Thursday, September 11, 2008

It Was A Gorgeous Day For An Atrocity

[by Mr.Hengist]

I can remember walking to my car and looking up at a stunningly crystal clear blue sky and thinking how spectacularly gorgeous it was, and how I’d have liked to have just stood there and stared at it but, alas, I had to get to work by 8:30AM and I was already tight for time. Shortly after I got to work I was sitting at my desk, working, and half-listening to the president and designer of the company for which I work yelling on the phone at his guy in Italy about a production issue, when he stopped short, and asked, quietly, “What?” and after a short pause, he said, “I’ll call you later.” It got my attention. Something was up.

He walked over to the Assistant to the Controller and asked her to bring up CNN on her computer. I was just a few desks away, and I opened my browser and did the same. The CNN webpage was loading slowly, so I got back to work and checked in a few minutes later. The pictures weren’t loading, but I remember reading something about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. I recalled a picture I’d seen of the Empire State Building after a B-25 had crashed into it in 1945 making a gaping wound in the side of the building. The CNN website was slower than I’d ever seen it. I could call up the front page sans pictures but not any of the articles.

The enormity of the day unfolded slowly, and my memory has gotten somewhat hazy over the years. My second assistant told me it was a stunt plane, something she’d heard on the radio. When the Controller told me what kind of plane it was, he asked me if it was big. “Oh, yeah,” I told him, “that’s a big plane. Transcontinental big!” After ten or twenty minutes I was able to get a picture from CNN but I could hardly make sense of it. I could see what seemed to be a slanted line on one of the towers with some smoke coming out in a few places. It wasn’t at all what I had imagined.

I remember when my second assistant told me that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. It was then that I knew this was no accident, that this was a deliberate attack on America, and I told her so. My second assistant spontaneously asked me the question we’d hear a lot in the following years, “Why do they hate us?” I mumbled a wishy-washy answer about how the United States had done some bad things in the world, but as the words came out of my mouth I knew that they were inadequate. I didn’t know what to tell her.

I remember when she told me that one of the towers fell. I was stunned, I looked away, and my unfocused gaze fell on a window overlooking green grass and parking lot asphalt, and I saw none of it, as in my minds’ eye I saw one of the towers toppling over, and I was awash in grief. “Oh, no,” I said, “Oh, no. All those people.” The people in the towers, the people on the ground, there had to have been thousands of people dead.

I remember later talking to my first assistant about it, and I was telling her we’d have to see how things played out. “This is war!” she shouted at me, and I thought, war against whom? Who had done this? How could we be at war when we didn’t even know who’d attacked us?

I remember the Controller telling me that there was a fourth plane hijacked and still on the loose. I looked him in the eyes and told him, “They’re going to shoot it down.” He turned away wordlessly, but later he came up to me and told me with some measure of astonishment that he’d thought about it and I was right.

I remember walking over to where my assistants were listening to a radio, and hearing the announcement calling for all active or retired firefighters, police, and medical workers to report for duty if able, and later that all the major roads going into the city had been closed. In the late afternoon my second assistant broke down in tears, and she told me she hadn’t been able to reach her father; he worked near the Trade Center and nobody knew if he was OK. I reassured her as best I could and explained that the cellphone networks are easily overwhelmed when a disaster strikes, so it was to be expected that his phone was unusable.

There were all kinds of conflicting reports about how many planes had been taken throughout the day, and at one point around mid-day there was a rumor reported on the radio that the Supreme Court building had been bombed. When I heard that I told the office staff that early news reports were often wrong, and that could take hours or days before a coherent, mostly-factual narrative emerges.

I kept on working throughout the day. I wasn’t going to let this stop me. I had a job to do and what was happening was fifteen miles away. Our NYC office was fine, and of the few people in the city I knew I could reach none f them, and there was work to be done. Besides which, I work for Israeli Jews, and after all their family and countrymen had been through with the Second Intifada I didn’t want to appear to be a weak American, unable to face assault and adversity. Still, I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, a leaden weight of dreadful haunting fear that would be my constant companion for the next several days.

I remember that after work the first place I drove was to a gas station to fill up the tank, just to be on the safe side (and I still carry the receipt); then the slow, slow drive home on unfamiliar local streets, bumper-to-bumper with thousands of other displaced commuters, and getting lost for a spell as I tried to keep on a generally correct heading, knowing that once I’d hit a major road I’d get oriented again. I occasionally caught glimpses of the Long Island Expressway, empty but for an occasional vehicle or two racing at top speed towards New York City, towards an ugly mess I could hardly imagine.

I remember getting home and calling my family to let them know I was OK.

I remember turning on my television but getting only static on most channels – the regional broadcast antenna had been on one of the towers, and the towers were no more. Channel after channel of static, and only fair reception on the rest.

I remember watching the news for the first time that day, watching the plane hit the tower, the enormous fireball that ensued, and watching the towers collapse, replayed over and over.

It was a year before I could be away from a radio or the internet for longer than a few hours without needing to check in and see if anything bad had happened. I needed to stay in touch or I would gradually become anxious.

It was years before I could see a commercial jet in the sky without feelings of vaguely ominous fear. Where is it going? Is it banking too steeply for normal flight? Is it flying too low, or too fast?

And to this day, when the sky is that gorgeous, deep, crystalline azure blue, I think back, and I remember.

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