Note: This was originally posted on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and I’ve reposted it each year on this day since. I haven’t edited the piece much, since I’ve yet to find a better way to say any of this in the last four years. And I still haven’t made sense of anything that happened day, though I’m still grateful to The Boss and impressed with George W. Bush’s fastball.
I remember getting to work a little late that day, around 9:10 AM. I don’t remember why I was late, maybe I had an errand to take care of on the way to work or was just running behind that day. As soon as I walked into our office my friend John asked me if I had seen what had happened. I hadn’t listened to the radio on the way to work and had not seen a TV that morning.
“Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center this morning.”
“Are you serious?” was all I could think to reply.
I went to my desk and tried to pull up the CNN website, but it was only partially loading, slowed to a crawl no doubt by people just like me trying to find out what was happening and overwhelmed by the surreal events taking place. We heard that there was a TV on the first floor with the news on, so we took the elevator down and watched with a few dozen other people.
I remember being acutely aware of how quiet the room was. Everyone was just standing and watching silently, trying to comprehend what they were witnessing. While it wasn’t exactly clear what was happening when the first plane hit the North Tower, after the South Tower was hit it was obvious that this was something completely beyond our ability to immediately understand. All I remember thinking when I saw those buildings burning was “how long can they stand burning like that?”
I remember NBC reporter Jim Miklaszewski was reporting from the Pentagon around 9:30 when he said that there had been a massive explosion there. For the first time, I was scared. This wasn’t just something happening in New York anymore; this was war. How many more planes were there? What was going to get hit next? And about this time the “unconfirmed reports” started to pour in: the Sears Tower in Chicago was a target; the Empire State building had been threatened; there was a hijacked plane on the ground in Cleveland (this last one in particular seemed to have a lot of legs and I remember hearing it multiple times that day.)
And of course the White House and the US Capitol were being evacuated. We had pictures of this, staff in business attire walking, and then all of a sudden running, out of the building. We now know of course that one of those two buildings is standing today because of the heroism of those aboard Flight 93, which was soon to crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Then everyone in our room watched as the South Tower, the second building struck, answered my initial question and began to collapse. Even though I had wondered how long those buildings could stand after the impact of two fully fueled airliners, seeing that first tower fall was still shocking. I remember then for the first time people around us making noise, some letting out shocked screams, other sobbing, a few cursing. It wasn’t long before the second tower fell, and I went back to my desk for lack of anything better to do, wondering how many people I had just watched die. 10,000? 50,000?
I remember spending the rest of the morning in a bit of a daze, staring out the window towards St. Pete/Clearwater airport, watching a few planes landing and feeling frankly terrified every time one came into view. We were 6 floors up and even though in retrospect it seems a bit silly, at that time it seemed entirely possible that one of those planes might find us an inviting target. None did, and it wasn’t long before there were no more planes to land, except for the military jet (perhaps it was a coast guard plane) that we saw take off and streak away.
I remember getting an e-mail from one of my managers, expecting him to tell us to go home, but instead reading that we should treat the day as a “low call volume day” and “work on some back burner” projects. I’m not somebody who is easily angered, but reading that I was completely pissed off and ready to either quit on the spot or march into his office and punch him in the face. I worked for a financial services firm and we weren’t sure at that point when the Stock Exchange would reopen or if any of our industry in New York was even left.
I remember spending the rest of the day thinking about the people involved. The passengers on the planes used as missiles, those folks trapped in the towers, many of whom chose to jump rather than face the jet-fueled inferno a moment longer, the firemen and police who charged up the stairs of a burning building to try to save others, and, after a while, the hijackers themselves. At first all I felt was hatred for them for what they had done, which was natural of course. But over time I’ve come to pity them, these men who died and killed for a lie, that they would find their reward in paradise.
In the days and weeks that passed, I remember watching the news and reading accounts of what happened obsessively. It still all felt oddly distanced and detached even though I knew it was real and had happened. I guess you would say that I was in a state of shock for some time. My memories of those times are scattered, but one of the most vivid is George Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium for the first game of the World Series (and throwing a strike while wearing a bullet proof vest – that WAS impressive, whatever you think of the man).
There are other moments as well, David Letterman’s first monologue after coming back on the air, U2 playing the Super Bowl halftime show as the names of the fallen scrolled passed on a large screen behind them. But I remember most clearly several months later when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, and for the first time, while listening to the title track, I had tears streaming down my face. The opening of the song follows a firefighter who is starting a doomed climb up the stairs of one of the towers with a “sixty pound stone” on his back and a “half mile of line” over his shoulder. The imagery is so powerful that to this day I can’t listen to it without the hair on my arms standing up.
I’ve never had a chance to meet Bruce Springsteen, but if I ever do the only thing I’ll say to him is “thank you.” The Rising provided me with something to latch onto, a way to let go of the senseless violence that we’d witnessed that day, and a needed emotional release. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment either.
I remember finally visiting New York several times for work in 2008, and getting a chance to see Ground Zero. By that time it was little more than a massive construction site, with viewing areas for visitors and a few makeshift memorials surrounding it.
One part of the WTC site that stuck with me was the so-called Survivors’ Staircase. It was the remaining above ground element to survive the Trade Center collapse, and hundreds of people used it to escape the buildings that day.
To this day I still find myself obsessing over the events of September 11 on occasion. Snippets of those events still find their way into my dreams sometimes. I can only imagine how much more those people who lost friends and loved ones or who were directly involved in the events that day have those dreams. Today, as the 10th anniversary of the attacks is upon us I find myself wondering when and how to explain those events to my children. What will I say to make something that in retrospect seems impossible seem real? How do you explain to a 7- and 8-year-old the horrors people will inflict upon one another in the name of religion? And how did those families that lost a parent explain what happened to their children? Those are the things I’m thinking about today. Tomorrow, I will just remember, again.
What do you remember?