It was a beautiful, clear, sunny Tuesday morning in Pittsburgh, and I was running late for work. As was my custom when this happened, when NPR’s Morning Edition signed off, I switched off the radio and turned on the TV to catch the first few minutes of Live with Regis and Kelly.
But Regis and Kelly wasn’t on. Instead, Good Morning America coverage had gone overtime, with a live video feed of smoke billowing out of the World Trade Towers in Lower Manhattan. Apparently, a plane had flown into one of the buildings, and the anchors were trying to figure out what accident had just happened. As I watched, a second plane hit the other tower. And we all knew. This was no accident.
My phone rang, and my friend Myrna, who had driven from Pittsburgh to Delaware to take care of some personal business the day before, asked, “Did you hear?” She knew my youngest brother lived and worked in Manhattan, but she didn’t know where. I assured her that he both lived and worked well north of the World Trade Center. We hung up, and not knowing what else to do, I turned off the TV and headed to my office, a mile and a half away.
I don’t need to give a blow by blow of what happened that day. It’s well documented, especially this weekend, the tenth anniversary of the terror attack on the United States in the form of four hijacked passenger airplanes targeting prominent buildings in New York City and Washington, DC. This afternoon, I watched CNN coverage of the dedication of the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, just an hour and a half drive from here, where the passengers of that flight forced the hijacked plane into a crash on farmland in Somerset County.
My aunt and cousin attended that service today, and after church tomorrow, I’ll drive out to another cousin’s house for an extended family gathering. We will watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL opener (for the team I root for, anyway). And we will share stories of where we were ten years ago.
I don’t know why I find it so therapeutic to share my story from that day with others and to hear their stories. Maybe because I wasn’t as directly affected as those who lost loved ones, or who were injured, or who barely escaped with their lives. It’s not as visceral for me as for them. My story is not particularly dramatic. But I was a couple of weeks shy of my 35th birthday, and I have a clear memory of what life was like before that day. And it’s never been the same since.
My brother was fine, in his office on 28th Street, and I was able to talk to him before phone lines clogged up so much that we couldn’t get through. He had no TV in his office, and he had actually been getting updates from our mother in Indiana, who was watching the live coverage. (My father, I found out later, was supposed to be in one of the WTC buildings that day for a meeting, but it had been rescheduled or canceled. He was in Detroit instead, at another meeting, and his commuter flight had been grounded, so he rented a car to drive back to South Bend and my mom.)
None of us got much work done in the office that day, especially that morning. The phones were ringing off the hook, family members and close friends calling to check in with each other. That’s what I remember the most — everyone’s need to reach out and talk to the people we loved.
I was on the schedule to cover the front desk for our receptionist during the lunch hour that day, and by then, the phones were quieter. Many of my co-workers walked over to a nearby bar and grill for lunch, where they could watch TV. Another colleague stopped in while I was sitting at the desk, pushing the stroller of his young child, and he commented how eerily quiet it was outside. Air traffic had been grounded, and we were surprised how accustomed we were to the sounds of airplanes, even with the airport 45 minutes away.
By now, Flight 93 had crashed in Shanksville, but in response to its redirection — it made a U-turn near Cleveland, to head back toward Washington, DC, as we now conjecture — several downtown Pittsburgh buildings had been evacuated. No one knew where a plane might hit next.
I talked to my brother later that evening, and he talked about how fighter jets were circling Manhattan and how he almost jumped out of his skin every time it happened. I couldn’t even imagine what he was experiencing, living so close to Ground Zero, as we even then were calling it.
I went home at my usual time, and as was our habit, my friend P. and I headed up to the nearby park to walk around the reservoir. We were turned away by someone in uniform; public water sources were being guarded. That’s when it really hit home for me, I think. Our entire country was under attack, and who knows what other avenues the anonymous terrorists might be planning to take?
Instead of rerouting our evening walk, P. and I went to visit other friends, who had just ordered a pizza and who were watching TV, flipping between what we didn’t yet know would be days and days and days of continual news coverage and ESPN. (Football season was just getting underway, after all.)
These friends also had a newborn baby girl, who was just two days shy of a month old on September 11, 2001. I held that sleeping baby for hours that evening. She’s now a tall, lanky, delightful fifth grader who recently celebrated her tenth birthday. I will never forget how old she is. And I will always be grateful for the combined therapy of a sleeping baby, take-out pizza and ESPN on the Day the World As I Knew It changed forever.
What is your September 11 story?
5 Comments Add yours
For awhile I felt compelled to touch base with the three people with whom I had “experienced” that event – you, Jorge and Kent. Fear reigned that day and the days soon after. Sadly, it feels like fear still grips this country – a different kind of fear, perhaps, but somehow related I suppose. I remember sitting on the empty beach, looking up at the blue, silent sky and struggling to make sense of it all with Jorge (who had lived fro 31 years in NYC). Then our surreal drive back to Pittsburgh – no traffic, on the ground or in the air, and the road signs all along our route alerting us to the tragedy that had occurred.
And until they switched our phone system at the office, I had saved a voice mail from you and Jorge left on Monday, September 10–goofy and lighthearted, with no idea at all of what would be happening within 24 hours. You were the first person I spoke with that day, Myrn. I remember talking to you as you drove back and talked about the signs warning you to stay away from NYC, even though you were driving in the opposite direction.
My family was actually camping on the East Coast that day, and just happened to turn on the tv that morning (we hadn’t watched it all week), and caught the coverage about the same time as you did. After that second plane hit… wow. And when the towers fell… I had to walk for a bit just to take it all in. When I returned after a brief walk, we went to get more food and supplies- who knew how long or how bad whatever attack was happening would go on? We could see the flights from the nearby AFB streaking by. It was an eerie feeling knowing that they were not on a routine practice flight, but were really in battle mode, ready to engage an airliner if need be.
That we put aside our differences, and joined together as a country, was a powerful thing. But those differences were simply set aside for a moment- when life moved into the “new normal” we picked back up those differences and forged ahead into the world we all now shared. Whomever you blame for that probably simply shows which side you picked up and walked with when we moved from unity. I remember in church life, there was a big upswing in people looking for spiritual answers, but by January, churches were pretty much filed with the same people who had filled them the year before. We walk more in fear, or so it seems, of someone who is “other”- then again, it was a group who were “other” who attacked us. Maybe that’s why the Tim McV’s of our culture anger us but do not cause us to fear.
Even this last Sunday, I saw many who needed to stop and remember, to stop and thanks those who still run into danger when the cry comes for help. And then there were those who said “I’ve moved on.” One of the things we finished with at church on Sunday, in the midst of a very meaningful service which both looked back and looked ahead, said something like this: “May we remember the acts of heroism and sacrifice that filled that day, which started as an ordinary day, because we too may need at any time to give rise to sacrifice and hope in the midst of our own ordinary day, all to the Glory of God and in his strength.”
…just a few thoughts…
Thanks for sharing, Paul. I find it helpful to remember the unity and humanity that followed the horror. In this era of political polarization, it’s helpful to remember that it’s possible. And I’m always working to remember where I find my true hope and identity and live accordingly.