I live in the Northeast, the events of 11 September 2001 hit very close to home. I knew people who died, I know people who survived, thankfully I was one hundred miles away.
I finished High school in Northern New Jersey, and would take the train into Manhattan often. The World Trade Centers were new then, I did the touristy thing and walked on the rooftops, I took my mother there when she visited from California, I ate and drank at “Windows on the World” a couple of times. Emma’s first husband (who was a good deal older than she) had been a steelworker, and had worked on the construction of the towers. That is the past.
On the morning of 11 September 2001 I was living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I had stopped driving due to a pesky exacerbation of multiple sclerosis and took the train into Philadelphia each day. My office was in the Philadelphia version of twin towers, “Liberty Place” a matched pair of seventy story buildings.
I was doing some research at my desk when I noticed a crowd down the hall. There were monitors on “junction floors” where you would have to change elevators, and the crowd was silently watching one of the monitors. I walked down to see the initial reports on CNN of a plane striking one of the twin towers.
My friend Brandt was there, he said “they’re not sure if it was an accident”. I knew enough about flight paths and altitudes to know that it wasn’t. Moments later the second plane impacted. I looked at Brandt and said “Still not sure?”. My pager was beeping and my phone was ringing. The fax machine at the FAA office in the airport had failed. Things were happening too fast to consider repair, and my manager wanted to know if I had a spare to send with a technician to the airport. I told him he could have mine.
I was making arrangements with the technician, Anonxai, when we were interrupted by our manager who told us the city was being evacuated and it would be quicker to pick up the machine at the branch due to the traffic. I was a little bummed out, because I was hoping Anonxai would be able to drop me off at home, which was near the airport. A third plane had crashed in Washington DC, early reports were fuzzy about the exact target. I remember saying to my manager “Remember this name, Osama bin Laden. I’m getting out of here.”
I decided to call my mother in California, she was up and watching the news. My buildings were nothing like the World Trade Centers, but I wanted to let her know that I was okay. While we were talking the first tower collapsed. I will never forget the sound of her voice, the hollowness. “Now there’s only one World Trade Center” she said. She has pictures of us standing together atop a building that no longer existed.
I got to the train station and it was packed. Amtrak had already shut down, and it was pretty clear the regional lines would be following before the next train was scheduled. The subway was still running so I took it out to Upper Darby, where I could catch a trolley to Sharon Hill. While I was on the trolley the driver received a message to leave the car at the Sharon Hill station, all rail service was being suspended. From Sharon Hill I was able to catch a bus home. The trip took about three hours, normally it took forty five minutes on the train.
Emma and I watched the news, saw the people trapped in Manhattan, the videos of the people jumping from the towers before they collapsed, some hand in hand. We heard about the fourth plane, that story wasn’t sorted out for days.
All air traffic had been grounded before the first tower had collapsed, before Anonxai reached the airport. Several co workers had been at a conference and had been in the air returning home. They were scattered around the country, one landed in Pittsburgh, and rented a car to finish the trip. Others were stuck for days or took Amtrak before air traffic was restored.
We had about one hundred employees in the towers, four didn’t make it out. My friend Ed decided to get coffee at the last minute, before getting on the elevator. The first plane hit, and he decided to get out. My friend Carl, who was always late, had an interview on the 102nd floor at 0900. He was on the Path train when the first plane hit.
In the two days after the attacks, there were no aircraft flying, and the first few planes were surprising. Odd how quickly we became used to the silence. A friend was in the Caribbean, and apparently his flight back was manned by the military rather than stewardesses. His descriptions of inflight services were funny. Two years later, Emma and I lived on 10th street in South Philly, which was the flight path for a formation of A-10’s flying over the Army Navy game. I found Emma under the bed.
In the years since I have found myself at the Pentagon, and the memorial in Shanksville PA for flight 93. I finally visited Manhattan in 2009, and have been back a few times, but I’m just not ready to see the memorials at the site of the towers yet.