies probably made to their kids at one time or another … so I could be wrong.