I'm old enough to remember where I was the day Kennedy was shot and now where I was ten years ago on 9/11. Below is a brief excerpt from my memoir Saved by the Sea - A Love Story with Fish.
"Nice weather," Wayne, the ship's walrus-mustached boatswain, says in a gravelly smoker's voice."
"For a fish," I agree.
We're standing outside the main science lab on the weather deck of the Woods Hole research vessel 'Atlantis' watching white-capped eighteen-to twenty-foot seas rolling across eight thousand foot-deep blue waters. Secure in its stern hanger, 'Alvin' the deep-diving submersible, will not be diving today. We're steaming west at twelve knots, trying to avoid the brunt of Hurricane Erin, which the shortwave radio assures us is headed "safely out to sea" in our direction. I'm here for two weeks on the Deep East Expedition off the Atlantic seaboard. Supported by NOAA's new Office of ocean Exploration, the trip will include three teams of scientist/explorers hoping to develop a better understanding of America's last great wilderness range, including newly identified deep-sea coral habitats. I'm hoping to catch a ride a mile or two down on 'Alvin' sometime during the trip, but it's not to be.
A few days later we're 150 miles off Nantucket when someone comes into the lab and says a plane just hit the World Trade Center. I climb up the salt-encrusted external ladder to the bridge and join Captain Gary Chiljean and his chief mate Mitzi Crane, listening to the short wave radio, a static-filled WINS 1010 report out of New York with live descriptions of the jetliner terror attacks and the collapse of the World Trade Center's towers. Rebecca Cerroni, one of the expedition members, lives three blocks from the site. We put her on the satellite radiophone and she gets through to her husband, Joe who is OK. One of his co-workers is at the World Trade Center and missing, however.
She tells me how, as a high school student, she had participated with 5,000 other kids on a March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau concentration camps in Poland. "I wonder if someday my kids will march down Broadway to the Trade Center," she says, trying not to cry.
Our first week at sea had seen 'Alvin' unable to deploy three out of five days due to high winds and rough seas. The plan had been to make a transfer of scientists at sea off Staten Island but that plan got blown away along with thousands of lives by the terrorist attacks. The Navy (which owns 'Alvin') cancels permission for the expedition to dive in the steepest parts of Hudson Canyon, the assumption being they are moving nuclear submarines through there as backup for the aircraft carrier battle group now deployed off New York City.
The night after the attacks I'm watching some of the video taken by Alvin's cameras 4,500 feet down in the dark, crushing depths of Oceanographer Canyon. There are beautiful branching deep-sea corals in yellow, brown and white, also deep sponges, cutthroat eels, rattail fish, red crabs, luminescent purple shimmering squid and other life abundant amidst the marine snow, organic detritus falling from above. Someone tells me we now have TV reception. I go up to the lounge on the f'o'csle to see, through a weak and snowy signal, our first images of the jetliners hitting the towers and the towers coming down.
For the rest of my days I'll be stuck with those contrasting images of what we're capable of as a species, from exploring and discovering new life in the most remote and challenging parts of our ocean planet, to using modern technology to carry out mass murder in the heart of a great city.
When we dock back at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod I go to the phone booth at the end of the quay and try calling my friends in New York City. I'd planned on staying with them if, as originally planned, we'd ended our expedition there. Unfortunately, living in Tribeca in the shadow of the World Trade Center, they've been forced to evacuate and aren't reachable. I then call a friend in Washington, D.C., where the Pentagon was attacked. She tells me of Humvees on the streets and F-16 fighter jets patrolling overhead. As a D.C. - based journalist, I feel particularly out of it at this moment, although how could I have known? In the past when I've covered war zones I've had to leave the country to find them.