I am a New Yorker by choice, having lived in the NYC area since 1977. I expect to die here. And I still have vivid memories of September 11, 2001.
It was a beautiful morning. I’d dropped off my wife, Sydny, at the Pelham, NY train station at about 8:00, got home and sent my sons off to school (they were 14 and 12), after which I’d gone up to my home office to continue working on a book about chivalry.
At a little before 9:00, Syd called from her office in Rockefeller Center. She said: “Turn on the TV.”
On NBC, I see smoke rising from the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC).
Watching video of that broadcast twenty years later, as I did while writing this column, barely diminishes the shock. It’s why movies you know the ending of still put you on the edge of your seat. No one at 9 AM knew the crash of the first plane wasn’t an accident.
The hosts of TODAY on 9/11 are unaware that the smoke and flames are coming from the explosion of American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston. Matt Lauer rightly speculates that, if early rumors are true and this was an aircraft accident, it surely can’t have been a light plane that blasted so huge a hole in the great building, causing so much fire and smoke.
Still, Katie Couric says they’re hearing it was a small commuter plane. At this point in the video, the TODAY “crawl” reads: “9:02.”
As the fireman said:
Don’t book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.
As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won’t shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if you’re climbing out of yourself.
If you’re going to smash into the sky.*
It’s 2021, and I’m trying to stay calm, objective, rational – but I want to scream. I’m looking at film from two decades past, and I want to scream. Scream what? A warning? To whom?
Then, at precisely 9:03:11, United Airlines Flight 175 (also out of Boston) hits the South Tower. An NBC producer wonders if there’s a problem with air traffic control. At around 9:05, Mr. Lauer says these crashes were intentional.
At just about that moment, Andy Card, with George W. Bush in a Florida schoolroom, leaned in to whisper to the President, “America is under attack.”
What I did next that day was call George Marlin, who was Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (1995-1997), which is to say: after the unsuccessful ’93 WTC bombing and before 9/11. I once met him in his office on a high floor at WTC, from which one bank of windows provided views across the Hudson River. George, an early riser, described how on some mornings at sunrise the light would illuminate low hanging clouds in gold, occasionally seeming to be angels racing west at light speed.
Many times I’ve gone past
the fifth floor,
but only once
have I gone all the way up.
small plants and swans bending
into their grave.
Floor two hundred:
mountains with the patience of a cat,
silence wearing its sneakers.*
“You’ve seen what’s happening?” I asked George.
“We don’t have a TV in the office,” he said, “but I’ve heard. Terrorists?”
“Has to be. Each of the hijacked planes was headed for the West Coast full of fuel.”
“Keep me updated, will you?”
I said I would.
Then a little before 10:15, George called back.
“The Pentagon and Pennsylvania too, right?”
“Yes, and the South Tower has fallen. It fell straight down, collapsing on itself.”
“Well, that’s what the architects told me would happen.”
Something about speaking to George made me want to pray, but it was complicated. I wanted to thank God that George had left the Port Authority four years before, but I realized his most recent successor may have died. (He did.) Still, I prayed. And I knew I wasn’t alone. I imagined what was certainly true – that across the nation, now unified, people in their millions were on their knees, and not in surrender.
Nearby St. Peter’s Church briefly became a morgue, when Fr. Mychal Judge’s body was laid there before the altar. Killed by falling debris in the North Tower after running into the building to minister to the dead, dying, and injured, he was labeled “Victim 0001,” the first person declared dead on 9/11.
My wife’s office was evacuated because Rock Center was considered a potential target. She tried calling me, but after 10:30 nobody could call in or out of the city. So, she walked about 20 blocks down to her sister’s apartment, and Syd and Wendy went out to get something to eat at a neighborhood deli and heard the endless sirens and then began to see dust-covered people silently walking up from lower Manhattan.
Schools closed early. There was much anxiety in our little suburban town because so many family and friends worked in Manhattan’s financial district, some in the Twin Towers.
My older son, Bobby, worried about his mom, called from school. I reassured him, after which he found his brother, Jon, and they walked home. Jon went to his room to read, but Bobby wanted to throw the football.
We’re in the backyard throwing and catching – my hands stinging from the force of his passes – when an F-15 fighter roared very low overhead. If the pilot had dipped his wing and turned his head down, we might have made eye contact.
If you live where I live, you know people who died on 9/11 – or you know their families. I’d had a blast at Tommy Hohlweck’s wedding in 1978. My friend, Debra Burlingame, lived around the corner: her brother, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, was the pilot of American 77, the Pentagon flight. I’d stood on the sidelines with Pat O’Shea only days before as we watched our sons playing football. And at one or another community gathering I’d met his brother Danny and Monty Hoard too. We lost nine Pelhan residents that day, including firefighter Joe Leavy, off duty that day, who rushed to Ground Zero and never returned.
I was a member of the New York Athletic Club until 2011, in the lobby of which are three memorials displaying the names of the fallen: World War I, World War II, and September 11, 2001.
As of today, the long war that followed 9/11 is declared ended. I pray that it is. I fear it’s not.
Floor five hundred:
messages and letters centuries old,
birds to drink,
a kitchen of clouds.
Floor six thousand:
skeletons on fire,
their arms singing.
And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something —
some useful door —
*This prophetic poem, “Riding an Elevator into the Sky” by Anne Sexton, was written in 1975. Syd puts it up on her Facebook page every 9/11.
You may also enjoy:
Brad’s In God’s Good Time
George Marlin’s Post-9/11 New York: A Secular City?