September 11, 2001. 9-11. To borrow a phrase, it's a "date that will live in infamy." We collectively share what happened 13 years ago, the events that changed our world forever, but each of us also owns a personal narrative from that fateful morning. Where I live, in the suburbs of New York City, we were especially hard hit, and from my town alone we lost 77 people. Financial jobs were status quo here, and Cantor Fitzgerald is a name that still evokes an emotional gut punch when heard in passing. Don't misunderstand; I'm not making light of any other town's grief or claiming sole dominion over feelings of loss for our small berg. I only tell you this to set the stage for the drama I will unfold here, for the first time ever.
I've never written about the events of that cold September morn before, and it's difficult to understand why, even for me. I've dealt with pain, suffering, and loss the likes of which many of you will never experience (thankfully), due to my thirty years of severe musculoskeletal autoimmune disease. The events at the World Trade Center, though, still make me so uncomfortable that I immediately change the channel when programs about the tragedy are shown. I think this is a perfect metaphor to illustrate the uniqueness of the feelings that 9-11 can illicit -- no measure of emotional battering can give you a hard enough shell to "unfeel" a disaster on the scale of September 11, 2001, especially when you were forced to live it via intermittent cell phone coverage, rumor and assumption, minute-by-minute and vicariously through the lives of close friends at Ground Zero. It's difficult to understand the chaos of a town on that day that sacrificed almost 80 sons and daughters to the ruins of Tower 1 and Tower 2. So, for the first time ever, as I unsuccessfully try to swallow that lump in my throat, here is my story of 9-11.
"I'm terrified. I've never been this scared in my entire life. Something's wrong, something's terribly wrong. I don't understand what's happening. I'm awake. I'm awake." These are the thoughts that went through my head as I bolted straight up in my bed. I knew it was still early because the darkness had not yet receded, so I checked my clock and it said 3:23 a.m., September 11.
I had been awakened by a pronounced feeling of dread and terror -- one that I had never experienced in a dream before. It was so much more visceral than the run-of-the-mill, "naked in class" unease, that I was still enveloped with dread as I attempted to go back to sleep. I glanced at the clock again. "Ok, good," I thought, "I can still get back to sleep for a while before I have to leave for school."
At the time, I was still attending Columbia in Manhattan. I thought about the logic and rhetoric paper that was due as I faded back to sleep, trying unsuccessfully to shake the shroud of anxiety that had enveloped me. Eventually exhaustion won out, and I slipped back into the sweet blackness of deep slumber.
"Get up!" I heard someone shout. Groggy, I opened my eyes and looked at the time. It was 8:50 a.m., and it was my mother who had unceremoniously awoken me mere minutes before my alarm was to ring. I was infuriated and protested vehemently.
"Mom! What the Hell? My alarm would have gone off at 9:15!" I volunteered.
"You're not going to school today, or for a while. The Twin Towers are under attack." She said, without a single ounce of doubt.
"What? Are you serious?" I asked, but she had left the room by then, and, of course, didn't shut off the light. It didn't matter, though, there was no way I was going to go back to sleep after the revelation I had just been privy to. I got dressed as fast as I could, forgoing the shower, and rushed down to the kitchen where my mother and father were assembled. We all huddled around a 13-inch television, glued to the live coverage of the "accident."
"Mom," I said, "they are saying it could be an accident. They aren't saying it's an attack."
"It's an attack." She said, as plain as if she was telling me the sky was blue. How she knew, I'll never know, and to this day all she ever says is "I just knew."
"I don't know, mom, it seems like a pretty crazy way to attack..." As the word "attack" came out of my mouth, the three of us in that kitchen, along with the rest of the world, watched live in Technicolor as a jet airliner flew directly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and an orange fireball erupted opposite the crash site. The three of us looked at each other, and with some shock, my dad said, "America is under attack."
Those three words, in that particular order, is not something that my brain was prepared to hear. There aren't many situations when you might hear the phrase "America is under attack," in passing, so when it's said to you for the first time, it's all jagged and pointy, and it sticks in your mind. It's something that takes time to get used to, and I'm not sure I grasped the full weight of exactly what it meant and what was transpiring, but I didn't have time to ponder it. From that point forward, things began to happen fast.
Immediately after we watched the second plane explode, my mother turned to me, handed me the keys to her car and said, "fill up the car with gas and get your brother and sister from school. Now. Go."
Without a word, I grabbed my wallet and shoes, and I was out the door before I could think. I raced to the local gas station and tuned in to an AM news radio station while I drove. There was a line at the pump, as my mother wasn't the only one with the thought that chaos might reign for a time. So, I sat there, and listened to the poor girl on the radio do her best to put into words events that were beyond explanation. She was obviously a last-minute replacement, and she was as green as they come. It was almost 9:40 when she told us that the Pentagon had been hit by another plane.
I could hear people in other cars cry out or gasp, but, for me, it was hard to feel anything. Not only was I partly numb and operating in crisis mode, but I am a visual person, and hearing about an attack on a building that I had never seen nor visited was like a math problem I couldn't solve. I dismissed it, and I'm horribly ashamed to say, I basked in the electric atmosphere that seemed to be crackling all around. It was inappropriate, of course, but this was an event like nothing I had experienced before, and I was still figuring it out in my own mind. It was just about 10:00 when I finally got up to the pump and the attendant began to fill the tank. That's when I heard that poor girl reporter on the radio crying, and I turned the broadcast up. Any feeling of excitement I had ended in that horrible moment that seemed to drag on for eons.
"Oh my God!" She said, "The South Tower is collapsing! Oh Jesus, God, No! It's coming down and there's a cloud of dust about to envelop us! Run! Run!" After that all I heard was dead air and screaming.
Even now, writing this, I can feel the tears welling up. It's not about sadness, though, it's because of the sheer magnitude of emotion at that point when the first tower came down and that girl on the AM radio poured her unvarnished feelings into the mic. She may think she lost her cool, but if there was ever a more honest, more evocative news report, I haven't heard it. I remember repeating "Oh my God, oh my God," sitting at that gas pump.
The station is still there today, and every time I pull into that same spot I remember 9-11 and the reporter who perfectly illustrated the feelings of an entire country, whether she knows it or not. Eventually the tank was filled, and I made my way to the high school, where my brother was waiting, along with a scene that will play in my head forevermore.
Normally, to excuse a child from school here, you need a note and a parent -- a sibling won't suffice. The morning of September 11, though, when I walked in to the attendance office, the scene of carnage and grief I saw was truly horrifying. As I told you in the beginning, our town was especially hard hit, and in some families both parents worked at the Trade Center. By this time, word had spread throughout the high school of the South Tower collapse, but students had not heard much else. Cell phone service was intermittent, at best, and the kids had no way to know if their parents were alive or dead. Rumor ruled the roost, and fear was running rampant.
As I walked up to the desk, I could see that the teacher in charge had obviously been crying. He was on the phone, and there were several more lines ringing still. Sitting by the door, there was a 14-year-old girl, staring at the floor, holding her cell phone, and sobbing. She was mumbling to herself, "Mom, where are you," as she rocked back and forth, obviously waiting for a call to go home that might never come. On the bench by the wall, there were two boys who looked like brothers, hugging each other and one was crying and saying, "I can't reach Mom or Dad," and the other, older, brother was reassuring him, "I'm sure they got out, you know Dad, he's smart. I'm sure they are fine." I heard later they never did come home. A hard scene to watch, I waited anxiously for the attendant to get off the phone. Just then, a very young girl walked in, obviously a freshman, and her eyes were out of focus like a zombie from The Walking Dead. She just stood in the middle of the attendance office, and, without warning, she began to cry uncontrollably when she saw the state of that small room. It was more than I could bear.
In a move that would have probably gotten me arrested on any other day in history, I put my arms around that poor little girl and I hugged her tight. I had no idea who she was, or where her parents were, but I told her everything was going to be all right. We both knew it was a lie, but I don't think she cared. When you are that young, you just want someone to tell you everything's going to be OK, and, having three younger siblings, I understood that fact. To this day, I have no idea who she was, or what happened to her parents, but there, in that moment, on that day, I saw a bit of my little sister, utterly alone, terrified beyond her capacity to understand what was transpiring, and I did what I could.
Eventually, when she calmed down, I asked her if she had an aunt or an uncle in the area, and she said yes. I told her to call her aunt and uncle and have them come pick her up right away. She said "OK," and we looked at each other for a second, her to say thanks and me to reassure her once more that everything was going to be all right as she took off to find a working pay phone. I was an emotional wreck by this point, so when my brother finally came walking in I exhaled, not even realizing I had been holding my breath. He had been smart enough to realize that someone would be coming for him, so I didn't even bother signing him out. We left, picked up my sister from her school, and made our way home.
That was the first part of my September 11 morning. I can't tell you why I woke up the night before in terror, and I'll never be able to put into words the true scope and breadth of emotions that me and many others here went though. This is the first time I've tried, though, and I do hope it's given you some insight into the pandemonium that reigned for days here on Long Island. There is much more to my tale, but seeing as how I now have tears streaming down my cheek, I think we will save that for next year. Never forget those who simply went to work on September 11, 2001 and then had to fight for their lives for fifty short minutes. Fifty minutes that must have felt like an eternity.