A TGB READER STORY: The Lessons of Asymmetry
Living Large in Old Age

18 Years Ago Today Since 9/11

EDITORIAL NOTE: When important days – birthdays, certain holidays, change of seasons, anniversaries – come 'round, I pay closer attention to these than I might have in the past because, given my cancer diagnosis, I might not be here for the next one.

Eighteen years ago today, terrorists attacked the United States killing nearly 3,000 people. We call it just “9/11” nowadays – everyone knows what that means - and it looms large for me still.

Below is the blog post I wrote for the fifth anniversary of the attacks. I've edited it lightly for clarity and some embarrassing writing choices but no facts or thoughts or opinions are changed.

It's a good deal longer than I usually publish but – well, that's how it is.

* * *

FROM THE ARCHIVES - 11 September 2006:

In the late 1950s, there was an excellent television drama titled The Naked City set, of course, in New York. The show's tagline was, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them." And so it is today on Time Goes By, one small story among millions:

In the late summer of 2001, I was 60 years old, unemployed since the overnight demise, 13 months earlier, of the dotcom where I had been vice president of editorial and interactive.

The stack of printouts and folders on my desk had reached a height of two inches – more than a year’s worth of email and snailmail job applications, cover letters, lists of potential employment contacts, headhunters, notes of telephone conversations, rejection letters, follow-up schedules and spreadsheets tracking it all.

As everyone in the world would soon know, the morning of 11 September dawned gloriously cool, bright and sunny - a good day, if you were not working, to go to the park, stroll the city streets or bicycle down the urban path toward the World Trade Center. But not for me.

The wolf had been scratching at my door for many weeks and on top of that stack of job search detritus was a list of contacts I intended to call as soon as offices opened.

By shortly after 8AM, I had been at my desk for a couple of hours working on a design for what would, before long, become my first blog (not this one). I only half listened to CBS News Radio88 in the background, the usual litany of national and local politics, deliberate and accidental death, and celebrity stories to fill in the blanks between commercials.

Then the breaking-news alert sounded. I remember groaning; it would be just another fender bender or commuter traffic snarl breathlessly reported as though it were the start of World War III.

But instead, the news reader said something about an airplane and the World Trade Center. I dashed to the bedroom to turn on the television and saw to my horror that perhaps it was, this time, World War III.

It’s the little things in life that can turn me into a crazed harridan. When the big things happen, I am calm and rational, running potential next steps through my mind and then taking action, if any is needed. My lifelong broadcast career training kicked in; I needed to get to the office right away to help cover the story. But I had no office to go to. So, I phoned a journalist friend who was recently retired from full-time work.

“It’s like the Empire State Building years ago,” he said.“Some pilot lost his way.”

“No way,” said I. For three years, I had worked in an office on 11th Avenue overlooking the Hudson where I had watched planes large and small move up and down the river all day. I knew that 1: no planes are allowed to fly over Manhattan and 2: pilots are taught to ditch, when something goes wrong, in water and there is plenty of that around Manhattan.

“It’s a terrorist attack,” I told my friend (which we all know now came horribly true).

As soon as we hung up, the phone rang - my upstairs neighbor. His wife took their two boys to school in Brooklyn each day by subway and then returned home. She was late, he said. He just knew she had stopped to shop, as was her habit a couple of times a week, at a clothing store across the street from the World Trade Center. He knew she didn’t have a cell phone with her and he was terrified.

My Greenwich Village apartment was half a block from the intersection of Sixth Avenue, a major north/south artery, and Houston Street. For 20 years, it had been my private ritual, as I left home each morning, to check north for a view of the Empire State Building and then south to check the twin towers of the World Trade Center. If they were there then all was right, I liked to believe, with my world.

A second, less uplifting ritual – mental exercise, really - that began following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, was my now-and-then attempt to calculate, should a Trade Center building fall over northward, whether the top of it would crash into my townhouse.

My conclusion had been that it didn’t matter. Even if it didn’t reach as far as my block, the concussion would probably kill me. You shrug in the face of such potential catastrophe you can't control and get on with life. But my mind wandered back to it from time to time.

On that morning five years ago, my upstairs neighbor and I sat watching television near his phone waiting, hoping, silently praying to all the gods the world has ever worshiped to let us hear from his wife. We took turns joining neighbors at the corner of Sixth and Houston, staring south to the fire and smoke and, before long, the collapse of the buildings.

Within an hour or so, my neighbor’s wife telephoned from a friend’s house in SoHo and soon, sitting on our stoop together, we saw her, covered in soot, walking toward us. Later, she told us her story:

Yes, she had been shopping at that store and was just entering the stairs to the subway in the lower concourse of the World Trade Center when there was a tremendous noise above. It shook the entire building, she said. Debris was raining down as she and everyone raced out and away, not looking back. She hadn’t known what had happened until she reached her friend’s house.

I heard many more stories that day. I spent much of it sitting on my stoop and as thousands of survivors walked north on Sixth Avenue toward their homes, some turned into my street.

The first time, I was surprised when a stranger in a dusty business suit, carrying a briefcase plopped himself down beside me and wept on my shoulder as he told me his story. When he had collected himself enough to head home, another stopped, and another, sometimes two and three at a time. We wept together for the dead, for ourselves and for our city.

That evening, the journalist friend I had spoken with in the morning came by and we walked Greenwich Village looking for a place to eat dinner. Hardly any restaurants were open and those that were, were crammed with people, most of them strangers to one another just wanting to be with other people. We joined them and then wandered over to Washington Square Park where thousands of others had gathered too.

The next morning, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood, but by then, sadly, it wasn’t necessary – too few injured survivors - and I was turned away.

Home-made posters with photos of the missing were posted on many buildings in the neighborhood. Spontaneous memorials with American flags, candles, flowers, prayer cards and notes had appeared on street corners.

The authorities shut down traffic except for emergency vehicles below 14th Street for the next four days, and we used the winding Greenwich Village streets as the cowpaths they once were, ignoring street lights and crosswalks, walking where whim took us.

During those days, knots of people – sometimes neighbors, sometimes strangers – gathered here and there. The first question, carefully worded, was always, “Is everyone you know okay?” Sometimes they were; sometimes they weren’t. Often we just stood together silently for awhile, stunned still by the events of that terrible day.

Three weeks later, at last, I was offered a job and a week after that, I was on a plane to Florida for a conference. Planes approaching New York travel up the Hudson River and then turn right toward LaGuardia Airport. On my return from Florida, I deliberately chose a window seat on the Manhattan side of the plane because although I had seen the aerial photos of Ground Zero, I wanted to see it "for real".

The size of the devastation was shocking. I'd had no idea that so much of downtown was gone. A big, ugly, open sore on the city, much larger than any photo or video had conveyed.

The first anniversary of 9/11 hit me as hard as the first anniversary of the deaths of loved ones I’ve buried. I mourned for the dead, for the kind of world we had come to live in now, and for the damage done to my city.

It disturbs me that from the day of the attack – and still – when I have stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, I can’t remember which buildings the World Trade Center towered above. It feels as though my lack of attention all those years to their exact location in the sky is a betrayal.

I am sorry for that.



Comments

I've thought only briefly about the attack, kind of wanting to acknowledge it, but avoid the feelings. Then I read this blog and had goosebumps all over my body...the body knows that feelings like this are rare, and yet must be endured. Yes, a great silence, a great loss. And I thought how you might have been breathing the dusty smoky air in Manhattan. The human sharing of tragedy.

My father died on September 11, 2002, so this anniversary is always a double whammy for me. I have been thinking about 9/11/01 all morning, looking at the clock and recalling the timeline. I still find myself coming to attention when watching a movie filmed in New York. In older films, I look to see if I can see the twin towers. And in more recent films, I search the sky looking for where they would have been.


9/11 is my Pearl Harbor, and with it, as in WW II, an awareness of the “other”—someone who doesn’t look like me—and I am sorry for that.

Wow, what a read, Ronni! Though states away from the horror of that day, it is in sharp focus still. All the sights, reactions, emotions, fear for the future, sorrow for those lives forever altered.

I remember working on a sculpture, a large woman's head with birds flying around her crown, a hopeful piece. One bird was finished to my satisfaction. Determined to finish it the next day, to hold to hope, belief in the universe, I was back at work on the birds............by evening, I understood I could not. The birds looked like messengers of death. And I understood that I had to accept that, all that sorrow.

Thanks, Ronni, for this brilliant and moving remembrance. For us in Washington, there was a similar sense of shock and unreality as the black smoke from the Pentagon swirled through an azure sky. We sat in our office conference room, watching the TV in silence, and then running to call everyone we knew. "Are you safe?" "Just come home!" "I love you!" Northern Virginia lacks the urban density of New York, so there was no counterpart to your communal gatherings. But many of us wept on our porches, knowing that our world would never be the same.


Thank you for posting this beautiful piece. There are no words to describe the emotions and memories it evoked.

I'm glad you re-posted this well-written essay.

As usual I am in awe of your story telling brilliance, I felt I was there at the scene.
I count on your insight and ability to translate that insight into a form everyone can feel and see through your eyes. Thank you for many years of reading pleasure.

Thank you for this, Ronni. I woke up, here in Seattle, to the news on the radio, and my first thought was that it was a prank. Then, half awake, I thought, oh no, war! What's going to happen next. Then I turned on the tv. I love New York and felt as if a beloved person had been ravaged.

My adult children, whose tv's are not as good as mine, came over and we watched the news all day. I took my dog to the dog park to experience innocent canine mayhem. Over time, I learned that those I knew in New York were ok. I cannot believe it's been 18 years since then!

Maybe your post that I’d put off reading but just read will now release the overwhelming physical and emotional awfulness I’d felt all day. (I attributed it to unexpected major dental expenses and a WaPo article about ppl like me-on opioids for severe chronic pain - who are being thrown out with those getting high.) But reading. It all came back. My friend, Steph, and I in TX for work, in diff cities. He finding a car to get East bc his brother worked in the Trade Center, wondering if I wanted to go with. (I was training a group and couldn’t leave them for what turned to a week as DCA was closed.) I worried about him all his drive back. And learning his brother died was awful as I felt how he must have pushed through to get back East.

And today I watched Bush II with (why!) Rumsfeld lay a wreath at the Pentagon.

My arms have been heavy all day. Crying as I read this I understood. Maybe I can let go of a bit. But maybe not.

Nothing has been the same since. It never will be.

What a story, Ronni. Thank you.

I find it unbearable to think about that black day for long. We were living just outside DC in Alexandria, and could see the smoke from the Pentagon. I remember wondering if I-95 South would be turned into an evacuation route.

Just as the Oklahoma City bombing changed my assumptions about this country, so did 9/11. You can't cry enough tears for the innocents killed, and for our brave countrymen who saved a few and retrieved the dead.

I am not religious, but find myself thinking "God have mercy on us".

Another NYC story of 9/11 : I was teaching a 9am class at Columbia University. A student walked in and said "a plane went into the World Trade Center." We all commented that it must have been a pilot error but as the 2 hours rolled on thoughts of my husband, an attorney who had a court appearance that morning, went through my head. As I walked out of the building (SIPA School of International and Public Affairs) at 11, there were students gathered about a TV but - and here is the crazy thing - tours were still being given and folks were strolling around campus like nothing was wrong. We hit Broadway and saw the subway closed, I took 2 buses home and then - another crazy thing - changed from teaching clothes to sneakers and sweats. I was going down to find my husband? Then realized impossible, best to wait by the phone for a call. My phone was ringing off the hook and I kept saying "no" I'm waiting . perhaps he'll call " (Knowing my husband did not have a cell and was unlikely to ask to borrow one I knew it was a long shot but I had to take it. ) Then, about 3:00, I hear a key in the lock (He didn't even Knock. How could he not know I was sitting there waiting!!) . His shirt is drenched in sweat, his face is bright red, and he says, "I need a coke. " This dear 72 year old man, post stroke with the heart condition that was later to take his life . had slowly walked the miles home - stopping to rest often along the way. I was teaching 2 classes that semester and, the next day, I called each of the students to see how they were doing. Only one had lost someone, but Everyone had a story. And the stories continued as classes continued that week and the next. Such a time, it was.

Speechless, for once in my life. Thank you for your post.

Like you Ronnie, I was in Greenwich Village that day. My office was located at West 10th street and the West Side Hwy. I heard that first plane whiz past my window. Much too low and much too loud to be normal. A minute later a co-worker came in and told me what happened. The rest of that day was filled with horror, confusion, vengeance, sadness and great heroism.

The numbing shock. So many questions. Strangers staying in our apartment because they couldn't get home. Watching endless video loops on TV, still not believing it wasn't a sci-fi movie. The next two days, endless sirens of emergency vehicles screaming down Broadway, putrid smoke drifting around Manhattan, so thick in my apartment it looked like fog rolling in, constant drone of jets overhead searching airspace for invaders. Disbelief we could be so hated. Still having, a couple times a year, nightmares of terrible things falling from the sky.

It's hard to believe it's been 18 years. On the morning of 9/11/2001 I was just pulling up to the building where I worked at the time, and just as I started to turn the car off, the news broke and i sat there stunned for several minutes, wondering if I had really heard what I thought i had. Inside, a television was wheeled into a large room and people crowded in, and stood around, astonished, outraged, sad, confused, not knowing what to say.

Our agency was a federally funded mental health program that provided housing and supportive services to adults with severe mental illness, most of whom had spent the largest part of their adult lives in state mental hospitals. The second level of response was helping people with a variety of cognitive and emotional challenges process this information, as it was impossible to keep it from them and they had every right to know.

The third level of response was to implement a number of policies in response to directives from the federal government as the Office of Homeland Security was created and all sorts of requirements were placed on publicly funded programs, whether they made sense or not.

I always think of the song American Pie on the anniversary of this event, although that song came out decades earlier and had nothing to do with 9/11. The music may have died long ago, but on that day, along with so many innocent people, something else, something undefinable, seemed to die too.

I still remember what a gorgeous, crisp, perfect Fall morning it was. My husband was at work in his office two blocks from Ground Zero. I had dropped my daughter off at school, just below 14th street, mere moments before the first plane hit. I had walked to the corner of Sixth Avenue with another school parent and we watched, astonished, as smoked billowed from the North Tower. A convertible car pulled up next to us and turned up its radio as a small group of people gathered around to listen. On the radio, they were saying it seemed that a small plane had hit the tower. I remember I felt sick when the car's driver, shaking his head, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “This was no accident.”

All the while, I had been trying reach my husband on my cell, but no calls were going through. I ran back to the school, not sure what to do, and as time passed I started to panic. Unbeknownst to me, my husband heard the impact, and he and everyone else in his office, got up and walked out of and away from the building. I burst into tears when he showed up at the school after an hour of walking. Together, with hundreds and hundreds of others, we walked a few miles up Tenth Avenue, my husband carrying our young child. When we got home we found dozens of messages on the answering machine — from family and friends around the world — asking if we were okay. They had been watching television or listening to the radio, and for a few hours, knew more than we did about what was happening. Then the aftermath. The sirens. The missing person photo flyers on every fence, every wall.

Two months later I was checking out at the local grocery store when the manager ran up to the cashier and nervously told her something had happened. When I asked what he'd heard, he screamed at me, “Where's your radio?? Don't you know we should all carry radios now??!!!” I grabbed my groceries, ran the three blocks home and turned the television on. A plane had crashed in the Rockaways, every soul on board lost. Was it terrorism? Ultimately the answer was No, just a terrible accident. But all bridges and tunnels on the East Side has been closed within 9 minutes of the plane crash, and within 11 minutes on the West Side. Manhattan was on lock down.

I realized then that in the event of another major terrorist event, the only way off this island would be to chuck an inflatable dinghy in the Hudson. This sentence in your post, Ronni, hit home: “You shrug in the face of such potential catastrophe you can't control and get on with life.” I have yet to buy the boat.

Here on the West Coast I awakened to my phone ringing , my daughter calling from Virginia said “Turn on the TV Mom.” The screen was filled with the view of smoke pouring from the first of the NYC twin towers. The fear in her voice was palpable as she told me a plane had also crashed into the Pentagon. I felt so helpless wondering what more might be coming near her. I was able only to try to convey a relatively calm voice in this unbelievable situation with the horror unfolding before us over the next several hours as we each viewed television’s news coverage. Knowing phone lines would need to be open I restrained from calling family who lived within close proximity to the towers. I was relieved later to learn they were safe, had been away from their apartment. They did have to stay with friends a few days since no one was being allowed back into the area.

I can only imagine how those in proximity to the crash sites must have been impacted, but you describe so well what that was like.

Thanks for remembering. We went to a ceremony outside Philadelphia in the morning (yesterday) ... 18 of our neighbors died that day.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)