September 8, 2011 —
On September 11, 2001 life as we know it changed forever. At 9:59 EST, the unthinkable occurred when Al Qaeda-affiliated hijackers flew two jets into the World Trade Center towers. The approaching 10th anniversary of the event has stirred up a flood of memories for millions worldwide. For many of us, it has become an opportunity to work through this experience by sharing those memories with one another. Here is mine.
I lived in Santa Monica, CA at the time. At 7 a.m., there was an urgent pounding on my door. My friend and neighbor, Mark R. stood before me, visibly shaken, phone in hand, insisting that I turn on the television. As I did, Mark informed me that he was on the phone speaking to his best friend who worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center. Every morning they spoke before starting their days. On this morning, his best man and the godfather of his children was shaken.
“Something is wrong,” he told Mark. “There’s smoke and alarms and noise, and I have no idea what’s going on.” By now, Mark and I both knew that two planes had struck the towers, and he asked my advice, hand over mouthpiece. “Do I tell him what we’re seeing?” he whispered as I turned the sound down on the set. I was still trying to absorb the news crawl and whispered back. “I can’t advise you. I don’t know what to think myself.” Mark did not reveal our observations to his friend, but as the nightmare unfolded, it became more difficult not to share what his friend could not see: the gaping holes in the towers, the billowing smoke and the sheer enormity of the unfolding disaster.
“They’re telling us to not panic,” Mark’s friend said. “Don’t hang up; stay on the phone with me, please, until they tell us where to go.” To us, watching the news, the reality of his plight had begun to sink in. I couldn’t help but think what my own friends, some of whom worked in the district, were going through, and desperately tried to reach them, with no success. The sheer distance from my home state made it even more difficult in a way, since I felt like a useless bystander, unable to help my friends and family in any immediate sense. Meanwhile, Mark attempted to calm his buddy, telling him that there was a fire and that help was on the way. He chatted away for 56 more minutes—until the south tower collapsed before our eyes on the television. The line went dead.
At six foot four, Mark the football coach is an impressive tower of strength, but on that day, he collapsed to the floor, clutching my leg and screaming, wailing like a banshee. I held him in my arms, incoherent and inconsolable, and tears coursed down my cheek as the impact began to take hold. My phone began to ring incessantly but I let it go, not knowing what to say and unwilling to release my hold on Mark. Then he ran into the street howling and crumpled, as neighbors ran to his aid, shouting for help, calling 911, and the melee, from a distance, began.
Somehow, I reached a girlfriend, who lived and worked at what has become known as “ground zero.” Part of the first responders team, she couldn’t stay on the line, but quickly explained that the north tower had just collapsed as well, and that all communication was to be held by Nextel walkie-talkies from that point forward. “I saw it happen,” she said, “and without even knowing the details, a voice in my head told me: this can’t be fixed.
“It’s like being in a big-budget Hollywood disaster flick. Everywhere I look, people are vacant-eyed, walking away like zombies. There is smoke and ash everywhere; the city is crippled,” she said, before disengaging and preparing herself to help those afflicted by the tragedy—a struggle that would prove to last for years.
I called her again this morning. “As a first responder, I have studied this experience for 10 years,” she said, “and the system has not been fixed. There was nothing in place then to deal with a population that had been ‘vaporized’ and there still isn’t. Looking back, I just snapped. It happened in front of my face. If I was called upon to do it again, I couldn’t. I never signed on for this. I fulfilled my obligation to the best of my ability, but even that was not good enough. I’m still trying to get it out of my head, which is why I have left the city and relocated to the Catskills. But you can’t run from the horror; it’s always there.”
I have asked my friends to leave comments on their own memories on my Facebook page, and have received a flood of responses, including this from Lori Rubenstein: “A grand mixture of terror, bravery, camaraderie, love, respect and hate—which resulted in a renewed spirit as a U.S. citizen,” and this from Mary Bakalis: “My life and attitude changed forever that day, and I can’t take for granted the things I once did.”
If you would like to share your own memories or comments with the community, we invite you to email them to The River Reporter (firstname.lastname@example.org ) with “9/11” in the subject line, and we will publish them as online addenda to this feature.