Today is the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. Outside, it is a day nothing like that day--it is overcast and cold. September 11, 2001 was a perfect Fall-like day--the sky couldn't have been bluer, the sun was shining, the temperature was comfortable. I couldn't make up my mind this morning whether to even comment on the anniversary. But it's collectively there, so here's my recollection.
On that day I was working in Whippany, New Jersey, which is about 25 to 30 miles from New York City. I was working in the County Library as a cataloger. My hair was ginger red, I was wearing a burgundy sweater that I'd had for years and jeans. I left the Technical Services department to go upstairs and get some volumes that needed reclassification. I got off the elevator, and passed the Reference desk. I said good morning to my colleagues. One of them, James, was looking at CNN.com.
"Did you see this? An airplane has crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers."
"No, I didn't." I went over to look.
"Oh, it's probably some idiot in a Cessna," said Jane, another librarian at the desk. "Some of these people shouldn't be flying planes."
"I don't know," said Marie, our NJ Librarian. She looked at me almost knowingly, and said, "I think it's terrrorism."
Jane brushed it off. "Oh, that's ridiculous."
I got what needed from the stacks and returned to my department. Within 5 minutes everyone was watching the break room TV across the hall in silence. One of my colleagues grabbed me by the arm. "Come in here and see this."
A second plane had struck the tower. And it was not a Cessna, it was a 747. As was the first plane. As we watched the Towers burn on the television, it didn't seem real. It felt like we were watching a disaster movie. The reporters on the scene were genuinely hysterical. At one point I remember one reporter and her entire crew suddenly fleeing towards the camera as the second Tower fell suddenly.
No one did any work that day. We milled around, talking to each other, watching coverage on our computers. Many of my co-workers had family in the city, and were frantically trying to call them. All cell phone contact was cut off, and no one could get a hold of anyone. One of our part-timers sat sobbing, as her daughter worked nearby and she couldn't get a hold of her. (Later, she did get a hold of her daughter, who was fine, thankfully). My boss also started to become panicked, as her husband had gone into the city for work right about that time. While she was out of the room, I heard her phone ring. I grabbed it. It was her husband--he had made it home. He heard what was happening in Penn Station, and immediately dove onto what was the last Midtown Direct train back. He said people around him were dazed, covered in dust, some of them bleeding. He wanted his wife to know he'd made it home. When I told her, she grabbed me and kissed me. Relief flooded her face.
I somehow remember being at Liz's house that day. Maybe I was dropping by for lunch, maybe it was after work. What I particularly remember was how quiet it was. Whippany is in line with Newark Airport, and Morristown Airport is not far away, so there is always the sound of planes. You could hear a pin drop outside. When one or two military planes flew over, it was actually scary. She and I had been in the city with some friends just the day before. Her birthday was that week, and we'd gone to see Stiff Little Finger at the Village Underground. A world of difference between the day before and today.
At one point in the afternoon, I stepped outside with our cataloging assistant, Kim. She and I were talking--I no longer remember what we said. We looked up and could see smoke floating in over the sky. We walked across the street to the Arboretum, and climbed the hill. There is a point where you can see the New York skyline. From there, we could see smoke billowing out of the Twin Towers.
I had been in the Twin Towers only once. My brother took me to the city for my 13th birthday, and we took the PATH to the World Trade Center. I found it to be a scary building, as I have always been afraid of heights. The escalators into the building were daunting. My brother had to tell me the story of a woman who got her high-heeled shoe caught in the escalator stairs and fell down. "There was nothing left to her by the time she hit bottom." I could always count on him for that sort of thing. My brother has been long dead--he didn't live to see this.
I got home from work. I was in the process of splitting up with my husband. We already had settled everything, and he was moving out in about 12 days. I was going to be moving shortly thereafter. I reflected on the fact that the divorce decision had started with an inferno (a huge oil tanker fire on Route 80 near our house the day I told him), and the official split was also preceded by an inferno. Not that this has anything to do with the event, but the association did strike me. He came home from his job, and said, "You've seen the news, huh?"
"Yep. Scary as shit."
"You know--I'm not usually scared by things I see on the news. But I don't think I'm going to sleep tonight."
"I know what you mean. I probably won't either."
Mike did move out 12 days later, when his sister and brother-in-law came to pack his things and drive South with him. I remember thinking, "Wow, I'm heading out into the world completely alone for the first time, at a time when everything is so uncertain." I wasn't necessarily scared, but it was surreal. The strangeness did not last long, as I realized I was well-equipped to face the unknown by myself. Ultimately, you face the unknown by yourself whether you like it or not. It's called "death".
I did not personally know anyone who died on September 11, except for a high school classmate, and I didn't hear about that until years later. I did not venture downtown after the attacks. The air was really bad, still thick with smoke, soot, and who knows what else. A former colleague did go into the city a week later to see a show. She said New York was eerily quiet. People were staying away. But that didn't last long. In fact, I started going to the city weekly within the year. For years I avoided the city, as my rather provincial family was discouraging--New York was too "dangerous". After September 11, I no longer gave a rat's ass. Everything is dangerous. And you walk into it with your eyes open, you don't run away from it. Running away would have been a win for the terrorists.