The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks are still difficult to wrap my head around. Television and the person I look at in the mirror all tell me that eleven years have passed, but my mind and heart tell me the images and emotions of that day are too fresh to have happened so long ago.
Living the normal life I have lived in these past fifty years, I've had many grim days. Maybe more than normal, maybe not. I don't spend much time thinking about it. September 11, 2001 is burned in my memory as among the most grim. I don't need to watch specials, or see pictures, or re-live the day. It's too real and too alive still. Yet in spite of this, I am compelled to write about my experiences, however peripheral they may have been. Forgive me for indulging that need. Maybe you'll find it interesting, maybe you'll find it an unnecessary addition to your existing burden.
Back in 2001 I was working for a firm that supplied technical items to schools and universities. I spent a lot of time on the road and on Monday, September 10, I started my day at West Point Military Academy and ended it at a small school on University Place just up from Washington Square park in Greenwich Village. I used the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) trains out of the WTC station that day, like I did on my twice weekly trips into Manhattan. That evening I bought a motorcycle.
The next morning was as bright, clear and calm as we've all been told for ten years it was. I set out on my miserably long commute around seven-thirty. When planes at Newark International Airport were landing to the north, the monotony of my commute was thankfully broken by the line of aircraft on approach. Their approach paralleled the highway I used for quite a distance, so as I muddled along in traffic I watched the planes. I've spent a great deal of my career traveling and I have become an unapologetic plane spotter.
The phantasm my mind has created around that day tell me specifically that I saw a plane on an unusual approach. I absolutely know I remarked to myself that the plane was too low and heading slightly too far to the east to be on a regular approach. I know what I saw, but I just can't believe what I saw had anything to do with anything. But to this day, I think it did.
I was mindlessly listening to the Howard Stern show as I drove over the bridge that gave me my first view of Manhattan. The producer of the Stern show came on air and said that "a plane just hit one of the World Trade Center towers." Much speculation took place as to whether it was a light plane, an accident, or an attack. One thing was clear however, there was smoke over the skyline of lower Manhattan. Seeing smoke from fires is nothing unusual in this most densely populated place in the country, but it was soon clear to me the top of one of the WTC towers was on fire.
I walked into my office bearing the news that the WTC was on fire and was greeted with the news that a second plane had hit the second tower. Then we heard about a plane down in Pennsylvania or Ohio, followed by news that the Capitol was being attacked. The White House. The Pentagon. Chicago. LA. One of towers has collapsed. The news coming over the radios and televisions we had on was overwhelming and too rapid fire to process. I couldn't believe my ears, and since it was a two minute drive from my office to the docks on NY Harbor - and an unobstructed and close view of Manhattan - I left and headed out to give my eyes a chance to tell my ears they were liars.
At that time, my days were spent in the New Jersey of oil refineries, warehouses, ships that carried natural-gas, and trucks. Lots of trucks. I left my office and drove the two minutes to the harbor and the first thing that struck me was the number of trucks parked along the road. Maybe thirty, maybe fifty. To this day I don't know. What I do know is the truckers were all doing the same thing I was doing. I parked my car and found a clear view of the city and my eyes immediately confirmed what my brain could not conceive--the south tower was gone. Chalky white smoke hovered over the area and a plume of it was starting to head south toward the Verrazano Narrows.
Later it was reported that the south tower collapse registered 2.1 on the Richter Scale and the north tower collapse registered 2.3. The seismic shock of the energy of the collapse reaching the ground was "proof" to the moronic conspiracy theorists that explosions set off by George Bush and Dick Cheney in the basements of both buildings caused the collapse. Obviously, physics are not a strong point of conspiracy theorists.
I stood on the shoreline overlooking the Upper New York Harbor talking with a trucker from Nevada or Arizona, I can't remember which one. It was obvious to us we had been attacked.
Black smoke billowed from the north tower and wafted west toward Brooklyn in the unfettered winds a quarter mile above the earth. The smoke was blowing away from us which gave us a clear view of the orange fire ringing one of the upper floors. It was mesmerizing.
I heard a collective gasp from the people around me before I caught up with what was happening. My consciousness was not operating at the same speed as reality.
We saw the unbelievable before we heard the unimaginable. The north tower began a slow descent, picking up speed as it went. We couldn't comprehend what we were witnessing. We had no idea at that moment that we were watching the collapse of the remaining tower. Then a few seconds later, from across the water, carried by the still, crisp air, the noise hit us. It was faint, but it was the noise of death and destruction. Of sadness and defeat. It stabbed my gut like a dull blade. Over the years, my mind has mercifully dulled what my eyes saw, but time is no match for what I heard. Everyone was silent. Slowly, some of us began to make our way back to our vehicles.
I went back to the office and got a call from my oldest daughter, who was a sophomore in high school at the time. Her mother and I divorced when my daughter was just a baby, and at the time the relationship between myself and my ex and her husband was exceptionally difficult. My ex worked in Lower Manhattan and hearing the panic in my daughter's voice I realized I had get to her and pick her up from school. Meanwhile my wife was on her way to pick up our daughter who was in third grade. The nice lady at the school told her that the safest place for our daughter was right there in school, and not at home with her family. Needless to say, my wife picked up our daughter and held her tongue from the well-meaning but incredibly stupid school receptionist.
I drove the forty miles from my office to my oldest daughter's high school in a little over twenty minutes - a ride that would normally take well over an hour. Tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway were closed and there was no traffic. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. I'm not saying traffic was light, I am saying there were no other cars. I passed maybe fifteen cars during the entire ride. I hit 100MPH several times, but the overwhelming feeling I had was that the ride was taking far too long.
I picked my daughter up, my wife picked our daughter up and we met at home where we sat transfixed by the news on the television for the rest of the day. I called my son who had just started college in Providence after hearing news that an Amtrak train in Rhode Island had been hijacked. Because of the foolishness between my ex and myself, my relationship with my son was strained, if not non-existent, but the events of the day were bigger than the folly of any one individual. At least that's how I looked at it. The pit in my stomach grew exponentially as I was unable to reach my son and I hadn't heard back from the ex. Later in the day my ex called to tell us she was safe. My son never called back, and my ex had his number changed in her never-ending quest to cash my checks but otherwise avoid my existence. Even in the height of human tragedy, some people are always able to maintain their priorities.
News continued to pour in. Twenty-thousand dead possibly. A plane down in Pennsylvania. Unknown number of people killed at the Pentagon. American airspace completely shut down on word of possible attacks in Chicago and San Francisco. President Bush at an undisclosed location. By the end of the day all of our family members were accounted for and safe. That evening we took a ride to the beach and watched the smoke from the fallen towers maniacally drift south on the horizon.
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 few weeks. The same blue skies from Tuesday draped over Wednesday as we tried to restart ourselves. 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," so the emptiness of the sky was exceptionally eerie.
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. 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 watched 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, and the white chalky dust covering every surface of Lower Manhattan even from ten blocks away. Weeks later the cars in the garage were still waiting for their owners to come retrieve them.
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 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 radiated 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.
In my area of the world, it is not possible to not know several families who were destroyed on that day. Mine was not, but I am still constantly 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 to keep the words "never forget" from becoming so tired old cliche.