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Prelude

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September 11, 2001.

A Beautiful, blue Indian summer sky in September. Calm, warm, clear, the opening to a perfect New York day.

At 6:45 AM in the morning, I looked out of my living room window on the 22nd floor to the other side of the Hudson and watched the early morning sun reflect off the Twin Towers directly opposite my apartment building. I could see my office on the 80th floor of the North Tower. The sun shimmered on the windows all the way up to the top.

It was a spectacular and familiar morning image, something I had seen many times. The towers were mediocre buildings transformed into the exceptional by a combination of sunlight and size, an intimidating dominance over the city and the skies.

I was living in the calm of that day. No sense of foreboding or danger. Nothing ominous. There were no clues, no signs, not even a hint of suspicion of what was to unfold later that morning. There was nothing to warn me, to stop me from showering, dressing and getting into a commuter boat for the effortless six minute trip across the river to my office.

I have retraced those steps again and again in my mind, wondering how different my life would have been, had I stayed home. If only I had. How many times I had made that trip to and from work, watching the sun rise or set, or the stars on a magnificent summer night. I knew nothing and was prepared for nothing, only to look forward to what I had planned for that day, not to what others had planned for me, for all of us. I did not know that it would be the last day of my life as I had lived it for over 50 years and I was not prepared in any way.

I boarded the boat and chose to sit outside on the deck, because what was going on outside was too beautiful to waste. We floated across the glistening, motionless Hudson at the mouth of the Atlantic, to the New York side. As the boat pulled into its docking berth behind the World Trade Center, I allowed myself the freedom and pleasure of banality and the ordinary. Should I get breakfast and bring it to my office or should I wait and get it after an early management meeting? It was only 7:45 and I could wait. Then I could also pick up the eyeglasses I had ordered the night before at an optometrist on the concourse. Random theory had not yet entered into the day's equation.

I had no idea that my breakfast decision could determine the outcome of what was scheduled for later that morning, but I chose to stop and get breakfast to take upstairs. I didn't know I was gambling with my life.

7:55 AM and primary day for the mayoral race in New York City, as well as the first day of school kept parents away from their regular time of arrival to work. The concourse was almost empty and almost quiet. I quickly picked up my breakfast and approached the elevator bank. The starters were there. I knew them all and greeted them as usual. I passed the small concierge desk where the woman who had given me a temporary badge the many times I could not find mine usually sat. It was always lost in my bag. She was very pregnant, probably close to her delivery date.

7:58 AM. Still no clues. I got into the elevator alone and in seconds was on 78, where I changed for the last leg of my trip to 80. No turning back.

In minutes I was there and walking down that nondescript, unremarkable hall that was the North Tower, leading to my office. As I approached, my boss, our CEO was walking toward me to tell me that he had postponed the senior management meeting because several members of the team were still in London. It would be rescheduled for later in the week. Of course, there would always be time on another day. I should have stayed home.

8:10 AM. I was sitting at my desk, eating breakfast, looking at my computer and calling someone on the phone. That number was to a man I was planning to meet for the first time on Friday of that week. As I was calling him, he was probably eating his breakfast at the top of Tower 1 at the Risk Waters conference. I left a message for his boss, who had set up the meeting, confirming Friday. Maybe I should attend the conference in the afternoon? Aaron had been in his new job only two weeks. He was upstairs, and like all of us, oblivious to what was coming. He must have looked out of the windows in the sky, to the most beautiful view of Manhattan on the most perfect day and considered himself the luckiest man alive.

Precious moments ticked away as I opened my email and replied. I was still unaware of the silent and deadly countdown already underway. I was busy.

8:30. it was time for me to go back downstairs, into the lobby and get my glasses. Why wait until lunch when the optometrist would be inundated with people picking up their prescriptions? It could take my entire lunchtime or more to get them. Now was my window of opportunity. As I prepared to leave, my phone rang, keeping me at my desk until 8:40 AM. The call ended and I started to hesitate, thinking that maybe I shouldn't go downstairs now. I couldn't make up my mind because I was still living in the luxury of indecision.

8:45 and one minute left. I sat in my chair, glanced out the window across the Hudson to my left and then started writing an email to my daughter, Sasha. It was 5:45 in the morning in Los Angeles. She was still asleep. We wrote and talked every day. She was not quite a year past cancer surgery and it had been a tough first year. The surgery left her with a number of physical and emotional problems that would never go away. She still needed me, and I worried, because I knew that it would be five years before we would know if she was really cancer-free. There were no guarantees. I had returned to America after almost 10 years in London to be closer to her. London was too far away.

I had accepted this job as a first step toward a probable move to the west coast, but I never liked the building. The Towers stood as a tribute to all that New York represented in its boldness and iconography, but inside, it was tired, neglected and most significantly, precariously flawed in its engineering and design. I took my time as I wrote to her.

It was still quiet on my side of the office.

8:46 AM and my one minute was up. Then it happened. In a matter of nanoseconds, the banal and ordinary suddenly became critical to my existence. When I arrived at work, where I ate my breakfast, when and where I went to the bathroom, made that decision not to pick up my glasses and every other decision I made or didn't as the events unfolded, would determine whether I would live or die.

There was nothing in my memory or life experience to prepare me for this.

Excerpt from Autumn by Sharon Premoli
Copyright by Sharon Premoli 2009. All Rights Reserved.