Sunday, September 11, 2011

11 Sep 2001

On September 11, 2001, we were living in Edgewater, NJ, in a house just across the Hudson from New York City.  After breakfast, my wife, Diane, and I signed paperwork on the sale of our house.  I had quit my job a month before in anticipation of returning to New Mexico, where I grew up, to be near my folks and to return to school; we were ready to leave as soon as we could make a downpayment on a home in Albuquerque that we'd found and, as the sale of our current house had not gone well so far, we were anxious that this contract would finally allow us to go. 

Diane and I finished signing the papers and handed them to our Realtor, who was also a family friend and had arrived to babysit our two-year-old daughter while we headed off to a 10:00am appointment in Watchung, NJ, about an hour away to the southwest.  It was almost 9:00am, so we were quickly trotting down the front steps to our car when our neighbor across the street came running out of her house, crying and shouting “Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center!”  I had never seen her this hysterical – she was, after all, the Fire Chief's wife and accustomed to emergencies – but we were in a hurry.  I figured some drunken idiot had probably crashed a Cessna through an office window, but we said we'd turn on the radio and listen on the way. 

The topography of where we lived is important to understand here.  Our house was about a quarter of a mile south of the George Washington Bridge and situated well up from the base of the Palisades, the cliffs that line the southern Hudson River Valley, so we had a great view of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Less than a mile south of us, though, a point jutted out from the Palisades, blocking the view below midtown:  we could see everything down to about the Empire State Building, but not beyond that.  Also, the cliffs we lived in front of were actually the east face of a ridge that ran along the Hudson down to the Upper Bay; west of this ridge was a wide valley containing the Hackensack River and, at the lower end, a marsh locally called the Meadowlands.  The fastest way south was to go north, follow I-95 through the cut in the ridge where the bridge was, and then follow the interstate around south through the Meadowlands.  Thus, for the first ten minutes or so of our drive we were behind the ridge and could not see the towers. 

We turned on the radio as we took I-95 through the cut; I don't recall what station we had on, probably WNYC, the local NPR affiliate.  The announcer's voice was tinged with panic as he reported that the second tower had just been struck by an airplane.  There was a lot of confusion and upset as he cycled through different correspondents reporting from various parts of the city; we became aware that a significant disaster was unfolding.  We also began to worry:  we had friends and family who worked in and around the towers.  Had they gone to work?  Were they in their offices?  Were they evacuating?  How stable was the structure? 

We rounded the ridge and headed south and, as we drove, the road climbed and the ridge sank so parts of the towers were revealed:  first we could see the billowing cloud, then the antenna, then the roofs of the towers, then, finally, the black hole near the top of the north tower and bits of the top of the south tower visible through the smoke being vomited from the other gash still hidden below the ridgeline. 

I was driving and Diane was watching the towers burn as we continued south on I-95; we listened intently to the radio and I would glance over at them as traffic allowed.  At the top of a bridge over the Hackensack River, the view was very clear and cars slowed dramatically; some even pulled over onto the narrow shoulders as people got out of their cars to look.  I guess the significance of the event had still not yet quite sunk in for me and I was angry at these drivers for creating a safety hazard.  Diane tried calling her sister who worked in a building across the street from the towers to make sure she was okay; she didn't get through.  She was also unable to reach the office of our friends, a company for whom we had both worked, populated by people we admired and for whom we cared deeply; their office in the lower floors of Tower 1 did not answer.  The radio discussion seemed to become a little more organized and we started to hear from experts on the structural integrity of the towers; everyone was very reassuring that the chance of any significant part of the towers breaking off was remote.  It was unclear how people above the crash zones were going to get out, but evacuating below those levels was believed to be straightforward, if time consuming and difficult.  We debated whether to continue on to our appointment, but we decided there was nothing we could do and felt that the best use of the time was to meet with our advisors as planned. 

Eventually, we turned west on I-78.  For most of the beginning of this leg, I could see the towers in my mirror, burning, building a pillar of thick, white smoke in the clear, blue-blue sky (as many others have reported elsewhere, it was a spectacularly beautiful morning).  At one point, the towers were obscured as the road went into a dip and just then the radio announcer's voice became shrill:  a tower had collapsed.  The road quickly rose again and I could see that, in place of one of the towers, an immense white monster of dust and smoke was now crawling across the Manhattan skyline.  I was suddenly overwhelmed with tears and grief; I had to pull over.  Shaking, I choked, “What if Armand and Karen and Mary and everyone were in there?  Oh my god, I cannot even imagine a world without them!”  Diane was shocked, too, and worried about her sister, but was more focused and concerned with our immediate situation:  we were on the left shoulder of a busy interstate at a time when there were probably other drivers as upset – and therefore as unreliable – as us.  We needed to get where we were going. 

We were not far from our meeting and, with Diane's encouragement, I took a couple of deep breaths, got myself under control and pulled back on the road.  The radio continued to play the shocked voices of eyewitness reporters, equally stunned experts speculating on the origins of what was now believed to be an attack, confused information about a similar attack on Washington, DC (the White House? the Pentagon?), a possibly related plane crash in Pennsylvania, and a lengthening litany of airport closings and Air Force fighter scramblings. 

When we arrived at our appointment, our advisors, a couple, appeared as rattled as we were.  We talked with Susan briefly while Bill was in another part of the building; we compared what we'd heard, trying to get a sense of what was real and what was hysterical rumor.  Then Bill came in and announced that the second tower had fallen.  I actually argued with him, saying, yes, we had been driving when it happened, but he assured me that, no, this was the other one.  Both towers were gone. 

I don't remember many details of the rest of that day.  The four of us quickly came to the conclusion that we weren't going to get much work done, so we rescheduled our appointment and Di and I headed home.  I remember watching the smoke, now in front of us, as I drove:  as it climbed into the beautiful September sky, it became a twisted parody of the magnificent, absent towers.  When we got back to our house at about 11:30am, our friend left quickly, anxious to get in touch with her loved ones.  Our next door neighbors were away – September 11 was the wife's birthday, so she and her husband had gone to the beach – and had left us in charge of feeding their cat.  We had no cable, so we went to their house to watch the news.  For the next three hours, we stared, slackjawed and in shock, as the networks relentlessly replayed footage of the second impact, each tower's collapse, and live views of the scene that lay just around the cliff's point from where we sat.  Finally, at about 2:30pm, our restless toddler insisted she was hungry and we were able to drag ourselves back to reality.  I have no other memories of that day. 

For the next two or three days, our metropolis was transformed.  The gruff, gesticulating, carbonized exterior of the average New Yorker (and New Jerseyite) seemed to have been blown away, leaving their soft, marshmallow interior exposed.  People were gentle with each other; drivers yielded with a smile and a wave; retail stores and restaurants were almost somber.  Candlelight vigils arose spontaneously, improvised missing posters plastered lower Manhattan, and tiny, poignant memorials cropped up near the attack site.  Stories of bravery and selflessness in the midst of the disaster entered our common narrative:  we all seemed to feel part of each other and were mourning the parts we had lost. 

The site itself burned for weeks, a column of smoke rising into the sky acting as an immense grave marker.  Most days, the wind was out of the south, so we in Edgewater breathed the acrid miasma of smoldering megatons of pulverized steel, concrete, office furniture, computers, ceiling tiles, bathroom stalls, printing paper, and human beings – a puree of New York worklife.  It was September, so most of the time our windows were open; days and nights our very breath reminded us of the horrors that occurred just a few miles downriver; I will never forget that smell and what it meant. 

In the end, we were fortunate.  We lost no family or friends in the attacks.  Diane's sister, working across the street, watched the first tower burn for a few minutes before she was called into a meeting that was quickly canceled after the second tower was hit; she got out and away in plenty of time.  Our friends in Tower 1 had not even gone into the building yet, as their workday started and ended later than most businesses.  Of course, we knew people who had lost both friends and family; virtually everyone living in the area at the time did.  Our lives were most deeply affected, however, by the repercussions.  The contract on our home fell through within a week and the housing market dried up instantly; we did not sell until six years later.  I was out of work for five months and only found employment through the sympathy and connections of my former boss.  I did eventually start school, albeit a year later than we planned, but we never made it to New Mexico.  Sometimes I feel guilty that I am still so affected by the events of that day – despite the hardship of the aftermath, I was not harmed personally, nor were those I know – but I also know that we don't always understand why we feel as we do, so I try to be as respectful my own feelings on September 11th as I do of others'.