Monday, September 4, 2006

September 11, 2001

I'm writing this now, because I'm afraid I'll forget. Much of what happened that day, is already fading. Likely its a defense mechanism, or maybe its just because of the disbelief I experienced that day, which caused the whole day to seem more like a waking nightmare than something that actually happened. I watched the Discovery Channel's "Inside the World Trade Center" tonight, and I was reminded. This is actually the first time I've let myself think, really think, about that day. I thought I'd write this down, to remember, and honor, those who lost their lives; and those who lost someone they loved. I'm writing this down, so I never forget.

I wasn't directly impacted by the horror that happened that day. I knew a few people who worked in the World Trade Center, and it took a few minutes after I realized what was happening for me to scan through my mind, and think who might be there. I could initially think of only one friend who worked there. A young man who used to work for me, Chris, who went on to work for an investment company. I couldn't remember which, and I had no idea which tower he was in. The point of me writing this is not drama: Chris is fine, though forever changed, he is fine. Chris worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and was late for work that morning. He'd just walked up from the Subway when the first plane hit. His late night watching football, actually saved his life. Most of his co-workers perished that day.

September 11, 2001 was a beautifully sunny day. Traffic on the way to work was typically bad for a September morning. All the kids and teachers were back to school, most people's vacations were already taken, so the roadways on Long Island were jammed, and slow moving. This did not help my usually ill tempered morning mood. If I remember correctly, the day before was raining, and dreary, but that Tuesday was sunny. My company, a bank, for which I had worked 17 years, was acquired by a much larger bank, and I was going to be laid off. I thought this was the worst thing that could happen to a person. I was wrong.

I used to listen to AM news radio on my commute in. Usually 880 CBS or 1010 WINS. I listened to both, alternately, in between cursing at traffic, and getting more irritated that I would again be late for work. Nothing remarkable about the news stands out that morning, at least that I remember. I pulled into the parking garage, turned off the radio, and took the 10 minute or so walk into the building, waiting for the elevators and getting crankier by the minute.

When I got to my desk, at about 8:50, one of the people who worked for me, came up and asked if I'd heard what happened to the World Trade Center. Since I'd just listened to the news, I was surprised there was anything new that I hadn't heard. She said a plane had just hit one of the towers, and it was on fire. My first thought was disbelief, but I turned on the radio, and there was the story. My second thought was that it was some idiot, flying a private plane, who got too close, or too low, and hit the tower by accident. It took about 15 or 20 minutes before we realized that it was something far worse. When the news of the second plane came over the radio, my blood turned cold. This could only have been one thing: terrorists.

At that time, I worked in EAB Plaza, which is about the highest office building in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which occupy the eastern 2/3rds of Long Island. The building has since been renamed Reckson Plaza, also the victim of a corporate takeover. We worked on the 10th of 15 Floors, in the East tower. The way the EAB towers were situated, the East tower extended south of the West tower by about half of its width. What that means is that from the South/West windows, on a clear Tuesday Morning, we could see the NYC skyline, about 20 or so miles away (as the crow flies).

This occurred to most of us simultaneously, so we ran to the most accessible window, and looked out at the horror. There, clear as anything, was the smoking World Trade Center. The smoke seemed to trail off for miles. It was thick, black, and looked terrible. My heart sank. In 1993, when they bombed the World Trade Center, I was working just across the river, in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Then too, I could see the smoke, and the only information we had was coming from the few radios in the building. This time, it seemed much worse.

We alternated between that window, and the conference room we used for our department. The conference room had a TV in it for training purposes, but a few enterprising young people in our department had earlier rigged up an antennae. There they would watch daytime TV, on the fuzzy signals from NYC, during their lunch hours. That day, we watched the tragedy unfold, feeling a mix of horror, sadness, anger, and fear. And hopelessness.

I called my wife, Bev, who had spent years in the news industry, and asked if she'd heard. We talked a few times, listening intently to the radio, and trying to make sense of what was going on. As the morning progressed the phone lines went down, then cell phones, then the Internet. All were jammed with frantic people trying to find loved ones, figure out what was happening, trying to escape this madness. The only form of communication we had in the building (at least on our floor) was the radio in my office, the fuzzy TV, and the window looking at the towers.

After the second plane hit, the rumors started. There were an unknown number of other planes in the air, a plane had hit the Pentagon, and nobody was certain how many others were up there, about to strike again. Fear began to grip most of us. We were in the tallest building for miles. Thinking back, it seems foolish, but at the time, we were very afraid, and very aware of how much EAB Plaza stood out on the skyline. No one knew what to do. Should we leave? Were we in danger? Our eyes kept scanning the horizon for any planes. Soon, we would see the jet fighters sent up to protect us all.

I remember my boss was just pacing back and forth, shaking his head in disbelief at the worry we were all feeling. He didn't understand why we couldn't all just get back to work, since this had nothing to do with us. You'd have to know the man, to understand his denial, but he was experiencing it, and it wasn't making anything easier. The whole thing became more and more surreal. The radio started announcing that local schools were going into "lock down" and that parents, if they wanted, should pick up their children. The fear gripped my chest, like a tightening vice. My son was in school, and I was 40 miles away from him. I then settled down, though, thinking he was likely very safe where he was.

We were standing in the conference room, watching the news, the live shots of the towers burning, when, in the blink of an eye, one of them just started falling. I couldn't believe, or comprehend what I was seeing. I could see the image, but my mind refused to accept it. We all raced over to the windows, and instead of the two towers, standing tall, there was nothing but a huge plume of smoke. One of the towers was falling, in slow motion, and then it was gone. I still, cannot comprehend what I felt, or what happened. That people could have been in there, that thousands were dying before my eyes. I sit here now, shaking my head. The image is burned in my memory, but still, I can't believe it.

The fear turned to anger, and almost in unison, the words "this is war" started spewing from our mouths. We were all angry, furious, over what had happened. The mix of emotions churned through each of us. Depending on who you were, what type of person you were, and who you knew who might be harmed, everyone reacted differently, and yet the same. Its hard to describe.

Shortly after that, people started leaving the building. The police showed up down in the plaza below, and there were rumors, again, nothing announced or broadcast in the buildings, that we were to leave the building for our own safety. The word "evacuate" started to buzz. People, alot of people were leaving. You could hear the ding-ding of the elevators as people started making their escape. I went into my boss' office where, for the first time, I think he finally let in what we'd all been feeling. There was a look of sadness, and almost defeat in his eyes. He looked at me, and said, "let them go...if they want to, let them go". He was a hard man, who believed you should stay at your desk, no matter what. I could see the turmoil churn within him. This concession, though inevitable, was hard for him to accept. Mainly because he would then have to admit what was happening. He lost his stronghold, his inner defense mechanism. He couldn't just "work" through this. I think it was the first time I'd seen weakness, or that he showed weakness, in his eyes.

I left, and the drive home, was again, as surreal as everything else. The roads were filled with worried looking people. The maniacal driving style of people on the Long Island Parkways and the Expressway was replaced with a somewhat distracted, isolated style. People were all worried, trying to call loved ones, make sense of everything, or anything. We had each become islands ourselves, isolated from everyone else. Disconnected. Not only from news, or communication, but from reality itself. This could not have really happened, the towers could not have actually collapsed. But they did. I cried.

My cell phone was useless, so I couldn't talk to my wife, my son's mother, my parents...nobody. Now, what I write next may seem odd, but its really not, if you understand how disconnected I'd become. I got hungry, and stopped at Burger King to grab something to bring home for late lunch/early dinner. I know it seems odd, but it was strangely comforting to do something so normal, in what was an absolutely otherwise abnormal day. The people in Burger King were working like robots, on automatic pilot. Their look of disbelief was the same I'd seen on every other person's face that day.

When I got home, Bev told me that my son's mother had been in touch, and could I pick him up at his school. When I got to the school, there were the same, blank, disbelieving, worried faces I'd seen everywhere else. The students, for the most part, were not told everything that was going on. They were even more in the dark than the rest of us. This was done for obvious reasons, since many had parents or family who worked at the World Trade Center. When I got my son, his face was expressionless, which for him, means worried. He asked what was going on. What happened? He, like the rest of us, couldn't believe it.

The rest of the day is, to say the least, a blur. Almost every channel on television was broadcasting the unfolding of the events, and re-broadcasting whatever footage they could of the crash, the explosions, the collapse. Non-news channels were broadcasting a blue screen with a message that due to the events of the day, and out of respect, they were broadcasting nothing. I couldn't take it. For me, I needed to flee, to escape the media, the coverage. For my wife, as much as she cried and it horrified her, she couldn't stop watching. She couldn't tear herself away from the TV.

Oddly, I don't remember anything else about that day. I don't remember much about the next few days. Its as if they are blacked out. I do remember that we finally got in touch with Chris, and found out he was ok. Then we all started figuring out who we knew that worked there, and how they were. My friend, Larry, worked in 7 World Trade, but he was on Long Island at a client.

Watching the TV tonight, brought back all these memories, and with them, all the haunting pain. I can not imagine how the people who lost someone might feel. Seeing their stories, and how they talked with loved ones for the last time, made me hurt. My heart, and prayers go out to them. I have to say, I am now, and forever will be proud of the men and women who sacrificed their lives in an effort to saves others. Their bravery is astounding. They are all heroes. And all the men and women who are now, and who have gone before, fighting this war, and defending this country, are heroes too.

Below, the former World Trade Center. The building shrouded in black netting is the the now abandoned Deutche Bank building.
This past April, my wife and I, and two of her friends who live out of state, went down to the site of the former World Trade Center. Until then, we'd avoided going to the site. We felt that it would serve no purpose to see it, and we didn't go out of respect for all who perished. Her friends wanted to go, so we went. All that remains now is a large hole. Oddly, it looks like a gaping wound in the City of Manhattan. I suppose, that's what it is. But wounds heal, and I believe, though a scar will always be there, this one too, will heal.

A few years ago, Bev and I had dinner at the South Street Seaport, eating at an outside table, sitting in the shadow of the towers. We went to the Seaport this past April, and looked up to where the towers once stood, but all we could see was sky. But when I close my eyes, they still stand tall and strong. As long as we remember, they always will.


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