There are a couple reasons I haven’t wanted to write about 9/11 until
now, chief among them being that I’m not a New Yorker. Yes, I happened
to be in Manhattan on that world-changing day but I’ve never felt that
gave me any right to record anything. I didn’t lose anyone that day. I
may have seen the smoke but I didn’t smell the jet fuel. I may have
been rattled to my core but I didn’t have to consider leaping from a
high-rise window, clinging to the hand of a coworker, like some did,
the image of which is seared into my very being, the first thing that
comes to mind when I remember 9/11.
But when my eleven-year-old son saw me produce a thin-ribbed
cotton tank top from a dresser drawer last week, a shirt that he declared
would fit him much better than me, I felt the urge to honor those who
lost their lives by sharing the horrific event. “It’s time I told you all about this day,” I said to my son, holding out the tank at arm’s length so we could read the words that accompanied an imprint of the American flag: United We Stand. We Will Never Forget September 11, 2001.
Thirteen years ago, on the evening of September 10, I flew into New
York from my home in Los Angeles. A dear colleague and I sipped wine
during the five-plus-hour flight and laughed and talked, occasionally
chatting up a friendly male flight attendant. Just before we landed,
he slipped us each a bottle of cabernet and said, “Welcome to the Big
The following morning, I asked a room service attendant how far away
we were from the World Trade Center. I was watching The Today Show in
my hotel room, and footage had just been shown of a hole left by a
plane in the North Twin Tower. The hole was black and smoky and goose
bumps had begun crawling up my arms. “I’d say we’re about fifteen minutes
away,” the puzzled attendant said, backing out the door.
My first thought was to call Charlie, the man I would marry ten months
later. His voice was groggy when he answered the phone in his San
Francisco apartment, “I think something’s wrong,” I said. “Turn on the
TV.” It was a little before 6 am in California, three hours later
in New York. We wouldn’t be in touch again the rest of the gruesome
A sales meeting was scheduled to take place that morning at my
company’s Midtown office. “Get some sleep, get some grub, and then
make your way in,” my boss had said a day earlier. He was great like that, always making sure his staff had time to shake out the willies before settling down to business.
The TV coverage had quickly become alarming, fear and confusion
covered the faces of the typically chipper morning co-hosts. A second
plane had crashed into the South Tower by then. I sat half-dressed,
hair still wet from the shower, backed up against the bed’s headboard.
My room service tray sat untouched on the table next to me, a bright
silver dome atop the egg plate I’d ordered.
Should I still be getting ready for work? I wondered.
When the South Tower collapsed at 9:08 am, I was still on the bed,
knees pulled into my chest, arms wrapped around them as tightly as
pythons. I emitted a sound I’d never recalled making and punched my
boss’s number into my cell phone but there was no service, I couldn’t
place a call. A few minutes later I finished dressing and wandered
outside my hotel on West 44th, too frightened to be alone any further.
Construction was happening on the street, jackhammers blasting,
workmen wearing headphones. The sky was warm, the sky still bright
blue in Midtown.
Soon I was steered by a coworker who had been sent to find me
toward the Hilton Hotel in Times Square. I don’t remember either of us
speaking as we walked, but I was relieved that someone was providing
direction. I’d never felt such a need for company. We made our way to
an upper-level hotel restaurant, where our large group of thirty or so
took over a few tables, and looked up at suspended TVs hung above the
bar, where grim newscasters attempted to make sense of all that was
happening. We were silent, barely communicative in that large room
with large picture windows, and that’s where we stayed all morning and
all afternoon, watching everything we’d ever known change irrevocably.
It wouldn’t be until later in the day that I’d attempt to reach my
mom, my dad, my sisters, brother, and Charlie. Cell coverage wasn’t to
be had. A bank of pay phones lined a downstairs wall opposite the
lobby, where long lines had formed behind each phone, most callers
crying and screaming with news of missing loved ones, their
wreckage on full display, rocking me into paralysis. I had the sense
that I didn’t deserve to call anyone and say I was okay. I stepped
back and let others go ahead of me.
The sky was getting darker by then, huge plumes of lingering smoke and debris filled the air, and around seven, our group broke up. I stepped outside with a favorite coworker, into a whole different New York City, an eerie quiet surrounding us with each gingerly step as we made our way back to the Iroquois Hotel, ready to duck, hit the ground, or whatever might be required. We stopped for a few minutes in Times Square, stunned and bewildered that we were the only ones there.
The streets were littered like always, but there were no crowds, no
fast-moving cabs, no blaring lights or signs or anything that
typically overloaded the senses. We shook our heads and entered a
crosswalk and that’s when a man on a bicycle rode by. He was hoisting
an American flag in his right hand, steering his bike straight ahead,
his message of hope waving in the wind, a spark among the dust and
debris and destruction, a sign that the human spirit can persevere. It
took some time before I was able to view it that way, though. That night, on 9/11, on the corner in Times Square, I felt despondent and
powerless, like so many other Americans probably did. I remember
thinking, This is like the apocalypse.
Since then, I become overwhelmed with emotion whenever I hear the national
anthem, whether I’m watching the Olympics or attending baseball games, one of my all-time favorite activities. Never before 9/11 had I felt the lyrics so strongly, had I truly envisioned a star-spangled banner still waving. But that lone bike rider who carried an American flag through the silent streets of New York City gave me a vision to hang on to. That, and so much more.