Saturday, September 11, 2010

Story - 9/11

Although I don't want to put any more oxygen on the already brightly burning fires, I sat and thought about 9/11 today for the first time in a long, long time.

I remember a lot of that day pretty clearly. And before I forget, I want to put it down on something kind of permanent.

I took the train into New York City, like normal. I remember it being a beautiful day. I wonder if I thought about going for a ride that evening, maybe a loop around the beach. I looked forward to buying a breakfast sandwich at the deli on the ground floor of the office building, to sipping some hot, fresh coffee, flirt with a girl there whose name I never knew and never would. I might have splurged on a pastry from the train station, but probably not. It was September, and I wasn't going crazy with miles or anything on the bike.

I had to walk a couple long blocks from Grand Central to get to 3rd Avenue, then halfway up one of the short blocks. Presto. Work.

I passed by a doorman, dressed like doormen are supposed to dress, a couple rows of shiny buttons way to close for any kind of efficiency or purpose. The almost olive drab color of the fabric emphasized the shiny brass and gold piping running up and down the front of his jacket.

Out of the corner of my ear I overheard him greet someone entering the building.

"Good morning! How are you Charles? Did you hear about that plane that hit the World Trade Center? No, I don't know, just heard it on the radio. Look, it's a beautiful day, I don't know how anyone could..."

The voices faded.

Plane? Hit the World Trade Center?

I looked up.

Blue skies. Some clouds, yes, but white, happy, bright.

Probably some idiot in a Cessna, I thought to myself, got caught up in currents swirling around the building or something.

I thought briefly of playing the first version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. After you took off it was a bit boring. So I'd try and fly between buildings and things. Of course, inevitably, you hit something. The primitive graphics didn't do much, the plane kind of kissing the side of the building as it fell.

The plane thought kind of faded as I walked.

I got to the deli, busy at this time, just before 9 AM, perfectly timed. I liked saying hi to a particular girl at the counter - she had a nice grin and always seemed cheerful. I felt lucky when she chose me next, of the mass of people waiting at the counter.

"Bacon, egg, and cheese on roll, please. Ketchup, salt, and pepper too."
"Okay!" she grinned.

I thought briefly if I should ask her if she knew about the plane hitting the World Trade Center, but decided against it. Kind of depressing, really, plane hitting a building. Not a grin thing.

I got my sandwich, rang out at the registers, and headed over to the opulent lobby. I wasn't keen on the lobby but the elevators... I like fast elevators. And these were fast to me. No Stratosphere or Eiffel Tower fast, but fast enough.

I stepped out of the elevator. I can't remember if there were other tenants on the floor, I think there were, but we dominated the floor, an office large enough for 160+ people. Beautiful glass walled server room. Huge conference room.

I suppose it was a McMansion version of a nice office. KKR, now they had a nice office. I felt like I was in a movie set the few times I got to visit the KKR office. But our office, other than the first initial rooms, was set up like any other cubicle forest. Big cubicles, yes, with senior level folks planted in offices around the perimeter of each of the two or three main rooms.

But when I got off the elevator, something was wrong. I wasn't sure what, but I could hear voices from behind the double doors leading to the office.

I got that unpleasant feeling, the rush of unwanted adrenaline, the metallic taste in my mouth.

It sounded like people were fighting.

Was our dot-com business in trouble? I mean, I knew things weren't good, but this seemed... excessive.

Braving the uncertainty I felt, I stepped forward, feeling my shoes plant themselves firmly in the carpet out in the hallway.

I opened the door.

I heard chaos.

I heard shrieking. One of the managers was almost hysterical. I turned left and started trotting down the long hallway past the glass server room, past the C-level offices.

Into the largest part of the office, the main room, maybe 50 or 60 cubicles here.

I could only catch peripheral shadows, motion, too much motion for our office. Normally the whole office would be quiet, the most noise being the beeping of the phones or maybe the printer shuffling through some papers.

But this morning it was totally crazy. People were yelling into their phones. Or, rather, when I looked at that one manager who I heard hysterical, yelling at their phones.

Her cell phone wasn't working.

Calls dropped, no signal, too busy, please try again later.

People were running around, no destination, just running. From the windows to the cubicles. From their cubicles to the windows.

Although no papers flew in the air, I actually expected sheafs of print outs to suddenly fly into the air as someone else lost their mind. If this was a movie, they'd have paid a few people to toss junk fax pages into the air, hidden in various cubicles.

But this wasn't a movie, although it felt like I just got sucked into a really unpleasant show.

"What's... What's goin'.. HEY! WHAT'S GOING ON?!", I yelled, at no one in particular.

Someone, I forget who, looked at me.

"A plane just hit the World Trade Center."

And ran off.

I went to my desk. I can't remember who was there. My boss was there, another woman. An Aussie, she was frantic. She had some kind of texting phone, a Blackberry I think, texting her husband.


He worked in the World Trade Center.

I asked her what happened.

"Some airliner hit the World Trade Center. Just now."

"Airliner? Like a jet?"

My mind started to whirl. Umpteen thousand tons of plane? Into the World Trade Center? How could that be?

I remember reading about the B-25 that ran into the Empire State Building. One of its two engines blew through the building, just like a movie, and tumbled out the other side. A lot of people died.

The B-25 was a small bomber (I have a few plastic models of it), infamous for making the first ever bombing run over Tokyo, 30 seconds over Tokyo, 30 seconds that shattered the illusion the people below had believed whole heartedly about destiny and stuff.

A jet plane? Faster than a WW2 bomber? Heck, faster than pretty much all common WW2 fighters.

I thought of the World Trade Center. I'd been there once, only a couple years before, somewhere around New Year's Eve. It wasn't on New Year's Eve because we were both working for a company that was doing Y2K stuff, and it was Y2K.

(Which, when I think of it, makes me sure that it was the end of 1999 when we visited the Towers.)

I went with someone that, perhaps, in a different world, I'd have asked out at some point. We went to a holiday party together, in the city. Well, on a boat, actually, that was docked somewhat permanently in Lower Manhattan. Afterward, the Twin Towers nearby and in our minds but out of sight, she asked if I wanted to go check them out.

We walked across the plaza, a totally urban environment. I remember wide expanses of concrete. Few people wandered about, making me feel like I was walking inside of an architecture student's drawing, a few random couples walking around the student's masterpiece. The distance between us indicated either a rushed sketch or "not a couple".

A cynic may have pointed out that the distance held promise though.

I don't know how we got up there to the top of the Tower. I remember a brightly lit lobby, signing in or something. Then, in a darker area, maybe under the top floor, a keyboard where you could type messages to people, and the message would be displayed somewhere, I think around the rim of the building. Or maybe beamed to the world.

I typed a hello to my friend.

And then we were out on the roof. I walked around. We were alone.

The building was so tall you couldn't see anything around - no city, no lights, no nothing. The darkness hid a lot, the horizon especially. I could see lights in the air, but if I retreated a bit from the edge, the roof became a platform. I got the sensation that the platform was moving a bit, maybe floating.

Floating in space. Or maybe inside something. Yes, inside.

I felt like I was in a giant cave, a giant dark cave.

When I looked over at the sister tower, I felt a bit of vertigo. I couldn't see the building below the roof, so it looked like the roof was just floating there.

Two squares, floating next to one another in the darkness of an immense cave.

I waited for the Millenium Falcon to come soaring across above us, pursued by the Empire's Tie Fighters. I expected Lando Calrissian to step out from one of the doorways, shadows of unknown beings behind him.

Lando, I figure, would fit in if he landed in New York City. Many of the others in those movies, not so much.

We had a fun, platonic time. I knew I'd want to return, experience the floating platforms again.

I knew very little about the Towers. Someone walked on a tightrope between them. The story said that the buildings sway 18". I believed it but over 1100 feet, that's not a lot.

I sat at my desk. I didn't really know what to do. I wasn't close to the World Trade Center - it wasn't within easy walking distance at any rate, and, later, it'd take me a good 15 minutes of hard riding to get 2/3 of the way from the Towers site.

I didn't know many people in the city. The ones I knew were here, in this office, and we were all fine here.

Someone mentioned it was an attack, not an accident.

I got on the computer. Tried to hit all the news sites. Our connection was sloth-slow, everything timing out. I accidentally hit a bookmark for something, I think it was cycling news, and things loaded fast.

So it wasn't our connection. It was the news sites.

And the bike site I hit resided offshore.

I quickly highlighted ".com" after "" and typed ".ca".

The site came up.

World Trade Center hit.

A shriek from someone. A chorus of shrieks.

"A plane just hit! A plane just hit!"

I looked around in confusion.

"It hit like 15 minutes ago!"

I only remember the emotion on the face. It was a cross between a scream and a cry, but silent.

"No, another plane hit the other one."

Things go blank for a bit there.

I remember sitting at one of our very fancy windows, large, overlooking Third Avenue. Across the top of the sky I could see this brown smoke smudged across the sky. It looked fake, too brown, with too many billow things, and no movement. If I was watching a movie I'd have snorted in disgust. Totally lame special effects.

But this is what reality looked like.

Some of the guys started talking about going down there, seeing what they could do.

More shrieks.

Someone said that people were jumping out of windows.

I thought of a horrible fire in South America. I was a kid when I sat through the TV show, horrified and yet unable to turn away. The building went up in flames. People jumped down, trying to land on the fire truck's pathetically short ladders. They'd bounce off the ladder and down out of view of the camera. Firemen went tumbling too.

I read in another disaster article that a bride and groom ran to the edge of where ever they were. Fire consumed everything behind them. There was a relatively large drop, maybe 10 or 15 feet. The groom jumped, landed, turned around. He screamed to jump, but the bride hesitated.

She died.

If I talk about this to someone, I add the following.

"If I ever tell you to jump in a situation like that, you jump. No hesitation."

I had nightmares of that footage for a long time. And I thought about it at inopportune times, like when I go up into a building tall enough to have an elevator.

When I worked on 38th street, before the company got merged into this one, I worked in an older building, 17 floors tall. We had offices up to the 17th floor (we had three floors, I think 14, 15, and 17). I had vivid nightmares regularly of failing elevators, building fires, and other assorted height + disaster things. When I worked on the 10th floor in my last IT job, I studied the exoskeletal design of the building. I decided that, if necessary, I could climb down from the tenth floor ledge and make it to the ground. I would be scarred for life, yes, but I'd have a life to scar.

On that day, though, we were on the third floor. I felt confident I could jump and just break my legs, maybe my hips. I'd aim for the food vendor carts, with their inviting umbrellas. Or tie a bunch of network cables together and see if I couldn't get down partway before something broke.

My boss, somewhere in there, reported to me that her husband (maybe a fiance still?) had decided to go in late. He was in that underwater tunnel from New Jersey, aboard some train/subway, I think it's called the PATH. He was okay as long as the tunnel didn't collapse.


He was texting his office mates up in one of the Towers. They were in the stairwell, waiting. They couldn't go down - too much smoke. They had no where else to go.

Then more shrieks. I think we were listening to a clock radio - no lag when you're grabbing data transmissions out of the air. No IP addresses, no routers, no firewalls, no nothing. Just a pure stream of data. Clean, too - your clock radio wouldn't get a virus from the radio waves.

But our emotions, those weren't invulnerable.

A Tower went down.


The images went up quickly on the Canadian Yahoo site. I saved the ones of the second plane hitting. I didn't know what I'd do with them, although I pored over them several times. I still have them. Just to remind myself it really happened.

Things were quieter after that. It kind of closed that first portion of whatever this would become. When the Towers stood, we had hope. Now that they were gone... People sobbed. My boss's husband was texting his colleagues when suddenly they wouldn't respond.

They couldn't.

My boss told him what happened.

People react to crisis in different ways.

The brash sales guy who wanted to go down there was pretty quiet. I lost track of him. The shrieking manager was gone too I think. She knew a lot of people there.

Another sales guy was already trying to play the angles. He called his wife to see if the trains were running (the radio said they were shut down). He wanted to wait until the trains started going, then he'd get one and get out of the City, but he didn't want to run out to Grand Central to check. Back at his house the TV worked fine so his wife could get updates.

My closest colleague left for his apartment in Brooklyn. He walked across one of the bridges, like thousands of others. A lot of the programmers did the same thing.

Other folks who lived in the City left too, retreating home, to be with the ones they love, or maybe they didn't, but to be at home.

Hours went by. At some point I got brave enough to try and call one of my former housemates Abs. He's a racer and a guy that worked somewhere downtown. Come to think of it, I realized, I think he worked in the World Trade Center.

The calls just went into voicemail.

I wasn't sure what to do. I left one message.

"Yo, Ab, just checking in, seeing how you're doing. Give me a call back when you get this message."

I hoped for a call back. None came.

It left us long-distance commuters a bit stuck. Only one guy lived up my way, and he was the one trying to figure how to get out of here.

I sat at my desk. The streets, even up here, were full of people walking, dazed, shuffling along.

I sat at my desk, chair turned so it faced the large windows overlooking the Avenue.

A first generation Isuzu Amigo (two door SUV, with kind of a targa top - I know because I wanted one) rolled slowly up the avenue, people clearing out of the way, people strangely tolerant of a car driving in the road.

It looked like it was covered in flour. A dingy flour, but flour nonetheless.

Directly in front of my window they stopped. One of the tires had punctured sometime before, and they'd been driving kind of balanced on the other three big tires.

Slowly, laboriously, they started removing the foreign things that make up a car jack.

I turned back to my desk.

After what seemed like only a few minutes, I turned around.

The Isuzu was gone.

The train guy called out. He said the lines were open. We could get a train home.

I gathered my stuff, not much luckily. We walked out into the streets.


The entrance to Grand Central was a zoo. We went in, then, as the crush got stronger, pushed along like everyone else.

We looked at the train board, where they tell you what train goes where. I realized they didn't say anything that meant anything to me.

Policemen, anchored somehow against the tide, yelled over the crowds. I could only hear one close to me when I was about 15 feet away. He kept yelling the same thing, over and over. When I finally understood what he was yelling, I imagined he'd be doing this for the next hour or three.

"Hudson Line, Upper Level. New Haven Line, Lower Level."

The train lines split once outside of the city. One branch follows the Hudson River and heads north. The New Haven line follows the coast line to the east and heads out in a more northeast direction. I take the New Haven line, although a few times I inadvertently boarded the wrong train and found myself heading out on the Hudson Line.

"How do I know what stops it'll make?"
"Lady, every train will stop at every stop"
"Where do we get tickets?"
"All trains are free today. One way. Out."

I relayed this to my colleague. I think I lost him shortly thereafter.

Lower Level, I thought, usually means the diesel trains. But, luckily, this was the normal electric one, a bit more room, a little more substantial in the walls, less naked feeling when walking between cars.

I made it onto a relatively empty train, sat in one of the less comfortable seats, I think normally reserved for a conductor, trying to leave room for others.

People kept boarding. The aisle became not just one person wide, but two wide, sometimes three.

An elder woman looked like she was getting crushed a few feet away. I gestured to her. Others noticed. Unbelievably, as tightly packed as they were, they made room for her. She got into the area of respite where I sat, the walls on two sides and the seat in front making it a "crushproof" zone.

The train started with an unavoidable jerk. People groaned, stoically, but no one yelled at one another. Instead, I heard a wave of apologies and "Don' worry 'bout its".

The driver came on the intercom and apologized. He laid out the rules. He'll try and start easy but it's hard with the overloaded trains. He'll let us know when we're starting off, when we're stopping.

He continued. We stop at every stop. We wait for everyone to get off who needs to get off. We wait for everyone who needs to get back on to get back on. And we keep going. It would be a long day, he promised, but he'd get us home. He promised that too.

I lost track of the stops, but after a few stops the aisles were only two wide.

I looked out the window at each stop. When I realized what I was looking at, I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As the train rolled in, we'd pass EMT after EMT, standing on the platforms, stretchers ready lined up, stethoscopes and face masks around their necks, the sharp contrast of dark pants and white, badged shirts. They looked in the windows expectantly, ready to load the wounded. Ambulances lined the drop off areas, ready to zoom off to the hospitals.

We could only look back helplessly, our tears and faces betraying our emotions.

There were no wounded.


I don't remember much of what happened at home. I felt drained, that's for sure.

A long time later, maybe that night, the phone rang. It was Abs.

"What's up? Where are you?", I cried out frantically.
"I'm at home. Why?"
"I tried to call you a zillion times today, but it just went into voicemail."
"I tried to get to the office but they wouldn't let us through. So I just came back home."
"Oh, man, I was worried you died. Because tonight was, would have been, Floyd Bennett, and you go in early so you can race and if you went in early... Holy crap. I'm glad you're okay."

He told me, much later, that in the morning, when he got there at 9-ish, not knowing the drama unfolding above ground, he tried to get past police blocking the way up to the Towers.

"You can't go up."
"But I need my laptop!"
"You cannot go up there. Turn around and go home."

The cop gave Abs a disbelieving look. At the time Abs had no idea why, but now he understood. But for some reason, at that moment, Abs was fixated on getting his laptop. Instead, he turned around and went home.

Obviously he never got that laptop.


One night, maybe a week later, I read that a local beach was closed. The Marines were using it for a land base for an aircraft carrier stationed in the Long Island Sound.

I told my mom, who was staying with me while dealing with chemo. Offered to drive her out to see it. The Navy was obviously worried more about a terrorist attack than a military one because the ship stayed brightly lit all night long, making for a spectacular view that was impossible to capture on any camera I owned.

If this was real war, the carrier would have been a sitting duck to a slew of anti ship missiles and the like.

But this was not that kind of war. The waters were green with light, like they illuminated the ocean itself, not just the surface. The ship looked like it was in a hot tub with the lights turned on.

We drove out to one beach, the one that makes for a 45 minute ride if I got there and back. We paused a bit to see the carrier. Then we kept going along the shore, past the closed beach, on to the next beach, a small one. I'd brought my mom here to see a Leonid meteor shower maybe a year prior, when she wasn't doing well. Ultimately we could see better in a parking lot just down the street from the house, but I'd come here first. A light over a beach house ruined it for meteors, but for carriers it was fine.

I parked the car. My mom looked out at the carrier.

It represented an incredible amount of destructive power. Jets flew over regularly, reminding me of the fighters I'd see flying over in Holland. I imagined the US Navy pilots looking at the confusing scope, hundreds and hundreds of vehicles milling about on the ground, many parked to watch the plane's mothership, all potential enemies. The mothership sat vulnerable to attack, sitting still in a narrow channel of water.

When my mom was a girl, the same military force tried to bomb her country into submission. Now, this was her home. And the military planes overhead represented protection.

I don't know if that's what she thought of. Or of something she'd rather not talk about, like pain. Of mortality. Fear.

We stared out at the water for some time.

I turned to my mom.

"Should we go home?"

She nodded.


Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for sharing this.


Anonymous said...

My recollections of that day was taking my daughter to get her braces on and having breakfast at a diner in Ridgefield with my sister visiting from Cali. I saw the first plane hit on the tv and then started to think how could that happen. Then when i saw the second plane hit I knew something was definitely wrong. We hurried up to pay the bill and get home so I could put the news on again. I also had to re-route my sister on other directions, because she was supposed to drive down to Philadelphia. I knew exactly when the second plane hit that ALL bridges, tunnels, and trains out of NYC would be closed. So for her to go the original way I had mapped out was just not going to work.

I remember being a beer sales rep for New Amsterdam Beer back in 1985 and having Windows on the World as one of my accts. My first meeting with the F&B director we were standing by one of the window overlooking NJ. I asked him " don't you feel nervous being up so high? What if someone flew a plane into the building?" He told me that that would never happen and that when the Empire state building was hit, it stayed upright and intact. So he wasn't worried. I always had a sinking feeling every time I went on a sales call. I was so grateful when the acct. was given to another sales rep.