911. Twenty-one Years Later.
Today is 9-11. Again. Twenty-one years ago. Like yesterday. It returns to me each and every year as clear as that crisp blue sky and brilliant orange ball of flame. My New York story is not the same as anyone else, but it’s not that different either. The clarity of it always surprises me, and I encourage myself to remember it in detail every year on its anniversary as if my memories give them all life once more – even if for just a moment. I go to the beach this day, as I have done on this day for years and send a bottle to the oceans with my grief.
It was election day, and I was driving out to the Hamptons to work on a campaign for a friend. I had just crossed the Triborough Bridge and was heading down the expressway toward the Long Island Expressway on the phone with the candidate. The towers were a mile south. I saw the first plane approaching, and aside from its low altitude no where near the airport heading down the center of Manhattan, what struck me how fast it was going. Planes land at 160 miles an hour, and this plane was going 280 miles an hour. Then there was the ball of fire. I tried to comprehend what I’d seen.
“A plane just went into the towers and a huge ball of flame just shot out of it. I have to go.”
I hung up.
We all got out of our cars and watched the smoke pour out. No one said a word but about ten of us stood together near the railing on the side of the road. There was no where to go and nothing to say to strangers all trying to clear their minds of this unthinkable reality playing out before us. Then the other plane arrived. It came from another direction and it was higher than the other plane. It sort of dove into the second tower. I think someone screamed. It might have been me. We were all hugging then, and I don’t remember when we started the huddle.
Then the fighter pilots arrived, which in some strange way was the most confusing part.
A man next to me said, “We are being invaded.”
“By who,” I replied. “Canada?”
We watched them circle the city and we still were without any commentary other than our own thoughts and fears. My first thought was getting back to the city to get to Sarah.
The first tower, shrouded with smoke, quietly slid to the ground and then the second. We all cried together. Not sobs, but silent tears that we didn’t want to wipe off our faces because they were marking the moment on our cheeks and our souls at the same time. It seemed unnatural to wipe them away.
Someone turned up the radio on their car and we all heard the commentary. I think it was Howard Stern.
Then a police car came down the side of the road half on the highway and half on the walkway. He said we had to drive, they needed to clear the roads for the rescue cars. I never got any of their names – my compatriots -those ten or so people who shared the most momentous moment of my life. That is a hard part of it all. I want to see them on this day, this anniversary of the death of American safety. We never exchanged names. There was no time and no thought of it in the moment.
A few days later, when they were still trying to find survivors, it was pouring rain, and I was walking Sarah to school. She has her own 9-11 story. Her memory is of being herded into the auditorium, asked to keep cell phones off, fearing that kids whose parents working in the Towers would hear the news before their parents could call and say they were safe; calls that in some cases never came. I can’t speak to her story because it’s hers, and the one thing about that day is that each and every friend and New York neighbor has their own story, different and similar to mine. But anyway, I was walking to her school with her, and I commented on the fact that the rain was gong to hinder the rescue. We are not a religious family, and her response hit me hard. “Maybe God needs to cry Mom. Just let him.” She was fourteen.
It really was the only time she commented on it all. And, it was the only comfort afforded me in those wrenching days.
But here is the thing. I’m so grateful to be a New Yorker and have my own story that day. I wear my story each day on this anniversary as a monument to those that went down with the towers that clear, crisp day. I will never forget those who I knew personally and the thousands of others who I didn’t. We are all connected.