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Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11 - Ten Years After (Part 3)

Smoke was still pumping from Ground Zero the next morning as I drove to the office. In fact as I remember it, smoke continued to rise from the site for the next week or so. Maybe longer. I don't know anymore. The same blue skies from Tuesday draped over Wednesday as we tried to restart ourselves. The only difference was the thick plume of gray that was pouring south along the horizon over the ocean. The thing I remember most from that day is the absence of aircraft. My office was only a few miles from Newark Airport, directly under the north approach, so commercial aircraft were a constant. I also live a few miles east of a runway at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, and the increase in military air traffic was noticeable. Pilots liken North Jersey airspace as a "bunch of bees in a bottle." The emptiness of the sky was eery.

That Friday I helped our office gather up goggles, water, and other things to give to the recovery workers. After work I loaded up my car and drove the supplies to Staten Island to one of the Red Cross drop-off locations that had been set up across the metropolitan area. As I drove over the Goethals Bridge on my way back to New Jersey I could see lower Manhattan and the source of the constant trail of smoke. I listened to WCBS-AM's simulcast of President Bush's speech from the rubble as I drove home. As they are wont to do, people who don't like Bush will forever make fun of this speech. But on this Friday evening, with the craters of the WTC still smoldering, and thousands of people still missing, President Bush's speech was as moving as any I've ever heard or been aware of. A sense of hope and optimism crept over me as I realized I lived in a country that was smart and strong enough to take a body shot and remain standing. I felt like a little revenge was in order.

Later that evening, as the sun set, I called my wife and daughter out to our deck to watch Air Force One depart the base near our home. I will always remember the angle of the plane's ascent as it climbed over my neighborhood. Most of the cargo planes and tankers that use the base climb slowly, at an obtuse angle, because of the loads they carry. There are times when my teeth rattles when a particularly heavy plane passes overhead because they are so low. Air Force One's climb was as steep as I'd ever seen a heavy jet climb. I assume the point was to get up to altitude as quickly as possible to keep the plane safe from a ground attack. Fighter jets soon shot overhead and joined the jumbo jet. They all turned to the north in a tight arc and were soon out of sight.

By the end of the next week I was back in Manhattan to visit clients. Two things I will remember until the day I die. The cars at the Hoboken parking garage on River Street that were left by people who were killed on 9/11. Weeks later you could tell which cars were still waiting for their owners to come retrieve them. And the white chalky dust covering every surface of Lower Manhattan even where I was ten blocks away.

By the end of September I was pretty much back on the road. My first trip was to Little Rock, Arkansas. I left the day after the anthrax attacks were discovered. I walked down our driveway to my car and was hit hard by the thought that I really missed the way life had been on September 10. "When does it all stop?" I remember asking myself on that cold, gray ride to the airport.

I was never a nervous flier. Never have been. I've landed sideways in a prop job in Norway in a blizzard, I was on an American Airlines jet that got diverted right before touchdown at O'Hare because another plane was taxiing on our runway. I sat next to a guy from Turkey on a flight from London who threw up all over our row of seats for five hours. From 1988 to 2003 I logged probably over a million miles in the air. I know the number because I got lots of free air tickets and Ambassador Club memberships. Flying alot is work. You learn to take it in stride.

I'd be a liar if I didn't say I was nervous as hell boarding that Continental 737 at Newark that morning.

The rain and gray had settled over Little Rock as well, and as I drove in from the airport I found that the anthrax mail had been sent through the bulk processing center just a few miles from my house. Now we were being told that our own mail was possibly contaminated. In fact, I still have mail from that time. It's sealed in a plastic bag and brittle because it was irradiated to kill the contaminants. Once again, the troubles of the world had peripherally forced themselves into my small, boring life.

For the rest of the fall, when I was not traveling, I ate my lunch in my car in the parking lot of a warehouse on the Arthur Kill. Directly across the waterway sits the mountain that is the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. A half mile away, on top of the hill, day after day, the NYFD trucks and engines that had been recovered from the site were lined up facing me. I'd sit and eat, and stare at the trucks. Some crushed, some burned, some looking almost new. I don't remember the number, but I'd guess there were more than twenty. Looking back, I realize the morbidity in doing this, but at the time it was just a profound way to help my brain digest what was happening in the world around me.

I am constantly being reminded to never forget. I lived through it, even if my life was mercifully spared from being directly affected by it. Living through it peripherally is enough to keep me from ever forgetting. Remember your own stories, however unattached you think they might be. We owe it to the people who lost so much during that time.

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