Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11/13 That September 11

I blogged last year about Sam's kindergarten class' discussion the day after September 11, the big sheet of paper they gathered around that Mrs. Stenseth drew on each morning, and Sam's need to talk about the events we'd briefly explained to her the night before and the answers I'd given at her queries. 

This year, in her senior Government class yesterday, they watched a documentary on that day, and at lunch after I picked her up, she started asking me about what I remembered. It frustrated her to no end to find out the people in the South tower were told to go back to their offices when the North tower was hit, and the 911 operators telling people in the North tower to go up to the roof when they called with reports of smoke.

But, I said, no one knew. No one could possibly imagine what was coming.

I blogged briefly about where I was,  years ago, and about my firefighters from the Memorial Stair climb a year later, but yesterday, I was able to kind of tap into the emotion of that day for her. 

What stays with me is how ordinary the day started, getting kids to school like any other day, hitting the highway to drive into Bryan, listening to NPR. There was a brief mention of early reports that a plane had hit one of the towers, but the announcer, like everyone else, probably envisioned a small commuter plane and inexperienced pilot and a couple of passengers onboard. By the time I'd parked and entered my building, the reports were a little more clear -- it had been a commercial airliner, and it hadn't clipped some corner of the tower. Faces were getting paler, internet connections started to slow to a crawl, and no one had smart phones that provided any additional information from some better, closer carrier's tower.

I had to go into class shortly after the reports of the second tower and the Pentagon were first filtering through the radio, the cluster of history and government professors in nearby offices looking as pale and stricken as the strangled voices of the announcers sounded.

I told my early morning class, before diving back into Hamlet, what little I knew, which was very little, and we went on with the scenes, including V.ii's

 ...there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?
Let be.

What's the opposite of prescience to describe those lines that day? The word hasn't been invented yet. 

When class was over, the world had changed. It was clear there was something very terrible happening, possibly all over the country. The first plane could have been some horribly tragic accident. But the television feed that had shown millions of us, watching live, that second plane flying into the South tower? Now it's so clearly, horrifically intentional. People were terrified.  And the main, gripping fear on everyone's mind: where will it happen next? There was a plane down in Pennsylvania, the Pentagon was on fire, and those towers. My God, those towers. 

Lynne and I had walked over to the only television that was getting a feed, in the student center, and stood there, around ping-pong tables, hundreds of students and faculty, watching a small screen as those images kept being looped: that plane diving into the upper floors of the building, those tiny little specs of people on the burning floors flinging themselves out the windows, and, then, without believing what we were seeing, that giant cloud of gray smoke. 

I tried to explain to Sam how, in that live moment, there was a gasp of disbelief, and silence. The cloud didn't dissipate quickly, so there was a suspended instant where you expected the dust to clear and still see .  .  . something

It was that shock, the stunned gaze on everyone's face, for the rest of the day that I remember the most. I said to Lynne, "This is what Pearl Harbor felt like. But it's in real time." Everyone was seized with fear. What was happening? All the airplanes in the country were on the ground and wouldn't take to the skies again for four days. This had never happened before, ever. Ten of thousands of people were stranded around the world, watching in horror, not able to get home. The president was being whisked away and the rest of the cabinet were in bunkers. Skyscrapers all over the country were evacuated, as well as many major landmarks and government buildings. Most cell reception was out. The internet was down all over campus. 

My instinct was to drive straight back to Navasota and pick up my kindergartner and third grader and . . . do what? Create a bunker in the house and never leave again? That's the kind of illogical fear that gripped us that day.  I fought that urge, like so many of us did, and made myself go on with life, and class, and grading, at least as much as my muddled thinking would allow for that afternoon. 

I imagined what the passengers on those planes must have thought. I tried to explain to Sam, what you'd always been taught to do in the event of a hijacking was to just comply. The hijackers would land, make their demands, and eventually everyone would get off the plane. They would never, ever, fly the plane into a building full of people, killing everyone. Even the hijacker played into that thinking, which of course we wouldn't know for weeks but we all suspected, saying "Just stay quiet and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport."

Over the next weeks, as pictures of the passengers came out, I wept over them, imagining those last moments, when the truth must have dawned on them, passing by those skyscrapers right outside their windows, doubtless holding hands and staring into one another eyes, trying not to frighten the children, hoping it was instant and painless. I imagined the people trapped in the World Trade Center, in the stairwells, in their offices, I listened to final voicemails they'd left, or weeping family members recounting their last words to the few who were able to get through on the phone and say goodbye. Some of them stayed on the line until it went unbearably, unendingly silent. 

That September 11, and the following week, was not a neat, chronological timeline we've pieced together in documentaries since then. It was a patchwork of horrible stories, of 24 hour news feeds looping those planes, those buildings, and the rubble that buried thousands, shown on screen and in our nightmares. I couldn't pull myself away. I bought (and still have) the Time magazine published that week with the pictures, especially the one of the man whose tie is flapping in the wind as he falls to his death. There were two people in mid-fall, holding hands. I remember the reports of all the nurses and doctors who flooded into the hospitals, hoping to help the injured. They were all sent home that night, with no one to help. When I wasn't in front of the television, I was listening to the radio, especially the endless stories of anguished relatives, posting pictures of their loved ones on lightpoles, walking the streets, hoping for miracles that never came. It was the photographs of all those flyers that kept my tears springing up, day after day. 

The day after September 11, I'd walked into Target on the way to work and bought an old-school battery operated radio to keep on my desk. That sudden outage of computers and phone and inability to find out anything had spooked the nation. There weren't many left on the shelves when I bought mine. 

They still didn't know how many people were actually killed a week later. They had a count of the firefighters. Of the 400 deployed (and dozens off duty who raced to the scene) 343 never came home.  They could count the passenger lists on the four planes, and no one survived, but how many people were in the buildings? How many got out? How many, for a million different reasons, were running late to work, or home sick, and not at their desks that morning? The counts kept changing. The shots of the rubble were impossible to take in. You couldn't imagine them ever cleaning all of that up, especially going so carefully through every pebble, one five-pound bucket at a time, to try and find bodies. (It took eight months of around the clock work. It would take even longer for the air quality to return to normal. Many, many of those workers became very ill from lung disease and cancers, too.) I remember being struck by reports of the number of body bags brought to what would become known as Ground Zero (initial reports were 50,000, which, I had to explain to my class that gasped at this news, they need that many for all the pieces of people they find). As of 2013, over 40% of the remains recovered have not been identified. Over 3000 children lost a parent that day. The grim statistics kept pouring out in the weeks and months that followed. 

That day, when I went to pick up my kids, Samantha hadn't been told anything and Nicholas was dimly aware something was wrong because of the way all the teachers were huddling around and acting strangely. I let them watch a bit of the news, and they had many more questions than I had answers. But what struck me about those conversations was how personal the questions were. Sure, there were things like, "Why would someone want to do that?" but there was also my five year old, who had just taken her first plane ride the December before, asking, wide-eyed, "Were there any children on the planes? Did it hurt?"

These are pictures of my children taken that month, a dozen years ago now, in a world where people walked to airplane gates to say goodbye, when there was no TSA security, no ID required, no limit on liquids or wearing shoes, and when little kids could climb up into the cockpit to meet the pilots. They have no memory of flying with such freedom. Far beyond that, they have no memory of living in a world where hijackers wouldn't kill everyone on board to make a statement; or a nation where there is no Department of Homeland Security; or a time in which U.S. soldiers weren't deployed to the Middle East on a never ending rotating basis in the War on Terror. These are my memories, confounded over the years, that come back to me each 9/11.


One year like any old other year
In a week like any week
Monday lying down
Half asleep
People doing what people do
Loving, working and getting through
No portraits on the walls
Of Seventh Avenue

~"Tuesday" Five for Fighting


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