For years, I’ve been wanting to write down all of that day. I’ve written a few pieces, including this archived piece I wrote for my college paper 6 years later. (A friend on the staff called me a few hours before deadline and asked me if I could throw together an opinion piece about “anything.”) This time, I’m going to record everything I can remember, even if it’s a little dull, just for my own history. This isn’t meant to be a polished, edited piece. Since I am twice as old now, a few details are hazy, but I’ll do my best.
My day began like every Indiana high school sophomore’s did: taking the state’s standardized test. I was politically opposed to ISTEP, and it was just a drag, so I was slightly bored and exasperated, but these tests were old hat for me. And any sophomore who passed never had to take one again (except for college-admissions exams like the SAT), so I was a bit pleased. I knew I would score around the 99th percentile and finally be done with the whole thing. I sat in a math classroom with a teacher (whose classes I never took) acting as a proctor, among the other kids whose last names began with G.
I had only been a student at the massive Ben Davis High School for a month – at the time, our school district was one of the last hold-outs from a system where freshmen stayed at their junior highs for one more year. Most of the juniors and seniors were enjoying the morning off, since they were done with testing, and were sleeping in, enjoying sit-down restaurant breakfasts with their friends, or practicing in the band room. During one of the first short breaks between test sections, I pulled out a sheet of paper to begin a note to a friend. I found it years later, reading something like this:
9-11-01, 9:05 am. Hi Kathryn, how are you? Nothing much has happened today.
During a break, an announcement asked the teachers to check their email. Our proctor was confused by whatever he read, so he pulled up Yahoo! News and found a one-sentence article, which was unusual. “A plane hit a building in New York City,” he read. I probably cared more than most of the apathetic kids in the room, since my dad was from there and we visited my grandparents there every year, but I remembered a small plane accidentally flew into the Empire State Building in the ’40s and figured it was something like that – I’d just catch the facts later. When the tests ended around 11 am and we heard the upperclassmen arriving, we gathered our things and headed out into the hall as the principal announced what everyone else already knew: “There has been a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan,” he said. I cringed. Terrorism. I had been following international relations for a few years, including the embassy bombings and the USS Cole. This sounded bad. Furthermore, my granddad had an apartment in Manhattan. A few worried tears fell as I walked towards choir, but I reminded myself that his apartment was in Midtown and he was probably fine. I was beginning to learn and realize more things about my grandparents at that age – like the city apartment wasn’t just there as a convenient place for him to stay if he worked late. That he stayed there a lot to be away from my grandmother in their apartment in Dobbs Ferry, a small Westchester County bedroom community just up the Hudson from the city. That he wasn’t always alone in that apartment.
Turning into the choir hallway, I saw my 8th grade sister and my mom. Crap. What was this?
My mom was concerned about several things and wanted to take me out of school for the rest of the day. I felt embarrassed as she said we didn’t know where the next attack would happen. I probably even said something sarcastic about how the high school was next on the list. But getting out of school was fine, and I was starting to see that this was a big day and no work would get done in class. And also – where was my grandfather?
My mom looked grim. “We don’t know. Your grandmother doesn’t know. He should be in Manhattan, that’s all we know.” My granddad, 74, wrote for a small paper called the Medical Herald. (From the ’50s to the ’70s or ’80s, he’d worked for big names in media, including the NY Herald-Tribune and NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.) I think also we had intermittent trouble getting calls through to my grandmother, and neither had cell phones. I wasn’t close to my grandparents. They often acted pretentious, stodgy, and obnoxious. My primary concern then was maneuvering around my dad while he faced this turmoil. Issues with his parents got him pretty stressed, as did busy news days.
I left school and we stopped at CVS, then headed to Arby’s to get lunch. Norb, the manager, was lowering its giant American flag to half-staff. Everyone seemed tense. I think we just went through the drive-through. My mom had been volunteering at our church when all of this broke, I think, because we went to the church to eat and finish stuffing some envelopes before driving to be with my dad. I sat in the copier room to eat, right in front of a small TV. The anchors were talking about terrorism and planes. I knew all that. They showed footage of the towers with smoke pouring out, as I expected they might look. Then they jumped ahead to one collapsing, then the next.
I jumped up. “What?! What?! They fell down?!” Disbelief and horror washed over me as I thought of the thousands of people whose deaths I’d surely just seen replayed.
Looking around, I realized everyone else already knew this. Now all the reactions made sense. Someone, probably my mom, explained that they had fallen an hour or two before. I felt almost sick from shock. Those were huge buildings, unparalleled in my mind. The Sears Tower was taller, but there were TWO of these. They were the defining element of the familiar NY skyline. They were so dominant that I took them for granted. A few years after the 1993 bombing, I’d read a book about the attack. It had fascinated me. But the death toll was low, and the structural damage was minimal. It had never occurred to me that any skyscraper could collapse. I couldn’t wrap my head around them ceasing to exist.
I also felt regretful, almost guilty. Despite reading so much about skyscrapers, I couldn’t remember any of the times I’d been up close to the World Trade Center. Maybe one time a year or two earlier, as we passed on the West Side Highway. Like I said, I’d just taken them for granted. We didn’t always spend a lot of time in the city during our visits. Some years we stayed in the suburbs the whole time, at least my sister and I did. When people at school asked me about New York, with excitement in their eyes, I had to admit I hadn’t done most of the things they asked about. Statue of Liberty? No. Ellis Island? No. Broadway shows? No. Our family didn’t do too many touristy things there. In 1994, though, we had spent a day in Midtown that made me feel like a fabulous big city girl – like Stacy McGill from the Babysitter’s Club. We rode up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, where I looked down at the tiny yellow cabs. I wasn’t scared of heights back then. I held my purse nervously as we walked through Times Square. (Guiliani had only just taken office and the city hadn’t shaken its dangerous reputation.) We walked through Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, and after a friendly local gave us directions around the stores, I told my mom I didn’t understand why New Yorkers had a rude reputation.
In following years, as we got older, our trips into the city became more frequent. Two summers before, my sister, Kelly, had broken her arm falling off a balcony with a loose railing. Weeks later, in New York, my mom took her for a routine X-ray, where the doctor advised she needed surgery. My mom and sister flew home to Indiana for surgery, while my dad and I stayed behind for the rest of the week. One wonderful sunny day, we went on a father-daughter Manhattan adventure. We took a tour of the NBC building and he added his own anecdotes from working summer jobs there and visiting his father. I loved seeing the SNL studios and a demo of “the TV of the future”, a set with an HD display playing a promo clip about the upcoming new millennium. “It’s so crisp and clear, it’s almost like real life,” we were told. “In a few years every station will broadcast in HD and these TVs will be common.” We walked to the UN headquarters, which he may have chosen because I was enthralled with geography and world cultures. After the tour there, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The city seemed so big and magical. I assumed that over the years, I’d get to see everything there I ever wanted to.
And now, so fast, the towers were gone. Dust, smoke, and ash on a bright late summer day. The sun incongruously shining through a spot it wasn’t supposed to. I don’t remember anything from then until we reached my dad’s workplace, except that lines were forming at gas stations, which I felt was crass, and the radio was filling in more details. The Pentagon. Another airplane mysteriously crashing in a field. Planes being grounded. Travelers stranded. Skyscrapers and malls closing for the day. Most disturbingly, jumpers and the goodbye calls from hijacked airliners or sky-high offices. We must have stopped at home to get the camera, which I felt was important. I wanted a record of the day.
My dad’s newsroom felt different that day. I’d been there countless times and had even spent days at work with my dad. (He encouraged my sister and I to speak to professionals in any field we showed interest in, and had us shadow his friends in fields like medicine, magazine writing, and public relations. In fact, one day the following summer, he dropped me off for the day at a Manhattan office to sit with a colleague’s daughter, who worked for CBS Newspath. I learned that her job was boring and she had a shoebox of an apartment – a valuable lesson.) The newsroom was often a busy pressure-cooker, but today everyone seemed scared and on edge. My dad was restraining himself from a meltdown, it seemed. No news on my granddad.
Kelly and I left to go outside and take some photos – the same ones in the prior post. We walked up and down Meridian St., noticing all the cars with headlights on to show some sort of awareness and support. I probably spoke about my disgust with the school for not interrupting sacred ISTEP time to tell us the full story. Our test seemed so incredibly unimportant. I was angry I hadn’t watched it happen in real time, like everyone else did. (My sister watched it from her junior high band room. They were on a late-start schedule that day, and she’d gone in before classes for jazz band and to talk to her friends. She saw the rest in her humanities classroom.) For reasons I couldn’t place, I felt I’d missed out on a crucial part of the shared experience. Deep down, I felt like if I’d known, maybe I could have stopped it from getting worse, even though I knew that was so silly that I didn’t even consciously voice it to myself for years.
As I’m typing this, I’m realizing I really don’t know what it was like for my parents that morning until we met up. I still don’t know how it felt for my dad to see his hometown attacked. It felt awkward for me to talk about it with my parents too much afterwards. I felt that way about a lot of sad things in the news or in my life back then. I didn’t want to make too big of a deal about things, nor did I want to risk looking maudlin like the people crying about Princess Diana on the news or forwarding hysterical email poems about school shootings. I was also afraid of my parents having their own emotional reactions, for reasons both founded and unfounded. In the years since, we’ve all gotten better at being open and expressing ourselves productively.
Although the attack hadn’t yet been claimed by anyone, I was pretty sure I knew who was behind it, and newscasters were starting to say the same. For the last few years, I’d watched reports about a creepy guy named Osama bin Laden, and I’d worried we weren’t doing enough about him.
Back in the newsroom, we watched the endless TV coverage until my mom decided we should go home. Driving down Pennsylvania St. past the Indianapolis Star offices, we saw a newspaper employee selling special editions. We pulled over and bought a few. The lines were still going on outside gas stations, and the prices had been jacked up considerably. In the second half of 1999, my sister and I had laughed about Y2K hysteria, and this gas panic seemed to come from the same place. It was more troubling, though. It was founded in a tangible reality. Kelly and I had a rare moment of laughter when the radio announcer said, “The president is consulting his cabinet.” We misheard “cabinet” as “Kevins” and pictured a room full of guys named Kevin, and that somehow being a normal thing for a president to have.
We stopped at our church again for a hastily-scheduled prayer service. I saw some of my classmates there, and I was relieved to see they seemed shaken. I was worried everyone at school would think I was weird for having left that day, or that no one would care about what happened.
I believe it was when we arrived home that we had a message waiting on our answering machine. My granddad was safe in Dobbs Ferry. He’d been startled awake from the commotion, apparently, and went outside to find a safe way out of the city. The commuter trains stopped running for a while, from what I remember, but when they began again in the late afternoon, he was on the first one. He noted that it felt like Pearl Harbor, except we weren’t sure who was behind it. That voicemail was one of the only times he sounded truly human. I never got to learn more about what he experienced that day.
My parents watched TV as my sister and I talked in our rooms. At one point, I went in and saw haunting footage of people walking around dazed, covered in dust. If I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed it was black and white film. I don’t believe I ever saw that clip again.
The enormous flock of office papers slowly floating down to the street made a big impression on me. I couldn’t look at confetti without thinking about it – in fact, I still usually think about it. The idea that almost all of the victims died at work stayed with me too. It’s hard to explain how that idea impacts me, but I suppose one way is that I believe work is an important part of one’s life, and if it’s bad, you should look for something else, because life could be short. And that you might die next to your coworkers, and you should always honor them as fellow people. Life includes work and work includes YOU – you shouldn’t just turn in your personality and your happiness for 8 hours a day and become a robot. Perhaps this idea, subconscious or not, shaped how my generation now approaches their careers.
Before bed, I noted in my journal: What an incredible day.
I wouldn’t want to relive the weeks and months afterwards. Even at the time, I knew that. I didn’t know much about politics at that age, but I felt torn about a lot of the rhetoric I heard. I wanted to honor my country and those who died, but I didn’t relate to that ever-present “Proud to be an American” song or the idea that we were attacked just because of our freedoms. I bought a shirt at school to raise money for the Red Cross. I bought some magazines and books with survivors’ stories. The idea of war made me feel conflicted.
One of my most visceral memories happened the next Monday. The airport was in our township, so everyone was used to seeing and hearing planes. All aviation traffic stopped for about six days, though. I was playing basketball outside with my gym class when a plane flew overheard. Everyone stopped and stared up, not saying a word.
Exactly a month after the attacks, my dad flew to New York to see his parents. We were no longer able to go to the gate with him. He said when they flew over Manhattan, it was just an awful smoking hole.
Another month after that, on my mom’s birthday, my granddad dropped dead from a heart attack. My grandmother had been cooking dinner when he fell over in the dining room. I wasn’t particularly sad, but I was worried for how it would impact my family. We drove out to New York. Even hours before we reached the city, American flags tied to overpasses became frequent. Pennsylvania felt eerie. As we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I looked down at the skyline. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. “It’s missing its dominant element,” I said, using terminology I’d picked up in newspaper class. It didn’t look right at all. The towers truly weren’t there.
That week was depressing. My granddad had died, it was Thanksgiving, the weather was dreary, and the town felt somber. Many residents had never come home. Cars gathered dust at the train station. Missing people posters were starting to come down. The grocery store down the street had a massive display of newspaper clippings, photos, missing people posters saved for posterity, and obituaries. My parents and uncle went to Manhattan to clean out my granddad’s second apartment and straighten out various bank accounts, but they wouldn’t let my sister and I tag along, despite our requests. I think their reasoning was twofold. One, they didn’t want us close to Ground Zero, and two, the apartment was apparently creepy and full of unsavory things. While we’d long suspected my grandfather had a mistress, the apartment’s contents confirmed it many times over. My sister and I stayed with our grandmother, running errands for her and getting her to watch movies on TV with us. One boring day, we put on all of our makeup wrong just to amuse ourselves – black mascara on our eyebrows, concealer on our lips. We wanted to see Ground Zero, but in retrospect, perhaps it’s best we didn’t breathe any air around there. We saw it a few times in the years to come anyway. I still wished I’d gone up in the towers, but I also realized that doing so might have given me haunting memories and nightmares.
The last time I was near there was 4 years ago. I stopped to see the newly-built memorial, which is a beautiful, moving tribute. I noticed the beautiful Survivor Tree. Its story touched me. It spoke to many things I’d experienced in my own life, the smooth branches and delicate blossoms sprouting from twisted, charred spots. Drawing narratives from facts is hard; drawing meaning from both is even harder. But that tree seems like a good starting point.