September 11, 2011 by themommahen
**Please allow me the self-indulgence of this post. My story and recollection of 9/11 isn’t unique, nor is it particularly compelling, but it was important to me to document it. I would love to hear others’ stories, and would be more than happy to share some space here for anyone who would like it. Thanks.
I was running early, a rare occurrence. I had a 9am conference call with a very, ummm, difficult, yeah, I’ll use that diplomatic word, client and being late to a call was enough to get you called out in front of everyone at best, and called into our group leader’s office, at worst. It was the height of the tech bubble, and pressures were high to keep clients happy, no matter how bad their business model was or how nasty they might treat us. We spent a lot of time lamenting how bad we had it, in cubicle land in our ivory tower with the only windows reserved for management-level employees, working to line other people’s pockets, putting in long hours because we had too many clients and our clients had too much money to spend.
I hardly ever watched the morning news shows. I know, heresy for someone in the PR field. Just never got into the morning news formats. Besides, I was usually too late, too harried and it was too tempting to sink down into the sofa and not get up. So I’d usually turn the TV on, catch the weather (with the best meteorologist ever) and go about my morning, occasionally watching for the few minutes while the husband had our miniscule bathroom to himself.
That morning was no different. Except I was up early. So early, in fact, that I was showered, dressed and ready to go by 7:40, except for brushing my teeth. So while I waited for the husband, who had just woken up, to come out of the bathroom, I tuned in to WGN. I sat there, mindlessly watching while thinking about the coming day and dreading my conference call. Then they went to breaking news. At first, since I was watching local news, I thought they were showing the building I worked in with a gaping hole and smoke billowing out. I sat up, grabbed the remote and turned up the volume to hear that a small plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Details were sketchy at best.
Honestly, I didn’t really think that much about it. Crazy, really, when I look back at it. Why would it at all seem normal, or rather not so abnormal, for a small plane to hit a skyscraper? Because I was blissfully naïve, I guess.
I yelled into the bathroom to relay to the husband what was going on.
“A small plane hit the Twin Towers.”
“A small plane hit the Twin Towers. It’s on WGN right now. Breaking news.”
“Are you serious? What kind of plane?”
“I don’t know. They don’t know. Guessing a small private plane.”
The husband came out, still groggy with sleep, but waking up quickly upon seeing the live footage.
We watched. We listened. We wondered. We had no idea what was going on. Turns out no one did.
We, like many others, were watching the breaking news when the second plane came into the shot. Disbelieving what we were seeing. Questioning if we were possibly seeing what we thought we were seeing. What was wrong with that plane?! Didn’t it know there had been an accident in the other tower just minutes ago?
And just like that, we were slammed into reality with the disgusting, sickening crash of the second plane into the second tower. That’s when we all knew this was no accident.
But we still couldn’t believe it. Even as the husband told me this was bad, very, very bad, neither of us could grasp that it could really be that very, very bad. After all, I had a client conference call and he had to go to work. Those kinds of things don’t go away just because of some planned attack.
Planned attack? Could that really be what that was? Surely this is all some misunderstanding, some sick mistake. God, please.
I remember looking at the husband. Searching for some reassurance that this was just…I don’t know what…not real? Okay? Not the beginning of WWIII? He gave me what I was looking for. I now know he was in shock and couldn’t process what was happening quickly enough. None of us could.
How many people are in those buildings? How many dead? Hundreds? Certainly thousands, right? Dear God, what is going on?
I didn’t know what to do. I had the call. I couldn’t be late. But would we really have a call now? In my hazy disbelief, I thought surely we won’t have the call. Surely we shouldn’t even go in. What if…what if there are more planes? The Aon Center is the second tallest building in Chicago and it’s right on the lake. And it looks like the WTC, just a little shorter. There were already two planes, maybe there would be more.
I called my supervisor, a naturally stoic and unflappable woman I’d worked with for four years. She was either on her way in or already there and while she knew about the attacks, she hadn’t heard anything from anyone canceling, so we had to assume the call was still on. It was a quick call. I hung up feeling sick. I just wanted to stay on my sofa in my tiny shoebox of a condo on the El tracks and watch the news. But I had a conference call, and telecommuting and dialing in from home hadn’t really caught on yet. Ironically, widespread acceptance for those practices were right around the corner, borne out of necessity the next few days and weeks as travel plummeted.
So I left. Too late to catch the redline, I hustled down to catch a cab. As usual, I did with ease, stepping into a Yellow Cab within seconds of walking to the corner of Armitage and Sheffield. The probably three minutes it too me to walk there seemed like a lifetime in a world with no smartphones. I jumped in the cab and realized immediately the radio wasn’t on.
“Would you please turn on the radio?” I asked urgently but politely.
“The radio?” my driver asked in a thick Middle Eastern accent.
“Yes, please,” I said, more impatient now.
“Oh okay, if you wish,” he said nonchalantly.
“Didn’t you hear about New York?” I asked incredulously as he slowly fumbled with the tuner.
“New York? The planes? Yes, I know. I know,” he said, completely nonplussed.
I wanted to scream at him. Then I noticed the turban. And I was fearful of him. He didn’t seem to care about what had happened in New York. He wasn’t even listening to the radio. He wore a turban. The media had already begun to speculate on who might be behind the acts if they were indeed planned attacks. I’m not proud of my reaction to him. But at the time I didn’t know what was going on, who was behind it, if there was more to come,if Chicago was a target. He turned on the radio and kept talking to me about how this was destined to happen, that American had brought it on ourselves and we had many enemies. I asked him to be quiet so I could listen to the radio. It was only minutes before they broke in with the news of the Pentagon. I thought the same thing millions of others did at that moment.
This was no accident. God, why?
I called the husband, he was trying to call me, he was calm, my voice was shaking. Should I still go in to work? He didn’t know. Should he? He said yes. I was worried about my building but I was also worried about his. The State of Illinois Center always had random threats against it. He was sure that anyone attacking the US collectively wouldn’t be too concerned about Illinois singularly. I wasn’t convinced. The fear that gripped me that day dug its claws in hard. From the time the second plane hit was when it took hold, for me anyway.
Then I was at my building. I paid hurriedly and got out, looking to the sky for wayward planes and the tops of Chicago’s skyscrapers for fire or smoke. The husband called me back. The news was reporting that the Sears Tower and my building were being evacuated. No one was coming out yet; apparently the media was notified before the tenants, something that would never happen today. I half-walked-half-ran inside. A few people were running out. I got to my elevator deck and a building employee was there. She confirmed that the building was getting ready for a full evacuation. I called my supervisor again up on the 64th floor. She was watching the coverage there and was now fearful but still a bit in shock and didn’t know what to do. I told her about the evacuations and she said she’d call the client and see if they wanted to cancel. I reminded her they were in Alexandria, so they might be evacuating too. Becoming more frustrated and frantic, I told her I was going home and she should too. Now. We hung up, I turned on my heel and got out. As was usually the case at that time of morning, there were no cabs anywhere. They were still out in the neighborhoods picking people up to bring them to work, not lined up to take people places from work. Then a lone cab pulled up in front of the building and a man got out. I asked him if I could take it. He and the driver said yes. I started to get in and then stopped and yelled at the guy.
“Hey, excuse me, but they’re getting ready to evacuate this building.”
“Really? Oh, okay.”
“So do you need to go somewhere else? We can share the cab if you need to. There aren’t any others around.”
“Nah, I’ll go on up and see what’s going on. Be safe.”
“Thanks, you too.”
I found out later that getting a cab was virtually impossible after they evacuated.
I sank in the cab, all my senses on full alert. I called friends I knew might either not be at work yet or might be getting ready to leave. Some intrinsic pull made me want to be with others and make sure none of my friends were alone that day. I got in touch with two of them and invited them to come over. One I worked with, one a fraternity brother of the husband’s. He worked in the financial industry in the Sears Tower and was evacuated. When the first planes hit, he had been on a conference call with colleagues in the WTC. Their phones had gone dead.
I got home and the husband met me at the door, voice shaking, eyes wet.
“One of the towers fell.”
“It fell. It’s gone.”
We hugged and then we thought about the Irish. There was a group of guys from Ireland who had rented an apartment in our building for the summer. They were scheduled to fly back to Ireland that night, and we knew they had most likely spent the evening before living up their last night in America. Dan left to knock on their door and rouse them.
While he was gone, the second tower fell. I watched in stunned silence, tears streaming down my face. The husband came back and I told him the second tower fell. A few minutes later the report came in about a fourth plane down in Pennsylvania. Rumors were rampant – there was a fire at the National Mall, a fifth plane was heading towards Washington, Another plane was heading for the Sears Tower. The networks implemented the now customary crawl on the bottom of the screen in an attempt to keep news coming. We couldn’t get enough of the news, as if somehow the reporters would be able to make sense of this for us. Because we certainly couldn’t.
Our shoebox became a home base for the Irish boys. With no money (I’ll never forget them telling us they had “spent their last Benjamin” the night before), no phone, and now no flight, they were stranded indefinitely. Ever the Momma Hen, I was adamant that they all call their mothers immediately, which they did from our phone. The remainder of the day, our phone rang, their mothers on the other end, their brogue thickly braided with worry. They thanked us profusely for taking care of their sons, and if we weren’t already, we were now all connected for life. Crisis and tragedy are funny things that way.
Julie and Chad arrived and we gathered in our tiny shoebox with our newly adopted greyhound and watched. Half a block from our condo was our church. We walked by it on our way to buy beer. People were walking in and out, pained faces, some crying. We thought about going in, but had Cosmo with us, and between the shock of the morning’s events and the newness of having a dog, we couldn’t figure out how to go to church and leave our fresh-off-the-track retired racer alone outside without him strangling himself with the leash. So we walked to the store and bought a case of beer. Turns out many people were making choices between the greater powers of religion and alcohol that day. I still remember the CNN crawl repeatedly saying something like “people gather in churches and bars” as the day went on. We thought it was a funny thing to report. Now we know that the reaction to what was happening was news in and of itself.
I didn’t fly for a while, as long as I could hold out. I canceled my plans to fly home for my 10th high school reunion, less than two weeks after 9/11. We drove home for Thanksgiving and Christmas visits instead of flying. We blamed it on having a dog and wanting to bring him, but the truth was I never wanted to fly again if I didn’t have to. One of my last flights for work before 9/11 was into Reagan National, for a meeting with the same client I was supposed to have that morning’s conference call with. I was secretly happy when I got pulled off that account, and not only because the client in fact had not understood why we canceled that conference call. (I was forming a quick viewpoint of the types of people I wanted to work with and for, even though I had no authority on the matter, and they were setting an archetype for the type that lived in the “no” column.) The other reason, though, was that I wasn’t ready to take that flight again yet. And several years later, when another, much more reasonable and likable client wanted me to tentatively plan on a trip to NYC on 9/11, I felt that familiar flurry of panic in my belly, so much so that I actually couldn’t hold it in and address it at a more reasonable time. With my supervisors, clients and teammates in the room, I said in a strained voice
“I’m not sure I can fly into New York on 9/11.”
Everyone looked at me like I had two heads. Then my client, who had to go, softened and said she understood, she didn’t really want to do that either. Her understanding just made me feel worse for some reason.
I remember the day with brutal clarity and detail. I remember what I changed into when I got home. I remember the brilliant blue sky with hardly any clouds at all. I remember the uncomfortable stillness and quiet resulting from no planes in the sky. I remember the sudden thought of my father, that he was supposed to be in New York or DC, I couldn’t remember which, and I feverishly called home and his cell, getting no answer. I remember finally talking to my mom, and then my dad. His trip had gotten changed and he was traveling, but not in either of those cities. I remember waiting for each of my parents to tell me it was okay, things were going to be okay. I remember they never did, couldn’t, and the sickening realization that my parents couldn’t reassure me. Now that I’m a parent, I can’t imagine the helplessness they must have felt with me living a thousand miles away in a big city, unable to tell me everything was okay.
It’s almost as if, on that day took life took on a different color or hue. Forever changed, altered, broken, I looked at everything differently, more guarded. It’s harder for me to remember life before 9/11. When you could go to the airport gate without a ticket and didn’t have to partially undress to go through security and all you had to answer were two simple questions that became rote:
“Did you pack your bags yourself?”
“Have they been with you at all times?”
I remember joking,
“Seriously, is a terrorist really going to say no?”
I don’t remember what the lobby of my building looked like before the security gates were put in. I do remember how, starting the morning after 9/11 and lasting until the new automatic gates were installed, we all stood in lines for bag searches and ID checks to get into the building. It seems strange to me now to think we never did that before. Innocence, and so much more, lost.
Pre- and post-911. It’s like there’s a dividing line in my life, less defined in some ways than so many others. I lost only a sense of security. A small price to pay, comparatively speaking.
I remember going into work late the next day, Julie and I together on an empty redline. We couldn’t believe businesses were open. How could we go on like nothing had happened? Of course, the whole “if we stop our normal lives, they win” mantra took over and we became proud to say we went into work the next day. Wore it like a badge of honor.
“Up yours, terrorists.”
I remember the threats, the rumors, the evacuations in the next days, weeks and months. We gathered in churches and bars and swore we would never forget, never become immune, never be duped again.
“These colors don’t run.”
“I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
I remember. I remember. I remember.
Photo credit: Flickr