Thursday, September 10, 2009

My 9/11 Story

I appreciate the many emails, comments, and concerns I've received over the last several months regarding my absence here. Please know that I appreciated every one of them. You all made me feel loved. I will be back to posting VERY, VERY soon, I promise. But first, let me retell my story I published last year of my 9/11 experience.

May we always remember.

It was September 10, 2001. As the plane made its approach into the Newark airport, I did my usual routine. Looking out the window, I looked for the Twin towers of the World Trade Center. They were always so easy to spot on the edge of the skyline. From there, it was a straight shot down to find the little green spot that was the Statue of Liberty. I never got used to how tiny Lady Liberty was against the massive skyscrapers. The pictures and stories of her always seemed to make her seem much bigger in proportion than she really is.

I found my Twin Towers, found the Statue of Liberty. Check, and check, my ritual was done and I could go back to my latest James Patterson book. It was never really worth the time, but it was the only thing left in the newsstand selection of 20 books I hadn't read.

I picked up my rental car, drove to my hotel and checked in. I considered going into the city for dinner. I was just across the river from Manhattan and had nothing to do until I started teaching my class the following morning. But I decided I was tired of the city and same old same old and ordered room service and worked on reading my book.

Morning came and my day started just like the other 600 classes I had started before. I greeted students, made sure the computers were setup properly, familiarized myself with the facility, and made sure I knew who my contact was if an issue arose. At 8:30 the class promptly began and I started my introduction that at this point was a memorized speech.

Around 8:45, a student's phone rang. I made a mental note to make sure I moved up my "please silence your phones, put pagers on stun, etc." speech and glared at the student as she took the call in the middle of the class. I was hoping she saw my evil eye. Only as I was giving her the evil eye, I was noticing something in her eye--tears and panic. I was caught off guard and paused to look at this student and tried to imagine what sort of family emergency has just happened. She put down her phone and with a trembling voice and trying to hold back her tears said, "Something has happened. There was an explosion or something at the World Trade Center."

With the vast numbers of people that work at the WTC and being just across the river, I don't believe there was a single student that didn't also panic. No one in that classroom was without a loved one, a neighbor, or a friend that didn't work there and was immediately concerned for their safety. We stopped class while everyone started making phone calls, getting on the internet, going outside to see if we could see anything. Details were sketchy but it was clear that something big had happened. Then we find out it was a plane that crashed through. What a terrible accident, how could that have happened? Wait! There's a second plane! It just crashed into the other tower! This wasn't an accident! Our nation is being attacked and I'm sitting 10 miles from the epicenter.

We dismiss class and tell people to go home and try to find out what has happened to all of their loved ones. The phones were completely overloaded and everyone was having trouble getting through. My sister, Tara, was the first to get a message to me. Her message was, "Hey! I was just checking to make sure you are ok. I don't know where in the world your are today, but given your history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I'm guessing you are in NY. Call us and let us know." I was finally able to get through to her and to Mom to say yes, I was in NY, but I was fine. That didn't stop my Mom from being near hysterical but I assured her I was ok and not in danger. Was I in danger? I didn't really know. I still didn't know entirely what was going on. My statement meant I was alive and ok at the moment but I wasn't going to tell her that distinction.

In my stupor I go back to my hotel to watch the news and surf the net to figure out what is going on. On the way I could see the smoke pouring from the towers. I wasn't close enough to see the towers. I couldn't handle looking at them yet anyway. I learn the Pentagon was also attacked and there's word of potentially some heroes that ensured a fourth plane wouldn't take another target. Then, right there on my TV, it happened. I watched the first building buckle like a house of cards. I began sobbing thinking of all of my students and their loved ones. There were husbands, wives, sisters, even children in the daycare. How many were lost? Shortly after I see the second building collapse and I can no longer sit in my room.

I got into my car. I drove down towards the towers. When they were in clear view of the massive black pouring of smoke, I pulled over. Right there on the interstate I pulled over to the emergency lane and with everyone else and got out of my car and stood along the wall. There were no more towers to see, only smoke. I wish I had paid more attention to them yesterday. I wish I had known that would be the last time I would set site to the grand buildings. I would have looked longer, I would have gone into the city and taken another tour of them, I would have done a lot of things different.

I don't know how long I stood there crying just watching, sobbing, being numb. Emergency vehicles were constantly roaring down the interstate behind me, heading for the scene. Every time I heard their siren it jolted me out of my trance for just a second. Finally I put my thoughts together and decided I would do the only thing I could do, I would go donate blood. Surely there were many injured survivors that would need blood. I could do that. I found out a location of a Red Cross. Apparently half the city had the same idea. I was turned away as they couldn't handle any more donations. Defeated and unable to help in any way I could fathom, I went back to my hotel.

When I got to my hotel, the scene had changed. They were using the lobby as a makeshift treatment facility for emergency workers suffering from smoke inhalation and other minor injuries. Camera crews from neighboring cities had checked in and set up shop. I went to my room and cried again. I had never felt so alone. It was too far to drive home and the airports were shut down tight. I was stuck. I had no one I knew, no one who loved me to hug me and tell me everything would be ok. I cried myself to sleep.

A few hours later I woke with a start. Had I left the iron on this morning? What is that burning smell? I checked the iron. It was unplugged and put away thanks to the housekeeping service. Was it my curling iron? No, it was off too. I stepped out of my room and still smelled that wretched smell that burned my nose. My heart was heavy as I finally processed what that smell was. It wasn't the curling iron, or the iron, or the air system. It was the smell of the burning of two giant skyscrapers, two planes, and all of the people for whom it became a tomb. It was the smell of death. It is a smell that didn't escape me the rest of the time I was there and a smell that still plagues me to this day. This was the most vivid of my memories.

The next morning I showed up for class. I figured it had been canceled but no one was able to get through to tell me otherwise. I had nothing else to do anyway. To my surprise, six others showed up too. I learned that many in that class lost loved ones. It wasn't the news I wanted to hear. But there were six out of 24 that had shown up, that had all friends and family accounted for, and they wanted to learn. So I taught. I finally had a purpose in all this madness. I would teach my class and they would help me get through this.

Normally I teach a class by using humor. I skipped the jokes that week. I wasn't in a funny mood and it seemed inappropriate to laugh anyway. I bought them pizzas during lunch and held to every minute of class as precious time for me to have someone to talk to, people to listen to, people who would keep my mind off of what happened 10 miles away.

When the class ended that Friday, I was fortunate enough to be able to make the very first flight out of Newark when it reopened that day. It was times like these that I was glad I put in over 200,000 miles a year on Delta. They saw to it I was going home as soon as I could. My stepdad had been working in Princeton about 45 minutes away. My Mom begged and pleaded with me to drive home with him instead of getting on the plane. I calculated the amount of time I would have to spend with my stepdad in the car and decided I'd rather take my chances with the terrorists in the sky.

Although the airport was nearly empty, it took me four hours to get to my gate. They rifled through everything I owned while it was open on a table for any passerby to view my panties and my other contents. They took my tweezers, my favorite diamond chiseled tweezers that could search and pluck any stray eyebrow hair. They confiscated my water. They made me turn my computer off and on half a dozen times. But I wasn't complaining. I figured all of these precautions weren't going to stop another terrorist attack, but it still made me somehow feel safer nonetheless.

My plane left that Friday afternoon. Just four days after the world had changed. As the flight took off, it flew in the familiar pattern and over near the Twin Towers and Lady Liberty we go. Only this time there would be no towers to begin my ritual of finding The Statue. Instead, the smoke still billowed as black and strong as ever where the buildings once stood. No one spoke as the flight flew past. Tears glistened in everyone's eyes. I paid my respects, said a prayer, and wondered what life was going to be like after today.


Jenny/Moravia said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Wow! What an experience.

Amanda and Don said...

Jenny/Moravia said exactly what I was going to say.

The Tartaglia Family said...

Incredible story. You have such a talent for writing!

The Cundick Family said...

Beautifully written :) Thank you for sharing your story. I can't even fathom being that close, it was so emotional being 2,000 miles away. We will NEVER forget.

Joanna said...

I remember your post from the original posting. It was very touching then, and it still is now.

I'm glad to see that you are back on your blog. I can't wait to hear about everything that's been going on since the snowstorm.