After Brian and I talked last night and shared some of our memories of 9/11, it occurred to me that I have never written my memories down. It also occurred to me as we shared different versions of how things had transpired that I really should put my current memories in text form as I am sure those memories will continue to change as the years pass. So with that, today’s blog is devoted to 9/11 and the memories that I hope to hold with me forever, not because they are pleasant, but because we mustn’t forget.
The thing that always struck me about the stories from the survivors from New York was that most everyone starts their story by saying what a perfect day it was. As regular readers of this blog know, I am one who really appreciates a great-weather day. If I’m writing about lakefront runs and the day happens to be one with turquoise, cloudless skies, I will likely talk about how happy the blue sky made me feel and what a smile it brought to me face.
When I interviewed a 9/11 survivor from the Chicago area five years ago for a five-year 9/11 anniversary story, he, too, talked about what a perfect day it was. He described walking to work that day to the World Trade Center, where he was doing contract IT work, and remembered how blue the sky was. I told him that so many people talked about how perfect the day had been weather-wise and I asked him why he thought that was such an important detail for so many people to note. What he said has always stuck with me.
He said that on days that perfect, you can’t help but feel in love with life. Especially on a late summer day in places like New York and Chicago, where you know your summer-like days are limited. You are walking to work, the sky is perfect and you can’t help but smile. The thought of something tragic happening never enters your mind. But when the worst tragedy you can ever I imagine unfolds before your eyes, just moments after you have basked in the gloriousness of a beautiful late summer day, you are reminded in the most painful way possible how unfair and fragile life can be, he said.
I think about that often when I am appreciating a beautiful day. I force myself to imagine how quickly a perfect day could, in an instant, turn into my worst nightmare as it did for so many thousand people. But I also realize we have to appreciate beauty at every opportunity since tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.
On the morning of 9/11 as Brian prepared to report for jury duty in the far north suburbs and I got ready for a regular work day, I remember we had some sort of tiff. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was about, exactly, but I know it was something so trivial it would be on the level of leaving the cap off the toothpaste or not changing the toilet paper roll.
Brian left to catch the train up north and I continued getting ready in the bathroom as the TV continued to play in the living room. I heard the familiar musical chime indicating breaking news so I walked into the living room to see what was going on. A plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I watched in disbelief wondering how in the heck a pilot could drive a plane into the tower. There was speculation it might be the result of a terror attack. I continued to watch and later saw what appeared to be an explosion. Soon I learned it was a second plane hitting the other tower.
At this point, I remember calling Brian, although Brian remembers me calling before the second plane hit and before it was clear we were under attack. But either way, as I watched the buildings burn, I couldn’t help but think of the stupid argument Brian and I had just hours before. As I watched, I thought there is likely a woman in New York right now whose loved one is in one of those buildings, and she is watching the terror unfold, the same as I, and she is thinking that she never kissed him goodbye because she was pissed about the toothpaste cap or the toilet paper roll. It was too heart-wrenching to think about.
A short while later, reports came out that the Pentagon had been hit. I remember sitting on the arm of my sofa, burying my head in my hands, and thinking “oh dear god, what is happening to us, to this country?” That is the first and only time in my life I was overwhelmed with feelings of despair, feelings that nothing would ever be ok again.
I continued watching in horror and saw the south tower collapse before my eyes. I was numb.
I called Brian back. He said he was on his way back downtown, the court house had been evacuated and there would be no jury duty. He asked if I had heard from my work and if not, I should just stay home. At the time we lived very close to the Sears Tower. As I watched the cloud of rubble from the tower collapse change that blue sky to black, I heard myself tell Brian, “I’ll feel safer going to the office.”
I got ready to leave, somehow knowing the north tower would be down by the time I made the 15 minute walk to my office building. I turned off the TV and headed to the door.
There were parking lots on both sides of our building that were used mostly by traders from the Board of Trade. By the time I usually made it out of the building most mornings, the traders were already long at work and the parking lot was quiet. This day, I walked out and saw a sea of colorful jackets walking not towards the trading floors, but away from them in a mass exodus. Many of them were crying.
Through the sea of people, I made it to the street and then had to turn my head back to look at the Sears Tower. I just stopped and stared at it, trying to imagine what it was like for those on the streets of New York, looking up at the World Trade Center towers and seeing a plane fly right into the side of them. The thought was overwhelming and I started to cry.
As I passed a crew of city workers, they were standing around a truck with the radio on. “The second tower just came down!” I heard one of them yell. A few minutes later I walked into my office building and the doorman in the lobby greeted me with a somber look on his face. “New York has just turned into Armageddon,” I remember him saying.
When I made it to my desk, my co-workers were just starting to arrive, as well. We all sat at our computers feverishly hitting the refresh button, looking for more information. It was there I learned of Flight 93 crashing in the fields of Shanksville, PA. Soon after, my mom called to see if I was ok. As soon as she heard my voice, she broke down. “All of those poor people. There’s just so many of them who just died.” We stayed on the phone for probably 15 minutes, not saying anything, just crying.
Around lunch time, we all piled in the conference room. We were supposed to have had a business lunch with consultants that day. The lunch had been canceled but somehow the catered food still arrived. We sat around the table eating our catered lunch and talked about how we could cover the days events. I was working at a monthly investigative magazine that covered race and poverty issues. At this point, it was starting to become clear that it was a Muslim extremist group that was responsible. We agreed that the impact on the Muslim community was the story that made sense for us.
My fellow reporters were sent to various mosques in and around the city to get reactions from the imams and others. I was the political reporter, so I was sent to cover Mayor Daley’s reaction. His office had scheduled a press conference at the city’s 911 control center in the west loop for later that afternoon.
I remember telling my editor later that all I felt was a sense of utter confusion. The city knew it had to do something, but that there was no manual for how to handle a terror threat. Someone at the press conference asked if there had been threats on the Sears Tower, because there was rumors that there had been. They had also evacuated the building. The police chief said they considered the whole city a target and would concentrate on protecting the obvious landmarks such as the Sears Tower, Navy Pier and Board of Trade.
The police chief said a no parking zone went into affect for areas surrounding those landmarks. I remember a reporter for the Sun-Times, who shall remain nameless, kept asking questions about parking tickets and towing and how could they do that without proper signage. As the police chief patiently answered her questions, Mayor Daley was visibly getting more irritated as the line of questioning continued. Finally, he couldn’t take any more and blurted out, “Look, the country is under attack here. We’ve got more things to worry about that whether or not parking restrictions are fair.”
Then someone else asked the question I was sent to ask, which was how the city planned to protect the Muslim community from retaliatory attacks. It seemed apparent they hadn’t thought about it but said something to the affect of, they would increase patrols around the mosques if requested. Back at the office, I heard from co-workers who had already witnessed cars driving by yelling hateful things in front of the mosques and the imams reporting hateful phone calls. I wondered how bad life would become for them.
Later that evening, Brian and I were reunited at home. We didn’t say much, just stayed glued to the TV. He had been trying all day to reach his friend Matt and step-sister Laura, both of whom lived in New York. He finally reached them both and called both families to tell them all was ok.
We went out and met our friends at Kasey’s, our neighborhood hangout. A group of about five of us sat outside on the patio tables and talked about how eerie the sky was with no planes. I wondered how long it would be until we felt some sense of normalcy again.
It seemed like for several months we watched nothing but MSNBC every night. I think it was an attempt to make some sense of what had happened, and also to feel some sense of happiness when we heard the stories of survival. Over the past few days, seeing those same images again on TV has had an impact on me. I realize I am still trying to make sense of it all. But I also realize there’s still plenty to be happy about. For one, we haven’t had to relive a similar moment since that day 10 years ago.