I took that photo back in August of 1995 from the bow of the Staten Island Ferry during my first-ever visit to Manhattan. Despite having grown up just a couple hundred miles away, I somehow managed to not go there until I was 25. I guess I just assumed that it couldn’t be much different than Boston, so why bother?
A short while after I snapped that shot, I entered the lobby of the South Tower and ascended 107 floors to the observatory, where I got my first look at New York City in all its massive, man-made glory … and realized how woefully wrong my “All cities are the same” assumption had been. I instantly fell in love with it, and have remained so ever since.
Earlier this year, I visited for the first time the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and was caught off guard by how much it reawakened the feelings of shock, horror and sorrow that had consumed me on the day of the attack. Often, I process the things with which I struggle most by writing about them. It took me until September 11, 2009 to finally put words to the things I felt on that awful day and in its immediate aftermath. This is what I wrote.
Written on Sept. 11, 2009
No one I knew or to whom I was related died on that awful day, and I was neither in New York nor Washington, D.C. when it happened. Like most people, I listened to it on the radio and watched it on TV. Those who experienced it firsthand and those who lost loved ones are the people who have truly meaningful stories to tell about 9/11. Still, for eight years, I’ve always felt the need to write about it, both for cathartic reasons, and for my children, so that, when they’re old enough, and if they care to do so, they can read their father’s experience of one of the worst tragedies in American history.
I still recall most of September 11, 2001 with as much clarity and detail as if it just happened. It was a gorgeous morning. The sun was bright and the sky was a crisp, clear blue as I drove to the train station. I had the radio tuned to “The Howard Stern Show,” and I remember exactly where I was when Howard announced that a plane had apparently crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Like many people—myself included—Howard and his crew initially assumed it was a small, private plane of some sort.
A few minutes later, I was on a train headed into Boston, listening to the show on my Walkman, when a second plane flew into the South Tower. Oh my god. This isn’t an accident; we’re under attack.
For the entire train ride, I listened to Howard and the gang—who were broadcasting from a skyscraper just a few miles away from what would come to be called “Ground Zero”—talk about what they were seeing on the news, but nothing could have prepared me for what met my eyes when I arrived at the office and spotted the television. The Towers … the enormous, jetliner-shaped gashes in their sides … all that smoke … and fire …
And then the unthinkable happened: The South Tower collapsed into a pile of rubble, spewing forth an enormous cloud of debris that consumed the Financial District. In a day filled with more surrealism than the human mind could ever process, the collapse of the South Tower still stands out to me as the most incomprehensible moment of all. The planes and explosions and fire and damage and the people—dear god, the people—all of that was terrifying and horrifying and unimaginable, but when the first tower fell, that was when I felt like reality had been shattered and the world might truly be ending.
It was time to get back home. I emailed my co-workers, all of whom were on the West Coast.
Date: September 11, 2001 10:02:59 AM EDT
I’m in the city, but I’m taking my ball and going home. There are three federal buildings surrounding the one I’m in (and I’m on the top floor), so, while in all likelihood nothing’s going to happen here, I’m leaving in a few and taking a train back to the ’burbs. I’ll be back online from home ASAP.
Despite being full of passengers, the train I rode out of the city was almost silent. As I continued listening to the radio, Howard announced that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. My sister was, at the time, living in Arlington, Virginia. Her apartment building sat atop a hill, and the view out her window encompassed the Pentagon, less than a mile away. I tried reaching her on my cell, but all of the phone lines in the Northeast were melting down. I eventually got through to my Mom, who told me my sister was OK, but very shaken.
Here is part of the email my sister sent to us a couple of days later:
A deafening, high-pitched shriek tore through the sky above my building. I dropped my nail clippers into the sink and cowered down next to my toilet, a completely instinctive reaction to hide myself from harm. “Oh, boy, that noise is unusually loud, I hope to God that a plane hasn’t lost its engine … Maybe a plane did lose its engine and can’t make it to Reagan National to land … Maybe it’s an Air Force jet formation—you know, 3 or 5 of them together, flying low, showing off their expertise—and they’re going over the Pentagon for some sort of ceremony.” … All of those thoughts within a few seconds.
The building shakes from the force of whatever had made the deafening sound, but no plane came crashing down. I am safe. I run to my window to look up to the sky, to see what sounded so dangerous a moment ago, the noise that made me think for a split second, “Holy shit, we’re going to get hit.” I look up to the left, following the noise of the engine that was ripping through the sky—nothing. I look straight ahead; nothing but a clear blue September sky, you can see for miles … Wait, what the hell is that? That doesn’t look right … The flying object, the object that was sailing through the sky at unimaginable speed, crashes into the side of the Pentagon and bursts into 200 foot flames upon impact. Orange and black fire soaring hundreds of feet into the air. The sonic waves from that mind-boggling impact ricochet off my building and a breeze of hot air enters my apartment through my open window. I am trying to understand what I just saw. What could have gone so wrong that something—a plane, or perhaps a missile—just slammed into the Pentagon?
So, yeah, I’d have been pretty shaken, too. (My father stepped up in a big way by flying down to see her as soon as air travel resumed; you couldn’t have paid me to get on a plane at that point.)
Off the train, into the car, driving in a daze, still listening to Howard, who remained on the air much later than usual and provided some of the most comprehensive, human and unfiltered coverage of what was going on in New York.
Home. Hours and hours and hours of watching the television … the second plane slamming into the South Tower, over and over again, in slow motion, from different angles. The towers coming down repeatedly, the huge cloud of pulverized skyscraper chasing New Yorkers down the street, engulfing some who later emerged covered from head to toe in gray powder. The Pentagon in flames. The crater Flight 93 left behind when it slammed into the ground in rural Pennsylvania after the passengers aboard fought back against the hijackers.
Chaos reigned. Unconfirmed—and, thankfully, erroneous—reports claimed there were other planes in the sky that had been hijacked … that Chicago was going to be hit, and possibly Los Angeles … that a bomb had exploded in D.C. at the Capitol Building … and on and on it went, for hours.
Thousands dead, among them hundreds of firefighters, policemen and other first responders who ran toward the danger to help. Fire trucks and police cars and ambulances sitting half destroyed amidst the rubble of the towers. All of it was too horrible to comprehend.
The days that followed were filled with nonstop reports about terrorist “sleeper cells” … anthrax in the mail … bomb threats … military troops patrolling New York City and Washington, D.C. … duct tape … duct tape. The world is ending, and the government recommends duct tape.
Screw duct tape; I wanted weapons. The ex-soldier in me wanted guns and ammo, because surely there were going to be more terrorist attacks, and the country would soon slip into anarchy and martial law and, yes, honey, I know you said you would never allow guns in our house, but, you see, that was before the United States of America was getting blown up by suicidal terrorists, so try and be a little flexible here, would you? Work with me, baby.
No, seriously: That’s how I felt. I was sure that America would soon descend into the kind of daily chaos and carnage that we Americans had, up until then, equated with places on the other side of the ocean.
I seethed with anger. I fumed that the assholes who hijacked the planes already were dead, because their deaths meant we’d never get to exact upon them the kind of mind-numbing, frightful revenge they so richly deserved. It ate away at me to think that they had died knowing they had succeeded. The thought of the scum that hijacked Flight 175 seeing the North Tower engulfed in flames and smoke just before they smashed their own plane into the South Tower … the satisfaction I imagined them feeling at the sight of it … it made my blood boil.
I started wearing my dog tags for the first time since leaving the Army nearly a decade earlier. I thought about re-enlisting. I wanted to kill those responsible for attacking my country, and I believed the inevitable war against whomever had done it would be the first conflict of my lifetime based on a cause worth fighting for and, if necessary, dying for. Maybe if I had been 18 again instead of in my 30s. Maybe if I didn’t have a wife with whom I was planning to start a family.
Maybe if I had trusted the men running the country.
Weeks before 9/11, my wife and I had made plans to spend the first weekend of October in New York City with her parents. My father-in-law commuted by train every day from Philadelphia to his office in the Bronx, and, as such, had experienced 9/11 in a more visceral way than most people. In the immediate wake of the attacks, we looked to him to decide whether or not we should keep our plans. He said we should, so we did. I’m glad he chose that way.
Being in Manhattan three-and-a-half weeks after the towers fell was haunting. The walls outside the train stations were covered with pictures of people who were missing, and a pall hung over the city. It felt like an enormous wake.
On the first night of our visit, we attended a Björk concert at Radio City Music Hall. Before the show, we went to the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, and from there, we saw the beams of light that shone in place of the fallen towers. It was almost impossible to believe they were gone.
The next day, we went down to “Ground Zero.” The air was still filled with smoke and irritants, and it doesn’t surprise me that many workers developed respiratory problems, because, three-and-a-half weeks after the attacks, the air quality was still so poor that it left me coughing and stung my eyes till they watered.
Standing there and looking at the wreckage … the damage to all of the surrounding buildings … it drove home the scale of the tragedy in a way that television could not. The magnitude of it was mind-boggling. A massive piece of the world—one of its most recognizable, iconic pieces at that—had been summarily deleted, and the scale of the void it left behind was inconceivable. It stretched the limits of my comprehension.
In the days and weeks that followed, I was overwhelmed by the patriotism that I and so many others felt, and by the way it unified us as Americans. The American flag became a more meaningful symbol to me than it had ever before been.
In the immediate wake of 9/11, not only were we, the previously bickering factions of America, united as a country, but the entire global community was united around us. We had the unconditional support of the entire free world. It was something that, in my lifetime, was completely unprecedented. In wiser, more capable hands, it was a moment that could have been leveraged to make the world a better place, and to make some greater good come out of such unspeakable evil.
I couldn’t imagine then that my life would ever get back to anything even vaguely resembling “normal” … or that, eight years later, my wife and I would have two beautiful children … two beautiful children who I hope will never, ever know what it’s like to experience the horror we experienced that day.
When I picked my son up from school today, he said to me, “Daddy, today is a special day.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, not knowing that his first-grade teacher had told his class about the significance of the date.
“Because there were these two big buildings—,” he began.
“Yes, you’re right, pal,” I said, not wanting him to tell the tale in front of his 4-year-old sister. “It was a horrible, horrible day. Why don’t you and I talk about it later, OK, buddy?”
At bedtime tonight, he said, “Daddy, can you tell me about the buildings and the airplanes?”
Six years old. I didn’t want him to know about this yet.
“Well, there were two very big buildings in New York, and some really bad people flew planes into them and ruined them, and a lot of people got hurt,” I said. “It was awful … but you don’t have to worry, pal, because Mommy and Daddy will always keep you safe. Nothing like that is ever going to happen to us,” I added … because he’s a worrier, and I really can’t stomach the thought of the murderers who attacked us that day instilling fear in my young son eight years later.
And yet, despite what I told him, the truth is that a lot of mothers and fathers and kids died that day—mothers and fathers who probably gave similar assurances to their own kids at one time or another, and kids who had believed the assurances they’d been given—so I could be wrong.
The world is a different place now.