9/11

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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
Subject: FYI

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?”

“OK, Daddy.”

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.

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28 Comments

  1. Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    It’s something we should never ever forget. I remember driving to my kids’ schools and picking them up one by one; our town lost many good people.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..9/11/01 – Remembering 8 years ago =-.

  2. Posted September 12, 2009 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I hope the closest our children get to experiencing the terror and heartbreak of that day, is through our recollections alone. I was pregnant with my first child at the time and can totally relate with the fear of bringing a child into the world at that time. I too wondered if they would ever be safe.

    My husband worked in NYC at the time, traveling on the path train every morning through the World Trade Center. That morning he was in Connecticut to interview with a different company. Thank God for that.
    .-= Americas Next Top Mommy´s last blog ..True Love =-.

  3. Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I too was pregnant at the time. We live in upstate NY-too close for comfort. Everyone around us knew someone who might be in danger. We were very lucky not to.
    .-= Mary´s last blog .. =-.

  4. Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Very well put, Jon.
    .-= toadmama´s last blog ..The Art of Glaring =-.

  5. Tom
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    So as not to forget the horror………http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYZqQWfGIJg

  6. Posted September 12, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Powerful words, Scratches. Thanks for that.
    .-= Joe´s last blog ..Some Sad Stuff =-.

  7. Posted September 12, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I love your photo and your post! Wow! I definitely remember the day, but not as clearly as you – I blame it on baby turns mommy’s brain to mush syndrome.
    .-= Dcan´s last blog ..You Capture – Something New =-.

  8. Posted September 12, 2009 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I too will always remember exactly how I felt when the first tower fell. It was like a dazed, confused, “is this really happening?” feeling.

    Great post.
    .-= Marla´s last blog ..Always Remember =-.

  9. Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    This was a wonderful post. Powerful.

    Hugs and Mocha,
    Stesha

  10. jen
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Well said. I also remember that day VERY clearly. I was in NYC that day and I was also listening to the Howard Stern show at the time. I was in uptown manhattan on my way to school.
    What I most remember on that morning was the line at the payphone of students trying to call their family. It went down the length of the corridor and everyone was crying because the phones stopped working.
    The next most powerful image I remember is driving down the road in Long Island past all of the LIRR stations and seeing all of the left over cars several days later still in the parking lot covered in flowers and pictures.
    I will always remember that day vividly just like it were yesterday.
    I live my life now doing my very best to protect all of your children and the children I hope to have some day from EVER having to live through another event like 9/11. I know that sometimes controversy gets in the way and sometimes the few bad ones ruin the reputations of the good ones, BUT please take a minute and thank your local, state, and federal officers. These brave folks give their time and sometimes their life to protect us.
    (sorry, i’ll get off my soapbox now…)

  11. Alexi
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I remember, I was eleven that day, and I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened when I heard the news. Up til that day, as far as i knew, everyone in the world lived like Americans, well-fed, sheltered, safe, with health care (well, sort of), Nintendo Wiis, and enough money to at least go watch a movie once in a while. This world that I knew officially ended once Sept 11 happened. I learned quickly that the world was a very, very unequal place, and that going to school or work or the grocery store fully expecting not to be bombed was a rarity enjoyed only by a few in the world, not a universal right and entitlement given to everybody like it should be. Too young to fully understand the magnitude of the attack (as were many other of my peers– some, kids as young or younger than myself, actually made jokes and laughed about people jumping off the buildings, not fully comprehending death or war themselves), the biggest shock of Sept. 11 for me wasn’t the Twin Towers going down, or the hijacked airplanes, or that America had been attacked, but that the world was unequal. That the shock and outrage welling up in America that day because of Sept 11 was SPECIAL, that in places like Israel and Palestine and Lebanon and Somalia people had gotten so used to terrorism and violence that it didn’t inspire similar shock and outrage. That peace was precious and rare. That the safety I had grown up in was a rare privilege. For me, this discovery was the tragedy of the day.

  12. Rita
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    I was already on Brooklyn bridge when we heard some noise, turned around and saw South Tower collapsing. People started screaming Oh my God, and started running, and I got afraid that now after we stepped down 46 floors, I finally would die because the bridge would collapse, and I can’t swim :-). And then we saw military planes passing very low, almost above the bridge, and this was the scariest part because this was when we understood that something went terribly wrong. At 9:03 am I was at the building right across from South Tower – the former Merryl Lynch (I think 195 Broadway) on the 46 Floor. It felt like an earthquake. My co-workers had survived 1993 attack at WTC, so they immediately said that it looked like something was happenning again with WTC. I looked outside and all was white… from papers flying around. someone joked that it was a little early for Yankee’s parade. Later on, we found these papers all over Brooklyn, too (I kept one for years – something about currency exchange from Canadian broker.) Anyway, 14 minutes later, after the second hit we rushed downstairs to see what’s going on with WTC. and it looked very innocent – half of a floor was on fire, other than that it looked stable. That’s why I could not believe my eyes when it collapsed an hour later…As far as myself is concerned, I returned back to the office, and was told to leave 30 minutes later. I worked as an intern, and when I was back, I realised that I had signed my boss for a meeting in South Tower on the 53rd floor. she was fine. I guess she kicked some poor creeple out of elevator or hopped on his laps ;-)

  13. Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    A very lovely post. I was a freshman in high school when the attacks happened, and I remember my spanish teacher trying DESPERATELY to actually teach. It didn’t work. The tvs were on the rest of the day, a school silenced in shock and awe. It was such a strange feeling of togetherness that day at school – a similar feeling which wasn’t felt again until my senior year of college when Obama was elected, then inaugurated. It’s odd to think of the things I’ll be telling my children about when they grow up, and I only hope that they’ll bond over something like the Obama election rather than something like 9/11.
    .-= Kara´s last blog ..Fix-its =-.

  14. Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Very well written is an understatement. Very well expressed. I think yesterday was the first 9/11 since 2001 I was able to reflect and remember without crying, until I read this. But it’s ok, and maybe it doesn’t even count because now it’s 9/12. I was a highschool student in 2001, now I’m a mom. That completely changes the way something effects you, I’m now starting to think about how I’ll explain it all to my daughter. I think you did it the right way with your son.
    .-= Biz´s last blog ..Confession. =-.

  15. Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    Loved your post.

    I still cry when I remember that day. When it happened, I cried for two weeks straight. I knew the world had changed forever.

    I love how you handled Zan’s questions, and deflected them until his baby sister wasn’t around.
    .-= E. Peevie´s last blog ..Health Care Hyperbole =-.

  16. Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    VERY WELL SAID! We, too will NEVER forget….and as a homeschooling mom…HOMESCHOOLING ROCKS!!!
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Returned to the Sea =-.

  17. Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I think we all have stories from that day. I remember as a kid wanting a where were you when story like my folks have about JFK. I wish I could take it back.
    .-= Ferngoddess´s last blog ..So what =-.

  18. Posted September 13, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I was also listening to Howard Stern on my way to work. I worked across the street from the tallest building in Orlando. Kind of like you, I though, “Kind of unlikely, but if this attacks spreads to all large cities, this building might come down.” Scary, sad day. And so silent and still.
    .-= Casey´s last blog ..Pineappe Project – Round 5 =-.

  19. Posted September 13, 2009 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a hard thing to write about but it needs to be memorialized. I don’t care how many years it’s been, every year we need to remember in detail the events that took place.
    .-= Lauren From Texas´s last blog ..Happy Thursday Night. =-.

  20. Posted September 14, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    What a great post. I can’t imagine what is must be like to explain 9/11 to young children. I remember being on the Cape when the fighter jets scrambled to NYC. I still flinch every time I hear/see a flyover from the nearby Air Force base.
    .-= meg´s last blog ..Celebrations and Remembrances =-.

  21. Stefanie
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the post. Very powerful and so true. Never forget!

  22. reen
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    A very moving post. I still cry on 9/11…that day definitely changed the world for the worse and better in so many ways. I was at work and someone who had heard about the first strike on the radio had turned on the TV in the conference room. From there we all sat, shocked and silent, and watched everything else happen live. I remember that something didn’t look right with the South Tower, and breaking the silence to say “It’s going to come down.” Then it did, and I wished I hadn’t said it – as though that actually made it happen. One of the flights originated in my hometown and I was so angry knowing that these despicable people had probably moved amongst my family and loved ones. I was in awe of the bravery of the passengers who downed the plane in PA, and the people who attempted to rescue the WTC victims. So many conflicting emotions. Thanks for writing this.

  23. Maggie, living in Bliss
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I was living in Hawaii (Big Island) at the time, and had woken up at 3 a.m., turned the news on, was watching MSNBC and listened to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric talking about a plane that had crashed into the Trade Center. Then, they were showing video and I watched the plane crash. I thought it was a replay of the initial strike, but it was the 2nd plane hitting the 2nd tower. It took a minute for things to sink in.

    I waited a while, and around 4 a.m. I tried calling California to speak with my family. Took several times because the lines were jammed. Wasn’t too long after that when they closed the skies and the port, and we were completely isolated. No one coming into the island, and no one allowed off.

    Everything comes into Hawaii by air or ship. Within hours, there was a run on the grocery stores. Paper products, canned goods, milk, rice, sugar, flour – all gone. All the bottled water disappeared in a flash. Rumor was the water supply had been poisoned. There was no mail service. And, of course, all the federal buildings closed. There were National Guardsmen guarding the airports, the ports, and the water supplies, and they had very big guns.

    My housemate was on the mainland, on vacation. So, I was there alone, and scared shitless. It’s the first time I ever wanted a gun(s). And, lots of ammunition.

    Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have children. I couldn’t imagine the fear that strikes the hearts of parents, like you, and your readers.

    Good post, BTW.

  24. Maggie, living in Bliss
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Oh, forgot to mention the gas supply. Run on the gas stations, too. After a few days, there wasn’t anymore gas to be found.

    What a time.

  25. Meg
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    thanks for that moving post… we must never forget…

    great, beautiful song written the night of 9/11 by the clarks of pittsburgh

  26. amber
    Posted September 15, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    It was DH’s 21st :(

    We lived near a chemical depot at the time. We were all so scared, and I remember it being so earily quiet.

    We don’t celebrate his b-day on that day anymore.

  27. Lynda
    Posted September 16, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the wonderful post. We must never forget those who innocently died that fateful day. Your post on PW was really funny today. ( about the “bedazzler”) hee hee

  28. Posted October 27, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The rage I felt that day has not died. Rather, it’s hardened and frozen. It took all my courage to agree to start a family with my husband, because I’m certain that we will be hit again. Maybe not today, nor tomorrow, nor next week, nor next year, but it will happen. Our leaders don’t have the testicular fortitude it would take to make sure we, the people who put them in office to protect us, are safe.
    .-= heroditus huxley´s last blog ..Two examples. =-.

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