It was around 8:45 in the morning when I pulled my van into my employer’s parking lot in Long Island’s Suffolk County. I parked my car and made my way into the long black building on that bright, almost cloudless day and proceeded to the company cafeteria. I was on a low-carbohydrate diet at the time, so I picked up three hot sausage patties and a large coffee, and then I went downstairs to my cubicle in the Information Technology division. It was then about 9 o’clock. The date was September 11th, 2001.
Just as I came to within a few steps of the bottom of the stairs, I noticed a small group of my fellow workers huddled silently in a cubicle just to the right of the steps. I walked over and asked them what was going on that kept them so engaged. In response, I received the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center. I finished making my way to my work area, powered on my computer, and I accessed a news website just out of curiosity. The news reported that a plane, possibly a small corporate jet, smacked into the north tower. However, the image shown on the site appeared to be less the work of a small jet and more the work of a gigantic smoking fist.
Unknown to me at the time, my wife was in a car on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (“B.Q.E.”), and from her vantage point she saw and heard that which was the first awful strike against mainland America in the new millennium. As the north tower burst into flames and smoke filled the downtown Manhattan skyline, traffic around my wife immediately slowed to a crawl as drivers and passengers alike sat in awe of the distant, fiery spectacle.
As I sat in my cubicle, I continued for some time to shrug off the incident as a tragic accident until someone said, “The second tower’s been hit!” I initially thought that flaming debris from the first crash had sparked what I thought to be a secondary fire in the south tower. I clicked “refresh” on my browser and waited to see a picture of a minor spark. What I saw looked as though an atomic blast was erupting from within the other tower. That’s when I joined a growing chorus of gasps and whispers as all of us on the floor uttered the same things over and over: “IT’S TERRORISTS! IT’S NO ACCIDENT! WE’RE UNDER ATTACK!”
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway became a virtual parking lot as traffic ground to a halt. From her vantage point on the roadway, my wife saw the second terrorist Kamikaze streak into the south tower. Meanwhile, my job, like the expressway, also came to a stop. Mouths gaped. Eyes widened. Tears ran freely. Everyone ran to their computers and browsed to news sites. We were dependent on information from the web because the department was so far underground and behind so much concrete and reinforcing metal, radio signals just couldn’t reach us. Unfortunately, with everyone clicking “connect,” “refresh,” and “live video,” the majority of our computer network quickly overloaded and browsers froze. Similarly, the local telephone system shut down from overuse.
Shock turned into disbelief, but strangely, yet amazingly, disbelief did not segue into panic. No, there was just anger. Oh, yes, there was much, much anger. We spoke of bloody vengeance. We wanted, or needed, the skewered heads of every terrorist on a silver platter. We were possessed of a righteous, nationalistic anger born of the helplessness and utter frustration of being unable to do anything but absorb that terrible fact that we were absolutely powerless to save our doomed, defenseless countrymen.
A single computer within one large cube miraculously continued to pull information reliably from the web. Just about everyone on the entire floor huddled in and around that single space where, in tortuous silence, we strained to hear the tale of death and disaster from the computer’s tiny speaker. As reports filed in, each more vivid than the last, we stood stock-still, as though movement was yet another thing to fear. Faces drew tight. Eyes narrowed. Fists clenched. Brief outbursts of the four-lettered kind caught the air. We found ourselves staring not at each other, but at the computer housing the minimal speaker as though it were a living thing, as if it were Edward R. Murrow somehow reincarnated in wire and silicon chips.
The company immediately closed for the day, and the building quickly became a ghost town. I knew that my wife was somewhere in Brooklyn and that our children were in a school in a western part of Queens county. She couldn’t reach them, not with an impromptu evacuation of lower Manhattan underway and roads closing for the movement of heavy equipment and emergency personnel. I swore that I would reach our kids and bring them home safely. For all I or anyone else knew, terrorists commanded the skies, collapsed buildings, killed police and fire personnel, and they were bringing doom to us all. I had to reach my kids. I had to bring them back home even as my mind shut out the reality that our simple, timber frame house could never protect us from terrorists and falling aircraft.
I tore along the Long Island Expressway like the desperate madman that I was at the time, yet I knew from radio reports that it would take an extended amount of time for me make my way home as all major and secondary roads leading into New York City were being cleared of all traffic to make way for emergency personnel and equipment. Sure enough, police officers soon redirected all traffic off the L.I.E., and I was forced onto a tertiary road. Some two-and-a-half hours later, I pulled into the school parking lot. Fifteen minutes later, I had my kids in the imaginary safe haven that was our home. “Imaginary,” since nowhere appeared to be safe on the day thereafter known simply as “9/11.”
When my wife finally came home late in the afternoon, she joined me in our living room and together we watched replay after replay of the World Trade Center tragedy until we finally turned off the television in disgust. We felt like the media became death’s voyeurs as they offered image after image of the impacts, people falling, the towers collapsing, and then perhaps most haunting of all, playing the sound of fire department emergency locator beacons sounding the positions of first responders who were crushed dead within the rubble. We were at once numb, angry, depressed, frustrated and scared beyond belief.
The above is part one of a true story. It is a revised version of an article I wrote years ago in Uncommon Comments and in the pages of Passions APA, and it remains very relevant. Join me next week for the conclusion, and please become a subscriber if you like reading On My Mind Today. Thank you.
All the best,