Sunday, September 11, 2011


Like most people across the United States, I suppose, my first recollection of the morning of September 11, 2011 is that it was the most perfectly beautiful day - sunny and warm, without a cloud in the sky. Which seems like the ultimate irony.

Meelyn was eight and Aisling was six and they were both sitting at their little tables in the living room doing their schoolwork. I'd just finished teaching Aisling a math lesson when my husband had to leave for work. We kissed him goodbye and he cheerfully drove off, waving at the three of us as he drove off down the street. I turned on the television to put it on the cable channel that plays the classical music and the screen automatically came up to FoxNews. One of the anchors, with a grim face, was just announcing that the first tower had been hit by a plane, and of course it was being portrayed as a tragic accident, some kind of terrible pilot error, maybe. As I was standing there in front of the TV taking in that bad news, my husband's SUV came screeching back into the driveway.

"Something bad has happened," he said as he crashed back into the house.

"I know," I said soberly, indicating the television and keeping my voice low so that the girls wouldn't hear. "I just turned it on and saw the news. What happened? They're saying on Fox that a plane hit one of the twin towers."

My husband was looking at the television, at the smoke pouring from the side of what we now know was WTC one. "It wasn't just a plane. They're saying it was a jet."

I was shocked. "How can that be? A jet wouldn't be flying low enough to crash into a building in the city."

We both turned our attention to the television just in time to see the footage of the second jet, looking huge and surreal and so very wrong there among the skyscrapers, like seeing a rattlesnake curled up in your baby's crib, go crashing into the second tower, triggering a huge explosion that sent a massive fireball bursting out of the wounded building. Both towers were on fire, blazing, smoking. It looked like something out of a movie - how could something so shocking be real? - something that couldn't possibly happen on such a beautiful day.

A day without a cloud in the sky, until now.

"That was no accident," my husband said as the news anchor on Fox gabbled, "Another plane has just flown into the second tower! The second tower has also been hit! This can't be an accident!"

"I have to go to work," my husband said. He hugged me long and hard. "I'll call you later."

I nodded wordlessly and turned my attention back to the television. I felt very alone. All my friends were at work. My parents were vacationing on Prince Edward Island in Canada. But my friend Cato, who had just moved to Cincinnati with her family, was a stay-at-home mom. I called her and she answered with a trembling voice. Her TV was on FoxNews too, so we sat together while Mee and Aisling did their school work and her daughter Rebecca played on the floor at her feet. We sat there for about four hours, sometimes talking, but mostly just sitting in silence, but we were there together.

Here are the memories that stand out for me.

1. The worst part was seeing the people jumping out of the buildings. That image of the man and woman climbing together out of the building onto that windowsill and then jumping, hands clasped, was the worst thing I have ever seen. Ever. The news anchor said in a strangled, agonized voice, "People are jumping. They're jumping from the upper floors." Cato and I sat and sobbed, unable to even speak.

"Mommy, why are you crying?" Aisling came and asked me, her face scrunched with worry. "Are you sick?"

"Mommy's sad," I told her. "This is a sad day today."

2. The second worst thing I remember seeing was that camera shot from the harbor after the towers fell, where the entire skyline of New York City was obscured by smoke and dust. I've never been to New York City, but like a million other movie-goers, I'd seen that famous view a thousand times. Like the harbor view of the Sydney Opera House and the view of the bridge in the San Francisco harbor, it's probably one of the most easily identifiable landmark views in the world. But not covered up. Not obscured. I kept having to remind myself that this was happening, right now. It was real, not some apocalyptic movie scene.

3. The third thing I remember is the horror of watching that same cloud of ash, smoke, dust and debris roll like a massive freight train down the streets of Manhattan, hungry and malevolent. Watching the people run, screaming in raw terror. "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," Cato said from her end of the phone. "Oh, God. It's going to kill them."

We heard that clip from a young woman, a reporter maybe? The one who'd been standing on the sidewalk with a camera, filming, when the cloud started rolling toward her. She began screaming,.and a man threw open the door to a shop and pulled her inside, slamming the door as the cloud went past. "You saved my life!" she gabbled. "You saved my life!"

4. Another horrible, horrible thing was watching the people in the streets after the buildings had collapsed and the cloud had passed. People staggering around in a critical state of shock, many of them with blood smeared in the ash and dirt on their faces. Some of them sat on curbs, their heads clutched in their hands. You couldn't see them without wanting to take each one of them by the hand and lead them somewhere safe, somewhere clean and peaceful. You couldn't see them without wanting to just hold them and rock them in your arms, wash their faces, find bandages for their wounds. You wanted to tell them that everything would be all right, but that was something nobody knew. With the horrors piling up by the moment, who knew if this was the worst, if something even more awful was going to happen?

5. "Let's roll."

In some ways, it's hard to imagine that it's been ten years. On the other hand, those memories are so clear, it could have all happened just last week. I know that there are going to be a lot of memorial services televised today. I know that the cable news channels will be having all day coverage of the camera footage of that day. I probably won't watch any of it. It brings back too many memories of grief and fear and that awful feeling of helplessness that there was just nothing to do but sit and wait and watch.

I don't want to have all those feelings and images brought back to me today. But then again, I know I'll never forget.


Amy said...

No words. Just here with you.

Kayte said...

We were at Mass at SEAS and came home to tune in the tv and see it happen on film...Alex said, "Cool!" and I realized that he thought it wasn't real...that it was some sort of movie stunt or something and I explained that it was real and what was happening (he was almost 9). Matt didn't want to see or know about it...he said it was too sad. Mark was on his way to Lafayette for a trial and listened to it all on the radio and when he got to court they had it on all the televisions and could barely go through with the trial hearing. The boys and I were scheduled to be at St. Augustine's Home for the Aged at 10 that morning with the homeschool group to visit with the elderly, play checkers, etc. and when we arrived, they had us take all the older residents outside for a walk around the grounds instead so that they would not ask to have the televisions on and told us not to mention anything about it all to them until they could have the priest tell them all about it later, so we instructed all the kids not to say a word and I don't think they did. I remember swimming those next few days and how strange (and actually lovely) it was that there were no planes in the quiet.