It was only in retrospect that I realized I was given a sign of things to come. It was September 8, the day before my birthday, and I was in Pensacola FL with my ex-husband. We were on the beach, watching a storm roll in from the Gulf. We were mesmerized by the dark clouds and thunder.
Soon, we heard sirens and saw a line of emergency vehicles head down the beach road. We thought maybe someone had been caught in a rip tide.
The next day, I saw the headline for the local paper. Two women walking side by side were struck by lightning and killed while walking down the beach, not a mile away from where we sat, watching the storm. Their husbands were only a few footsteps away when it happened.
I have said before: the universe is trying to send us messages, but we don’t always know how to listen.
The morning of September 11, I walked into the office and turned on my laptop. I noticed a curious headline on Yahoo! about an airplane that had crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center. There was very little information, but I was highly concerned. My dad worked there, at the Marriott between the two towers. I began searching the internet but traffic overloaded all the news sites.
My concern turned to panic when I found out through another co-worker (also a native New Yorker) that a second plane had hit the South tower. I tried calling my parents’ house, but kept getting a fast busy. My co-workers sat and tried calling on my behalf, in case someone was able to get a voice on the line.
Someone eventually wheeled a TV in to the main reception area so that we could gather to watch the news. It was clear by now that something very terrible had happened, but at the same time, it didn’t seem like it could possibly be true.
Then, the moment I will never forget. The South tower began to collapse. The sound I uttered at that moment was not human. I staggered and one of my co-workers grabbed me tightly. There is no worse feeling than believing you are witnessing the death of a loved one and are powerless to do anything.
My company closed the office, amid fears of similar attacks on urban cities. By now, we’d heard that a plane had also crashed into the Pentagon and onto farmland in rural Pennsylvania. Our corporate offices were in New York and they were quickly mobilizing to account for the many employees that were in or near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks.
I took the bus home, in shock and feeling a deep, unseated terror.
Once home, my ex-husband, brother and I sat silently in front of the TV and watched news reports, choking on grief and fear. Not only did we have no information about our dad or other loved ones we knew, but we were sitting hundreds of miles away, bombarded with image after image of the destruction of these two iconic buildings that symbolized home for us. I couldn’t bear the close-up images of paper fluttering from office windows, or worse, the people.
Late in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was my uncle in Texas, calling to say he somehow managed to get hold of our parents – and Dad was OK. By some miracle, he had taken the day off from work because of a bothersome kidney stone that required treatment. Most people would not consider a kidney stone to be a blessing, but in his case, it saved his life. My dad worked in the Engineering department and would have most certainly been a casualty along with his co-workers, because he was required to evacuate guests during emergencies.
My parents stood outside the doctor’s office on Queens Boulevard and watched the towers fall in on themselves.
Less than two weeks after the attacks, I flew up to New York City to be with my parents – and grieve with my city. As the plane began to make its approach past Manhattan and towards LaGuardia Airport, the pilot did something unexpected. The plane came in and flew OVER Ground Zero, in the airspace above lower Manhattan and the still smoldering remains. It was so unexpected and devastating that I gasped. The man who sat next to me asked gently, “Is this your first time seeing this?” I nodded yes. The plane did not seem to fly; it seemed to hover over the smoke and rubble, as if imploring those of us who saw the gaping hole to affix and honor that place within our hearts.
I’ve flown into New York many times since September 2001, and it is always a bit unsettling and disorienting. The Twin Towers were my compass, grounding the view from the sky and pointing my way home. A new skyscraper has been going up in their place, but the perfect symmetry of the towers and their relation to the balance of the island of Manhattan is now left to photos and memory.
Although I grew up with the Twin Towers as a permanent part of my sightline, I never actually went up into the World Trade Center and visited the Observation Deck. In my naiveté, I believed it was the kind of thing only tourists did. But I still remember a blustery, bright day in March of 1995 when I stood at the foot of the towers and looked up, marveling at how easily the lines of steel and glass seemed to touch the sky.
(Photo credit: Francisco Diez on Flickr)