I called my apartment in Hagerstown, but Mike and Kelly weren’t there. I left a message: “Looks like we’re not going to Toronto after all, what with everything that’s going on. Apparently they closed the border. This fucking country, man – knock a couple of buildings down, and we fold up like a tent.”
I drove back to Dr. Deibler’s office to pick up Dana. There was a black and white television in his office that must have been thirty years old. It had a white plastic housing and round knobs for the channel and volume controls, and rabbit ears. It was on, and while I waited for Dana I watched a fuzzy image of Tom Brokaw try to explain what had happened.
Two flights originating from Logan International Airport in Boston, bound for Los Angeles, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were hijacked sometime after 8:00 a.m. At 8:46, American Flight 11 crashed into One World Trade Center (the North Tower), impacting between the 93rd and 99th floors. Sometime shortly before 9:00, a third flight was hijacked, American Airlines Flight 77, flying from Washington Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. At 9:03, United Flight 175 flew into Two World Trade Center (the South Tower), impacting between floors 78 and 84. At 9:28 a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, originating from Newark International Airport in Newark New Jersey, bound for San Francisco, was hijacked. American Flight 77 crashed into the western wall of the Pentagon at 9:37. At 9:59, the South Tower collapsed.
United Flight 93 crashed into an empty field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania that had once been a strip mine, at 10:03 a.m. At 10:28, the North Tower collapsed. New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani ordered lower Manhattan evacuated at 10:45, roughly the same time a mass evacuation of Washington, D.C. was taking place. At 10:50, five stories of the Pentagon collapsed. At 10:53, it was announced that New York’s primary elections, to be held that day, were officially canceled. There was yet no count of the dead, but estimates were as high as 30,000, depending on how many had been able to escape the towers before they fell. As Brokaw spoke, they cut to video of the twin towers, upper floors aflame, thick black smoke pouring out from the sides. On that black and white TV it looked like a newsreel from some war long ago concluded. I felt a sense of unreality that lingered for weeks afterward.
When we got back to Dana’s apartment, she called her parents to let them know she was okay. Shanksville, where United Flight 93 had gone down, the nearest to us of the three crash sites, was nearly three hours away. Still, at the time it seemed like a rational thing to do. Dana had made an appointment to get her hair cut before we were to leave for Toronto. She called to make sure they were still open: “I just wanted to make sure,” she told the woman on the phone, “with everything that’s happened.” I drove her to the salon. I sat in the car and waited on her. I turned on the radio and listened to Dan Rather try to explain what was happening. “If you’re just joining us,” he said at one point, apparently proceeding from the ludicrous premise that some of the people watching or listening to him had no idea what had taken place, “hijacked aircraft were crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in what appears to have been a deliberate, calculated assault on the seats of American financial and military power.” After her haircut, Dana and I drove to Barnes and Noble and I bought Ben Folds’ first solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs, which had come out that day.
I didn’t really see what it looked like until I got back to my apartment the next day. I watched that big TV that sat on the floor of our living room and saw the towers burn and fall in living color. I heard the words “al-Qaeda” for the first time, and the name Osama bin Laden. They said there was reason to believe that the passengers aboard United Flight 93 had heard about the first attacks and had fought back against their hijackers, had caused their plane to crash in Shanksville in order to ensure it didn’t find its way to its intended target, possibly the White House or Capitol. At some point I went to the answering machine and erased the message I had left.
My first day back at work I went into the office to talk to Joe, and he jokingly asked me, “Where were you Tuesday morning?” We had this other manager working there, T.J. I was sweeping up and had stopped in front of the TV in front of the diesel desk to watch the endless continuing coverage, which Fox News had christened “America United.” I saw T.J. approaching and resumed sweeping, but he pointed at the TV and said, “You can watch this if you want.” He was standing next to me some time later when we and a small crowd of customers gathered around and watched President Bush address a joint session of Congress.
Roger Ebert was in Toronto for the film festival, and he posted a piece on his website within a day or two of the attacks. He said the remainder of the festival had been indefinitely postponed, the border was closed, he had no idea how or when he was going to get home to Chicago to see his family. He wrote something else that has stayed with me ever since: he said the 20th century was over.
Ten days after the attacks, all the TV networks aired a special called “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” Bruce Springsteen played an extraordinary song called “My City of Ruin,” and Jack Nicholson helped answer the phones to accept donations for the victims and families of those lost in the attacks.
A few weeks later, I was at work again when they showed a video of Osama bin Laden that had been sent to al-Jazeera, which was apparently an Arab television network. He was speaking to the camera, addressing the world. I watched it on one of the little TV’s we had for sale. He said that America would never again know peace. It was like something out of a comic book.
The time started to pass quicker. First it was two weeks ago, then a month ago, then three months. At six months, the ruins of the World Trade Center, long since nicknamed Ground Zero, were still smoldering. The death toll had dropped from the 30,000 estimated that first day to around 3,000. Three thousand people were dead, and yet it was almost a relief that the number was so small. Over 100, maybe even over 200 people had jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of the twin towers before they fell, desperate to escape an agonizing death by fire and asphyxiation. In the North Tower, no one on the floors above the impact zone survived. In the South Tower, 18 people from the upper floors had been able to escape through a single passable stairwell. For weeks afterwards, they persisted in calling it a rescue operation. By the time the six month mark rolled around it had been redefined as a recovery, and the police and firemen who were still combing through the rubble 24 hours a day had to admit that they were now merely looking for body parts.
This was all five years ago. Thirteen months after September 11, 2001, Dana and I ended our relationship. In late July 2004, I moved out of my apartment and went back home to live with my parents, and haven’t spoken to Mike since. In December 2004 I ran into Ashley at a grocery store while I was there with Granny. In March 2005, Ashley and I started dating. In April 2006, I quit my job at Pilot and enrolled in Hagerstown Community College. Life is different now. A lot has changed in five years. The Pentagon has been repaired. The wreckage of United Flight 93 has been cleaned up from that field in Shanksville, although the medical examiner says there are so many tiny pieces that they will probably never find them all. There is still a hole where the twin towers once stood, though the ruins have been picked up and taken away.
At some point the final death toll was announced as 2,973, with 24 still officially classified as missing. I knew no one killed in any of the attacks that day. I have no personal connection. I have not been to the field in Pennsylvania, or the Pentagon, or the former site of the twin towers, though perhaps I should go. Perhaps we all should. The longest human life is only a blink of the universe’s eye, but that is the time we are given. All I know is I am here. I can walk outside, I can write, I can play baseball, I can laugh, I can love and be loved. Life will go on a short while. For the moment, I am one of the lucky ones.
Other notable events on September 11:
In the year 1297 William Wallace led an army of Scots to victory against the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
In 1786 the Annapolis Convention, which eventually led to the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation and the drafting of the current United States Constitution, convened in Annapolis, Maryland.
In 1918 the Boston Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in Game 6 of the 1918 World Series, clinching their last World Championship for 86 years.
In 1962 the Beatles recorded “Love Me Do,” their first single.
In 1985 Pete Rose hit safely for the 4,192nd time, breaking Ty Cobb’s Major League record for all-time most base hits.
D.H. Lawrence was born in 1885.
Astronaut Robert Crippen, who piloted the space shuttle Columbia on its first orbital flight, was born in 1937.
Legendary animator Max Fleischer, who made classic shorts featuring Popeye and Superman, and in the 1920’s also made films about Einstein’s theory of relativity and Darwin’s theory of evolution, died today in 1972.
Lorne Greene, star of Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica, died in 1987.
Actress Jessica Tandy died in 1994.
Actor John Ritter died in 2003.
Among the 2,397 casualties of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 was David Angell, co-creator of the television shows Cheers and Frasier. Angell was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11 when it struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Also killed when that plane crashed were flight attendants Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney, who maintained telephone contact with the ground during the hijacking, and are responsible for much of our understanding of the events of that morning.