Remembering 9/11/2001

Photo credit: wallyg on Flickr

I have never written a personal account of my experience on September 11, 2001.

I’ve honored the sacrifices made by our troops and their families and I’ve addressed the war on terror, both on this blog and elsewhere.  But I’ve avoided committing my personal thoughts to paper and pixel, partly because those feelings are intensely personal and difficult to capture, but also because I feel guilty for feeling like my experience matters.

I was in New York City when the first plane hit, but I was 15 miles away from the World Trade Center. While I knew two people who perished, they were not close friends or family members.  And like so many Americans, especially those in their teens and 20s, I had my naïveté about the world stripped violently away that morning, my sense of security obliterated.  But what right did I have to feel pain and grief when so many others never had a last goodbye with loved ones?

When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. I was blow drying my hair, getting ready to teach a 9:30 a.m. class.  Running late, I had to forgo my usual morning pilgrimage to 7-11 and instead dashed across the street to the bodega to grab a cup of coffee-esque sludge as the second tower was hit.

“Everything’s gone to hell,” said the guy who handed me my paper cup.

I smiled politely and nodded as I paid, thinking the intended meaning had gotten lost in his thick Korean accent.

“You heard? You heard? The twin towers are on fire. Two planes hit the World Trade Center.”

Like a dolt, I replied, “Really?”  As if this man would have any reason to lie about something like that.

“Go, go. Put your radio on,” he said.

I ran to my car and flipped on 1010 WINS for the short ride to campus.  The broadcasters were using words like “unbelievable” and “disaster.”  They hadn’t moved on to “terrorism” yet.

I was struck by the grotesque contrast between what I was hearing and what I was seeing. The sky in New York had never been that fiercely blue, so clear it almost hurt to look up.  A slight breeze rustled the trees on the parkway, cooling the air to a perfect compromise between summer and fall. And yet reporters on the radio spoke of terrifying explosions and the thick plumes of smoke that seemed to carry shreds of paper over the East River.

Arriving at work, I caught my first glimpses of the burning towers on computer monitors as I walked past my colleagues’ offices.  I felt a growing tightness in my chest and stomach as I realized the likelihood of more casualties than I could imagine.  I wondered how many World Trade Center workers were running late like me.

A roomful of laughing, carefree 18-year-olds greeted me on the lower level of the library building. It was utterly surreal, these oblivious freshman faces expecting me to teach while Manhattan burned.

But I did.  Numbly, flatly, I made it through the longest 90 minutes of my life.  As we left the classroom, one student explained to her friend, “It’s totally karma, this World Trade Center thing. These bankers are just, like, getting what they have coming for being greedy.”

I still wonder, would she have said the same thing if she knew both towers had crumbled while we were cocooned in that classroom?

I spent the afternoon migrating from desk to quad, quad to desk, needing to be near people, but needing even more to get in touch with my parents, both of whom had meetings scheduled in Manhattan.  The phone lines were jammed and the volume of email being handled by our campus servers was delaying delivery by hours, so it was mid-afternoon when I heard from my mom. Like a little kid who’s been lost in a department store, hearing her voice made me cry.  It was 24 hours before I reached my boyfriend.  We wouldn’t hear from my father for two days.

Gathered outside in the afternoon with friends and coworkers, the eerie stillness of the sky was interrupted every so often by the high-pitched squeal of a fighter jet flying over the metro area.  I had never seen a plane traveling so low.  But even more chilling was the way all other aircraft had disappeared from the sky.  We didn’t know how many had been grounded and how many might have been repurposed as weapons of mass destruction.  Without any sense of the irrationality in what we were saying, we entertained fears that our campus could be the next target.  Planes were falling out of the sky – why not onto a college campus?

I wanted to do something – anything – but hospitals were turning away blood donors, and only those trained as first responders were being asked to report to Ground Zero. There was nothing to do but go home to the television.

I spent the night at my mom’s house glued to the television, realizing that our country was under attack yet not understanding how that could be.  We watched people escape the intense heat and smoke by plunging to their deaths on the rooftops and blacktop below.  We had no frame of reference, no point of comparison to cope with these scenes as they played on a seemingly endless loop.

Over the next few days was when I truly realized everything had fallen apart.

A dear friend of my mother’s spent night after night waiting for news of her brother-in-law, an NYPD Emergency Services Squad officer and volunteer firefighter.  His remains were never found.

A student who worked for me left campus to be with her family as they awaited news of her father that would never come.

Everywhere I went, the faces of the dead stared back at me from flyers posted by families looking for their lost loved ones.  I knew they were gone, and yet I couldn’t stop looking at the photos and other details, hoping beyond hope that just one of them might be walking the streets with amnesia.

I went to the Union Square vigil a day or two after the attacks.  The cloying scent of cheap candles and cheaper incense helped to mask the smell coming from Ground Zero as I walked among the photos, flowers, and prayer cards.  I saw heartfelt displays of patriotism, but by that point, there were also anti-American statements chalked onto the pavement.  There was one I’ll never forget: “The real cause of terrorism is U.S. foreign policy.” Another said, “Abolish religion to end terrorism.”

I made my way down to Washington Square Park that night and found my feet frozen in place across the street from the arch.  The iconic marble structure that had once framed the twin towers now framed nothing but the haze of acrid smoke and the blindingly bright floodlights at Ground Zero.  I stood there for a long time with my shirt pulled up over my face to filter out the worst of the filthy air, but I didn’t go any further.  I couldn’t.

As a kid, I spent countless hours in the PATH station below the World Trade Center, hanging out with my boyfriend (now husband) until it was time for him to catch the train.  A few months before the collapse of the towers, I had jury duty in lower Manhattan and had lunch on the concourse level.  And less than a week before the attacks, I drove past the towers with my sister, who was moving out of state the next day.  She looked up and with as much drama as she could muster said, “Goodbye twin towers.”

I’ve never been to Ground Zero, and I’m not sure I’ll ever go. I don’t want to see a hole in the ground.  What I want to see is a pair of ugly steel skyscrapers filled with people from all over the world living their lives in a free and secure United States of America.


3 Responses to “Remembering 9/11/2001”

  1. boldandbald on September 12th, 2009 4:28 pm

    Wow, Jenn. Very moving. I think a lot of people feel as you do, that their story is insignificant compared to those of the people that were more personally impacted by the events of that day. However, I don’t believe that any of us were unchanged by what happened. All of us have a story of some kind, and they are all significant to each of us. Thank you for sharing yours.

  2. Jenn Q. Public on September 12th, 2009 4:57 pm

    Thanks, boldandbald. “Insignificant” is exactly the word I was grasping for as I wrote this.

  3. Janis on September 18th, 2009 7:28 pm

    Strange to say it, but I’m glad to hear someone else say that they don’t want to go to Ground Zero either. I remember visiting NYC when I was about 14, and not being terribly imrpessed, except for the WTC. It was just cool, just the sheer size of it, and how it reminded me of a giraffe. Spindly from far away, but immensely massive up close.

    In my head, I don’t want to overwrite that memory of two skinny, insanely tall buildings humming with human energy. I want that to remain in my mind without being overwritten by a giant empty hole. I know what the NYC skyline is supposed to look like, and I want to keep that image on my eyes and in my mind.

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