Thursday, September 11, 2008
I won't forget
It wasn't the very first thought on my mind when I awoke this morning, but it came back to me very quickly.
I was sitting at my desk at work (my former job) when my husband (at the time) called me up. I'm a little surprised that he even thought to call me. News of ANY significance has never had much of any significance for him. But he did call. He told me, "Two planes just hit the World Trade Center." It was just after the second one hit. No one in the office had heard a thing at that point. There was no radio or television in the office, and no one there made a habit of surfing the Internet, so the news story had not yet filtered in. I walked down to my boss's cubicle and told him, "My husband just called and said two planes just hit the World Trade Center." He asked if it was small planes or something. I said that I didn't know - all I knew was that planes had hit the buildings. I was scheduled to fly to New York City for a stamp show for work just three weeks later.
After I mentioned it to my boss, I went out to my car to turn on the radio and hear the reports and get a general idea of what was going on. When I got out, I heard the radio from the dock turned up so everyone working there could hear it. Word was beginning to get around. Conversation was hushed. It was worse than we could have imagined. And then it just kept getting worse.
We all kept working, but EVERYONE started surfing the Internet for news. Web sites were clogged with traffic, and getting news web sites to load was a challenge. Then we started seeing the images. We couldn't believe it. No one could believe it was happening.
Then word came in. There's another plane. It's hit the Pentagon. Oh my god. New York City...then Washington, D.C. The iconic towers....then the center of our military administration. More images continued to come in. We all kept working, but we all kept watching too. We weren't talking to each other. We were all just transfixed. What was going on? What more was coming? This doesn't happen here. This is America.
We learned of yet another plane and that it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Was this part of it too? It was too much of a coincidence. Was there more coming?
A short time later, the second tower that was hit came crumbling to the ground. It was unbelievable. And then the other one fell. We'd heard the reports. More than 50,000 people worked in those buildings. That was four times the entire population of our small city. The numbers were almost unimaginable. How many had died? How many had escaped? How many were trapped - buried alive and injured and terrified? How many would die later from their injuries or from illness caused by the toxic cloud that covered the city after the collapse?
The skies over the entire country were shut down. All we wanted to do was get home to our families and our televisions to SEE for ourselves. We were all looking at the skies when we came out of the office. There were no planes. Then there was one off in the distance - it was a military plane. It had to be. We'd been told that all others had been grounded. It was an almost surreal sight - that solitary military plane in the air where we'd normally see all kinds of air traffic coming to and from the Dayton International Airport. DIA was shut down. These planes were from Wright Patt AFB. We'd been attacked, and nothing was ever going to be the same.
About three weeks later, I made my planned trip to New York City. I'd been given the option of canceling it, but I had to go. All I knew was that I HAD to go. I attended the first two days of the stamp show - I was staying in a hotel in midtown, and the show was held a convention center a couple of blocks away. On the third day, I was watching the news in my hotel room as I gathered up my things to check out and prepared for the third day of the show. I checked out my schedule and saw I'd be going straight from the show to the airport for my afternoon flight. I made a decision. I was not going to attend the show that day. I had to go down there and see it for myself.
I left my bags at the front desk and hailed a cab. "Tribeca," I told the driver. "Where?" he asked. "Anywhere," I replied. He knew why I was going. He told me that he had worked in one of the towers. He had missed that day of work to take his son to the doctor.
I remember more than anything the smell as I stepped out of the cab in Lower Manhattan. The rubble was still burning. I began to wander toward the direction of the site. Everywhere the poles and walls - every surface, it seemed - was covered with pictures of the missing. The faces were young and old, male and female, all colors and walks of life. Everything was covered with a thick layer of soft white dust. I remember being surprised at that. Somehow, I had expected it to have been blown or swept or washed away. And the sky was different. The hollow space in the skyline where the towers once stood was chillingly empty. I'd been to New York City before. I remembered how the towers had once filled the sky. Now, they were gone. They just....gone. And all the faces on the walls and lampposts and in the store windows - they were all gone.
I wandered around the neighborhood for a while, just absorbing it all. A lot of the shops were closed, but vendors lined the streets everywhere. I'd seen how business had been so awful - naturally - for the little shops in Lower Manhattan since the attack. I made little purchases as I went along, less because I wanted the items and more because I wanted to support them.
I finally decided to head to the site itself. The debris became more apparent block by block as I neared the site. As I approached the corner a block from the barricades, I dug into my camera bag and retrieved an empty film canister. I scooped up some of the gray-white dust that was filling a planter on the sidewalk - the same dust that covered everything here. Walls were cracked. There were pits and marks and scars from flying debris on all the nearby buildings.
I turned the corner and saw. I saw for the first time, in person, the image that I'd been seeing for three weeks on my TV screen. I saw those massive, mangled steel skeletons protruding from that gaping wound in the ground the smoke still seeping out as if it had opened the entrance to hell. I could blink and see afterimages in my mind of what the view from that spot used to be.
Police stood at the intersections along the barricade, stopping passersby from taking photographs. (This was before the viewing platform was constructed.) I held up my camera and snapped several photos whenever the standing officer's attention was diverted. I never did develop the photos. I still have the film around here somewhere, but I doubt it's any good any more. I'm still not sure I could do it. I see those images still clearly enough without the photos.
I continued to walk the perimeter. At one point, there was a stack of twisted I-beams that had been pulled from the site, just sitting there at the street corner. They were so massive. It was mind-boggling to imagine the forces required to twist them into the condition I saw them in that day. I placed my hand on a beam and stood for a moment before going on.
I walked on toward Battery Park and remembered my previous visit to the city. I'd stopped to look at the towers here once. I went on further and came to the subway entrance from which I had emerged to see the Twin Towers in person for the first time a just few years earlier.
America is a land of hope, of freedom, of opportunity - this wasn't supposed to happen here. Things like this happened in other places. Not here. I'll never forget that smell in the air in Lower Manhattan. I'll never forget that feeling of violation. I'll never forget that emptiness in the sky.