I’ve told my 9-11 story often, but have I written it? I must have. How will I write it now, twelve years later? I just did a mental stumble there—why do this? Does my story matter? If it matters to me, then it matters. There, I just stumbled again. I need to get out of my own way.
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was on a plane about to take off from La Guardia. I had been visiting my daughter, Laura, and her then fiancé, Scott, who lived in the city. As we approached the taxiway, the pilot announced that we were returning to the gate because there was smoke coming from the Trade Center and a preliminary report that a plane had flown into it. I was belted into a seat on the wrong side to see the towers, so I did not then comprehend the magnitude of what the pilot so calmly reported. I imagined a little plume of smoke.
We deplaned, took our carryons and went into the terminal. First I found a restroom and then a phone. I called the nursing unit secretary at the hospital in Maine where I worked to say that my flight was delayed and I would probably not make it back in time for my three o’clock shift. Carol said, “Get out of there! It’s a terrorist attack!” And at the same time an overhead announcement said to leave the building. Outside the terminal people stood in confused groups. Some had a little information—the second tower had been hit, a plane had been shot down, DC was under attack.
As I write this my skin still crawls. I have to put down my pen, get dressed, brush my hair. Breathe.
With no directions and the cell system gone when the towers fell, a large group, maybe a hundred, dragged luggage to a nearby Marriott. The hotel staff mobilized an information center—a conference room with a big-screen TV where we could watch endless towers falling endlessly. They gave us coffee and bottled water. Manhattan was sealed off, no exit, no trains, buses, cars, subways. No planes. We could not leave. We shared landlines to let family and friends know that we were stuck but safe.
I could not reach my daughter’s cell. She knew at that moment that a plane had hit the first tower within two minutes of my scheduled takeoff. I finally reached a friend in Maine, who called my sister, also in Maine, who emailed my daughter and my son that I was okay.
Marriott hustled up a buffet lunch and asked that we arrange to share rooms for the night. No one was going anywhere but for the quick-thinking few who had managed to carpool with rental cars available near the airport. Those who did not wish to share, or who could not afford a room, would be provided with cots in one of the conference rooms. I joined three other women in a room. We said that this experience would forever bond us, but I never saw or heard from them again.
Wednesday morning the city reopened and the hotel shuttled us to subway stops. Laura met me near the Amtrac station. We were now in a no-fly zone. Railroad staff said that anyone who had held travel reservations for the previous day, plane or train or bus, was welcome to a free trip out of the city. As I stood in the sun, the sky already clear of smoke, Laura said, “They need mental health workers. Stay.” I again called my psych unit at Maine Med and asked for coverage. The Red Cross, of which I was then a member, assigned me to the Armory where police officers were taking missing-persons reports. I was to be there only Thursday evening, after which cohesive, long-term support teams would be in place.
Laura and Scott went to work. All day Thursday I walked in Manhattan. Someone gave me a small American flag, which I stuck onto my backpack. It fell off and a NY stranger picked it up and returned it to me. Flyers of missing persons began to cover vertical surfaces. I wandered toward Grand Central, thinking that I would buy some of my favorite chocolate bars in the shopping court there. I detoured into a nearby office supply store, why I don’t recall. The clerk said the area was being evacuated because there was a bomb threat involving Grand Central. Pedestrians flooded Fifth Avenue. As I passed the NY Public Library, a military plane flew overhead. A man started to run, screaming, “We’re gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” Police corralled him before he could spark a panic.
Both Laura and Scott worked in that area and their offices were evacuated. We checked in by cell and met at their apartment. Laura’s friend Heather joined us and we watched repeated clips of the towers flaming and falling. We saw film of another building crumbling. We feared that all of Manhattan might domino into the sea. Not since Pearl Harbor had anyone caused such devastation on American soil. And this was a non-military target. As Giuliano said, the loss would be more than we could bear. But bear it we did. We had no choice.
Thursday evening I walked to the Armory and joined a cobbled-together team of people meant to support the shocked families of the dead and missing, the shocked and exhausted police taking their reports. I sat quite a while with two officers who seemed calm and clear headed. They talked a lot about their homes and families, still intact. I talked with a woman—no, I listened to her talk about a daughter and a son who worked in the towers. She looked stunned, shut up in sadness. I urged the man with her to stay close, see that she ate and slept as best she could.
The rest of that evening is a blur of light contact, a hand on a shoulder, an account of a best friend—gone. I saw tears and self-control, heroes in the face of extremity. Late that night I walked back to the apartment, feeling that the sidewalks of New York were safe. The worst had already happened.
On Saturday morning I rode the train to Boston, where the killers had taken control of the planes they would use as weapons. I felt and still feel the unreality of it, the helplessness, all of us amazed that America was not the bastion of safety we had believed it to be. We grieved and will until the 9-11 generation is laid to rest and the fallen towers become pages in our history books.
I’m not sure what to do with this story, not sure of its value among so many others more dramatic. Sometimes I write to remember.
A year later I visited the city—the city that almost needs no name—and still in the grid of a traffic light I saw dust, thick gray dust.
Have I got it right? I wish I had the journals I wrote in at the time, but they are soggy and illegible in a landfill somewhere, or recycled, the pages shredded into confetti for some celebration, maybe pulped into wrapping paper for new shoes or china.
We’ve had rain along Colorado’s Front Range where we live now, six inches in two days and more to come, causing floods, evacuations, at least one death. It’s tempting to compare 9-11 tears to rain, but clouds don’t remember. The sky does not care. That’s our job.