In the summer of 2001, I was on the rooftop of a skyscraper in lower Manhattan, and we all paused — even the jaded New Yorker — awestruck by the view of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, gleaming and tall, from a vantage point few could experience.
I wasn’t a journalist then. I lived in Rhode Island, and I sold industrial barcode labels. I was on the roof doing a site survey with two co-workers and a prospective customer.
A few weeks later, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, sometime between 9:03 and 9:59 a.m. I walked into my field office outside Cincinnati, Ohio. A large, silent group was clustered around a single TV. My flight had landed normally, but I had learned of the two planes hitting the Towers from Howard Stern on the rental car’s radio, and like so many others, I was scared.
I said hello and went to join everyone at the TV. But they were now staring at me, their faces collectively draining of color, their mouths forming “O”s — like a flash mob version of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” One of the women started crying. “We thought you flew out of Boston,” she said, pulling me into a bear hug. “We thought you were dead.”
Parts of that day, and the ones that follow, are a blur. Other parts are indelibly inked in my memory.
“Come sit with me, darlin,’” my favorite co-worker, the Southerner Jamie, had drawled, patting a seat next to him on the half-empty plane leaving Providence, Rhode Island, early that sunny morning. He knew I was a nervous flier. As I slid into a seat I wasn’t assigned, I joked that if we crashed, I would screw up the manifest.
Call it survivor’s guilt, or the hazards of a vivid imagination, but I still think about the four planes that were lost that day and am haunted by what those passengers must have experienced in their final terrifying hour.
Stranded in Ohio, I desperately wanted to hear my kids’ voices. They had been shielded from the news, so when my son, who was nearly 4, said hello, I tried to keep the sob out of my voice and make it sound like a routine call from the road.
That night at the hotel, the New Yorker — the same one who had been on the roof with me — was pacing, increasingly agitated, as he answered phone call after phone call from his wife, each with news of another neighbor who worked on the upper floors of the World Trade Center and couldn’t be reached.
Alone in my hotel room, I heard the cadence of someone running the stairs — hard-soft-hard-soft-hard-soft — seemingly for hours. He was an American Airlines pilot, he told me. He couldn’t sleep but couldn’t bear to watch TV.
On Friday, Jamie and I, the New Yorker and another rep from Connecticut left Ohio in a minivan. With light traffic and the airspace still closed, it was eerily quiet. As we approached New York City, we could see beams of light through the haze, signs of the recovery efforts in lower Manhattan. The air grew pungent, a rancid stench of smoldering flesh, fuel, metal and paper, mixed with mold.
Exhausted and punchy, we stopped at a diner before we dropped off the New Yorker.
“Where are y’all from?” Jamie genially asked our servers. The men — both brown-skinned and perhaps of Middle Eastern descent — stiffened, their faces turning stony. “Oh — no, no, no,” Jamie said quickly, realizing it might seem he was insinuating they were terrorists. “I thought you might be Lebanese — and my wife is Lebanese — and there was a big-ole discussion we could have had around that.” They relaxed but didn’t smile.
My son will turn 20 soon. His memories of Sept. 11 aren’t firsthand, they’re family stories and things he’s read or streamed on YouTube. As the terrorist attack becomes distant history, I wonder how it will be remembered.
I see Twin Towers, as clearly as I did that day on the roof.
In one tower, I see the faces of my kids, and I’m reminded of the days that followed the attack, when we knew war was coming, but united to face evil and collectively became more caring.
In the second, I see the faces of the diner waitstaff, and I’m reminded of the days that followed, when we became suspicious of others and laid a path to divisiveness.
If a tower falls, let it be the second.