Where were you on 9/11?

Over my lifetime there are two questions that come up periodically:

  • Where were you on 9/11?
  • Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?

Both of these events are wired deep into my memory.

Kennedy Assassination

On November 22, 1963, I was on the auditorium stage at Hilton High School practicing for an upcoming play. I no longer remember the play, but I remember another student interrupting us to share the news. We quickly decided that the practice session that day wan’t going to be very useful and we all hurried home to watch TV.

We had a black and white TV and for the next three days I sat riveted in front of the TV fascinated with the story and with the implications even though I was just a freshman in high school. It is hard to remember in today’s instant news world that it took a long time to get some idea of what really went on. Through late Friday night, Saturday and on into Sunday morning, I did not want to leave the TV set. When it came time to go to church, I insisted on staying at home to learn what was going to happen to Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused killer.

I was the only one at home to watch Jack Ruby kill Oswald. It was so surreal watching the event unfold live. I wasn’t sure it was live news or just another edition of the Perry Mason TV series.

While I have no idea what the lasting impact of that weekend long ago was, I do know that every time there is an lifestyle shattering event, I am drawn back to the TV to watch it unfold.

9/11 Terrorist Attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I’d gotten up very early to take the 5:20am ferry to Seattle from our home on Bainbridge Island, WA. We had an Attenex Board meeting at 8:00am that morning and as usual I had procrastinated in getting my slides ready. As I settled into my desk at 6:30am at the tallest building in Seattle, the Columbia Center, an announcement came over the building’s public address system. “Please don’t be alarmed but we are going to be stress testing the elevator system this morning.  You will feel lots of movement in the floors and may hear some metallic sounds,” blared the anonymous announcer. A few minutes later my floor shook and undulated for about 30 seconds.

I scrambled back to my Powerpoint Slides and tried to put the elevator testing out of my mind. Then my phone rang. When I picked it up a very stressed voice from my wife shouted for me to go find a TV and watch what was happening to the World Trade Towers in New York City.  She’d just gotten a call from her sister back east. However, I knew that there were no TVs anywhere in our building complex, so I decided to jump online.

Even though we were deep into the Internet Age in 2001, there was nothing available on any of the search engines about events happening in New York and Washington.  Things we take for granted today about reading news in real time and being able to watch video from any news station or bystander with a camera phone wasn’t all that prevalent as recently as 2001.

Deciding that it couldn’t be that big a deal if there was nothing happening on the Internet news sources, I once again returned to my Powerpoint slides. The PA announcer interupted me one more time with the announcement to evacuate the building. Somebody in charge had finally realized that the Columbia Tower was the largest building in Seattle and could be a target for other terrorists.

After sending email messages to all of the employees and our board members that we were cancelling work at the office for the day, I headed outside into the mouth of the TV cameras doing person on the street interviews. When I got home, I realized that they were interviewing the Columbia Tower tenants to see if we were scared that we might be the next target.

Not knowing what was really happening while we were out of touch on the ferry ride home, I jokingly made the comment that the Seattle Mariners had stuck a “Hit it Here Cafe” sign on the top of the Columbia Tower for the terrorists. Once again, my sick humor fell flat.

I arrived home and parked myself in front of our color TV mesmerized for the next 48 hours. For many hours, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then the World Trade Towers started falling. The engineer part of my brain was amazed that the buildings had held up as long as they did. The humanity side of my brain couldn’t fathom the dark side of man’s inhumanity to man.

While I was catatonic in front of the TV, my wife, Jamie, did a great job of connecting with all of our family members to understand who was travelling and determine whether everyone was safe. For the next month, we were engrossed in all of the personal tales of the trials and tribulations of all of those scattered around the world when they shut down all commercial air traffic.

Of Shoes and Planes and Shocking Facts

The video imagery and photo records of the 9/11 attacks are horrific along with the many first person stories. Our most engaging first person story came from the adult son of my wife’s high school exchange student, Vikram Somaya. Vikram’s mother, Brinda Somaya, relayed some of this story in the aftermath of the attacks and we all encouraged Vikram to write up his experience. On 9/16/2001, Vikram wrote the following on his blog “The Perfect Knot”:

“I love the perfect tie knot. After my years in high school, where a tie was a necessity, it was a rare day that demanded a tie and by inference the perfect tie knot. On the morning of Tuesday 11th of September, I think I managed to achieve the perfect tie knot.

“The World Financial Center, resplendent in its domed perfection had been the stage for a presentation by our company on September 10th and a group of us were headed back in, laptops in hand to make another presentation to a large financial services company. My little technology start-up was going up against some very large movers and shakers in the technology space and there had been much preparation and anxiety over the final presentation.

“I never wake up early, ever. I am allergic to early morning sunshine. This happened in my years in college when a nocturnal existence seemed the only way to exist. On the morning of September 11th, my eyes popped open at 7 am and they entirely refused to close again though I made a game effort for exactly 11 minutes to stay still and hope the sandman came back for a quick visit. When I finally conceded defeat, I decided that in order to make myself feel better, I should not just dress for success but actually eat breakfast – another first for the year.

“My cabbie was a garrulous Pakistani who wanted extensive information on my lineage. Upon hearing that I was a fellow-citizen of the subcontinent, he then decided that his next mission was to push his taxi to its mechanical best in order to render perfect service. As I jerked around the cab down the FDR drive towards Downtown, I hit the voicemail on my cellphone and listened to people asking for work and return calls and made a short list in my head for the hour I would spend in the World Financial Center before the other members of my team arrived. One of them was a call from my one of my managers, David Murphy and I knew that I had dropped him off at the World Trade Center Marriot the day before after the previous day’s meetings.

“I hit the redial and David’s hearty voice came onto the phone with some unfortunate news. He went on to tell me about how two of our group, Bassel and Steve were sitting in an airport with their flights pushed out to a 12 noon arrival from a 9 am arrival. David said that that Paul Volk, the coordinator of our meeting was now making calls to reschedule the meeting with the company at the WFC and that I should just sit tight and wait on a new time.

“I looked down at my perfectly knotted tie and knew that I was looking far too good to go back home. I thanked David and told him to keep me posted on how things were shaping up and decided, in a move that changed my life to keep heading downtown to have my breakfast, at the World Trade Center instead. I remember thinking to myself – ‘have cellphone, will travel.’

“The cab pulled off as I continued to listen to voicemail and chugged along West Street. Above me the shadow of the mighty downtown buildings were dwarfed by the shadows created by those greatest of New York duoliths – the World Trade Center Twins.

“As I leaned back to shut my eyes for a minute, my cabbie, in typical New York style overshot World Trade 2, as I opened my mouth to tell him to pull over, we both heard a delicate thrumming. The sound was not as loud as people would expect. The first plane, to my eyes, seemed to float in, almost delicately, the twin engines rumbling almost ashamedly as it impacted the building above me. I watched out the window in shock as above me the engines burst into white-hot radiance along the upper side of the World Trade Center 2. The cab jumped, just once and then there was silence. Money seemed to fly into my hand and I thrust the money into my cabbie’s hands and then ducked back into the cab for the receipt. I wanted that receipt. I wanted something to show I was there. I pulled my bags out and walked towards the bridge right by World Trade Center 2, about 30 feet from the building itself. My eyes were glued to the great smoking crater in the side of World Trade Center 2. There was a strange quiet to the scene after this first impact. There was no panic in the street. People walked around, slightly dazed talking about how they had seen the plane or asking what had happened and why the building was sending plumes of liquid-dark smoke into the glorious summer sky.

“The side of the building was not raining down debris. What was coming down was paper, reams of paper, great streaming curlicues of shredded paper. There was absolutely no sign of human presence at first. The building shedded paper blood and leaked flame from the great wound but all of us saw nothing that spoke to the human knot in the great building-city.

“As I got out and stared at the great wound, my phone flew into my hand begging attention and with a start I remembered that David was still in the World Trade Center Marriot. I thumbed through my numbers and hit the redial again with my eyes straying back up to the great inferno. David got on the phone and without waiting words poured out of my body – of planes hitting buildings and burning and bombs and the world trade center and panic. David listened and I felt disbelief and thankfully he said he would move and went to do so. I hung up and pulled out my blackberry email pager and started hitting letters, words that I needed to write. As they flowed out onto the screen addressed to my company, I looked back up and the side of the building gaped at me, lost and hurt.

“I remember conversations flying through the small knot of the people standing in the shadow of the enormous buildings. A man next to me looked up at the 107 stories of steel and glass towering above him and mused out loud – ‘I wonder why it’s not falling?’ I remember saying – ‘They have some incredible internal reinforcement.’ All of us were standing in the middle of the subsequent-debris zone between the two bridges in front of the World Trade Center 2 building about 10 feet from the ones closer to the building. As one we looked up, unable to move or tear ourselves away from the scene. It seemed like an hour, but I am told eighteen minutes later, the sky ripped apart once again.

“I was watching the paper fall when the air started thrumming again and like every corny action movie, the seconds seemed to lengthen into hours as a huge, unbelievably large plane shot out of the gap between the buildings beyond and ripped away all our shock, our confusion, our interest in staying there. The plane was huge, more then IMAX-huge, more then Stallone-Ah-nuld huge, larger then anything I had ever seen before and so close I felt that I could reach out and touch it. The plane was almost vertical from where I stood – the United logo and colors were so white and vivid that for minutes after the plane impacted, they stood out in my vision like fiery sky-writing, refusing to go away. I could hear the unreal whine of jet engines at 500 feet away, the turbines whining upwards as the plane seemed to leap forward into the side of World Trade 1 as it vanished from view behind the great bulk of the already burning World Trade 2 building.

“For a second, there was a great stillness and then the fire erupted out from the building, the plane vaporizing and repeating the same magic trick that the first jet displayed in front of my disbelieving eyes. As one creature, the 100 or so of us in front of the building turned and ran. I heard screaming and saw eyes darting to the sky searching for more of these angels of death. I heard a familiar scream – my own as I felt the laptop bag slam into my jacket again and again as I ran through the crowds heading down West Street. Just before we reached the second bridge, my legs stopped moving and I had to stop and turn. My blackberry and phone leaped in my hands and more emails poured out as I hit dial and redial on number after number. I poured words out into the phone as I tried to contract David. I left messages and called others, my mind reeling. Around me tens of people watched me dial and then asked for my phone, which was then used to call others and others and more others. About ten minutes into this the phone stopped working, the delicate LED bars fading into nothingness as the cell phone signals died.

“Just before I ran, just before the United Airlines plane hit, I saw my first jumper. I didn’t truly register her till I ran but I saw her leap – swan graceful out into the burning air. As I waited near the second bridge, I saw others. I remember not believing it at first. How was it possible that anyone would jump from 95 stories above the ground, it had to be debris or paper or jet parts or anything. But it wasn’t anything, it was people. People dressed like me or any of the many other workers gathered around me watching with eyes that were already glazed and dead. I sat down on the curb, my phone still dialing and watched as the buildings burned and the people leapt.

“During the days that follow, the image that comes back – unbidden and unwelcome is the sight of the second plane. It came in faster then death and huge – unstoppable and that one image for me seemed to bridge the gap between the real and the unreal. However, at night, when I cannot sleep, the people come back again and again and again. There were so many flailing limbs and delicate hands falling, seemingly forever before they hit the debris at the base. The air around them seemed to crackle and rip as they fell while the paper continued to drift down around them mocking their efforts to slow themselves down as they cut through the air.

“I looked up at the helicopters circling the building, wondering why no-one could get closer and pull some of those people off the building. The smoke poured out of the tops of the buildings and the helicopters swung around but never close enough to be any comfort. And still the people jumped. I saw a couple, hands clasped, a group falling like clothed birds, individuals slipping off the burning face and plunging down past the staring glass stories.

“I couldn’t move, couldn’t leave, couldn’t stop looking. There was no greater shock to me then making the jump from cinema and television to unadulterated vision and being ripped apart by the emotional sandstorm that whips through one, wearing down resolve, courage, focus and conscience. I couldn’t run towards the Marriot, I couldn’t run towards the building, I couldn’t do anything but sit and watch people jump.

“I felt the need to tell others though and as my phone sat stilled, my little blackberry hummed and sang out emails to the people in my life. They were short, ten words or under but there were many of them.

“As I had been sitting there, policemen had been directing traffic out of the area and moving people but suddenly there seemed to be a rawness and a bicycle policeman walked up to us and got us on our feet. ‘You have to move,’ he kept saying and every time he walked out of my immediate point of view, I sat down again, my eyes straying up to the burning towers. Nearly an hour had passed.

“Finally the policeman walked up to me and said ‘Please  – you need to start walking’ and I turned and walked. I walked down West Street, my head spinning. Around me I watched people come out of offices and side streets, looking behind me at the great burning edifices. I didn’t stop, I needed a phone. Suddenly I heard a great groan. I was now nearly 12 blocks away and turned to watch one of the buildings lean and then collapse, it’s spirit drained. I turned and kept walking to the Saatchi and Saatchi building on Houston and Hudson where I walked in as people flooded out and headed to an office I once used to work at. The office was nearly empty save for some old friends who were contacting friends who lived downtown and evacuating the few remaining employees. Charles Rosen, a good friend watched me walk in as he worriedly called friends and colleagues who might have been in the area. I walked to a phone and called David again and again. Finally I called my manager in Seattle, Nick Besbeas who I had tried unsuccessfully to reach from my cellphone and left a voicemail asking about David – saying I had sent him email and voicemail but had heard nothing and I was very worried.

“After some more calls, I had to leave. As I walked through the city, people stood around me rooted in shock watching downtown burn. I didn’t look back once. I just wanted to be home.

“I remember walking through Greenwich Village and hearing about the Pentagon. On the streets, televisions had been hooked up to extension cords and people were gathered five thick around each screen. I didn’t want to watch. I just wanted to be home.

“I remember walking into the house, the grief just beginning to hit as my roommate Minki got up in concern. The TV sang and seemed to take away a lot of the reality of the situation. The familiar screen burbled with terrible images but it had done so many times in the past – real and cine-created and they distance me immediately into a quiet sense of coma. I felt the dullness vanish replaced by a keening self-pity that was both repulsive and comforting at the same time.

“Until I walked into the house, I had not touched my perfect tie-knot. I finally took it off and slept that night wondering when I would enjoy the perfect tie-knot again and hoping that questioning would keep away the images that still flash past my eyes.”

These two very public events stick in my memory along with the happier private life events of my marriage to my wife, Jamie, to the births of our three children – Elizabeth, Maggie and John – and to the recent weddings of Elizabeth and Maggie. However, those are stories for another day.

On this President’s Day weekend 2012, peace be with all of us as we keep in mind those who have died in declared and undeclared wars for our special nation.

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