It was approximately 8:50 in the morning when my office phone rang on September 11, 2001. I could tell from a glance at the caller ID that is was my fiancé, now husband. I barely skipped a beat as I raised the receiver to my ear and continued a scan of my morning email. I acknowledged him with my usual, “Hey”.
“The World Trade Center is on fire.”
“Turn around and look at the television.”
Having spent the first several years of our courting working there himself, he knew my office well. He knew that directly behind me on an elevated platform where I spent most of my day was a television broadcasting market updates. I peered around and looked at the television that I subsequently would not remove from my sight for the next seven and a half hours, and saw what I was missing.
What’s always bothered me the most about me in that very first moment when I saw the flames and the smoke, was my initial reaction; a sort of weird rush of excitement. Call it years of blockbuster movies, call it desensitization to images on TV, call it if you must just being a terrible person, but it took me a good minute to understand that what I was seeing was not a harmless explosion on television like we all see on the average evening program.
I looked around my office, already buzzing with activity. Coworkers were busy at fax machines and copiers. Some were on the phones or carrying breakfast and coffee to their desks. Others were visiting each other’s cubes or chatting around proverbial water coolers as they prepared to start the day. It was just before 9:00 AM on a Tuesday morning in a financial building. Of course there would have been countless individuals in the World Trade Center doing just the same thing.
We hung up the phone, and as I seated myself on the platform I was quickly joined by others. I remember the initial rumor that it was a small plane and the comments around me that there was simply too much damage to be something as tiny as a Cessna. I remember a dozen conversations bouncing back and forth as I watched the second plane hit; an unmistakably very large plane.
And then there was that sinking feeling, the understanding that this was no accident. For the next half hour, watching the chaos, I was consumed not only by the grief and fear I was watching on screen, but also by the stories that were flooding in around me. There was a coworker who had a relative on one of the top floors. There was the knowledge that one of our related companies had offices high up there as well. There was the report that one of our best friends was supposed to be on a fight out of Logan that morning bound for California (he wasn’t). There was the rumor that other cities could be affected, and the fact that my soon to be husband was sitting in a skyscraper in Boston, along with several other close friends in tall buildings nearby.
As if that wasn’t frightening enough, all that worry changed to outright terror at 9:37 when the Pentagon was struck. As a young American, this is something that I had never experienced before. This almost ready to settle down Generation Xer had never known what it felt like to have my way of life or liberty in peril from tyranny. That is just something that does not happen to us. It happens to other areas of the world, places which at the time I couldn’t even name, but most definitely not to The United States of America.
I felt woken from a deep sleep, unprepared, uneducated, and shaken to the core; I could not for the life of me understand why this was happening. Al Qaeda? Never heard of him. The World Trade Center had been bombed previously? Missed that. Taliban? Gesundheit. Oh, how very quickly I learned that my freedom had bred my own complacency. How blind I had been.
The rest of that day was a blur: watching one tower collapse, then the next, hearing about the plane in Pennsylvania. The order has become fuzzy, but throughout the day we tracked down loved ones, got word from my husband that his building was evacuated and he was carpooling it home with friends, and call it strange but to this day every time I look up at the sky I think of that day when I stepped outside, looked up at the crystal blue, and did not see a single plane flicker against the sunlight. No planes! It was a quiet and eerie feeling.
The next three days were numbing. Tears, work, tears, CNN, tears, Fox News, tears, ABC, tears, and newspaper article after newspaper article. They are all in a box in the attic now. Somewhere in that box is an image of an upside down man falling from the building, head first, his tie flapped outward, his arms resolutely by his side. I need never look at it again to remember that image. It is forever imprinted in my brain.
I remember discussing the photo with a friend who said to me, “how bad did it have to be in there for that jump to be your best option.” Oh, God, those poor people. Whenever I think of 9/11, it is not the smoke, it is not the flames, it is not the second plane crashing into the building, it is not the towers collapsing, it is not the throngs of people covered in debris and running for their lives, it is not the police and firemen walking towards instead of away from the flames, and then later the more who came to help search for civilians and their own. All of those images follow, but it is that of the falling man that is always my first visual recall. I hope with all of my heart that his family did not see or recognize him in that photograph. I wish that I had never seen that photograph.
That Friday night after 9/11 we gathered at our bar. On that particular evening there was a universal vigil, and as I was driving through some back roads to meet my friends I remember seeing a family of four standing outside at the end of their driveway. They stood close together, arms about each other and candles in hand. In that moment I had such love for that family I did not know, and I knew that my pain was theirs.
At the bar we drank, we cried, and when it started to get dark we lit candles on the back deck. We sang God Bless America together, an entire bar full of people; strangers, friends, coworkers, all gathered together to help ease a shared sorrow. I remember saying to my girlfriends, “Things will never be the same.”
I longed so badly in that moment for 9/10, as I have every day since.
This was my 9/11. I wrote it down to remember. For the lives that were stolen that awful day, and for the families who remain to mourn their absence, my prayers are sent from my still aching heart. God Bless America.