I Remember Sept. 11, 2001

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the cowardly attacks on the World Trade Center by a handful of hate-filled religious maniacs.

I am once again reprinting my blog of remembrances of the sickening — and inspiring — events of that day, as someone who was in midtown Manhattan at the time.

I was awakened by an airplane early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. No, it wasn’t one of those jets; it was just a passing low-flying plane, the kind that zoom toward Westchester County Airport all the time. It was before my alarm was supposed to sound, so I tried to get another 15 minutes of sleep. When I did finally get up and venture outside to drive to the train station, I distinctly remember marveling at what a beautiful day it was: The sky was clear and such an amazing deep blue that I actually noticed it. The temperature was comfortable, with a light breeze, and I was sorry that I would have to spend such a gorgeous late-summer day in an office in Manhattan. I actually thought it was one of the most beautiful days of the year. How wrong I was…

The train I used to take arrived at Grand Central Terminal every morning at 8:35. With time before my shift started at Soap Opera Weekly magazine, I strolled through GCT, browsing the magazine racks or somesuch. Around 8:55, I realized I had lollygagged a little too long, and I had to get to the office. When I stepped out onto 42nd Street, I saw a gaggle of police officers – both street patrolmen and bicycle cops wearing shorts. They were talking animatedly. Suddenly a van pulled up and several of the bicycle cops clambered in the van. I remember the van pulling away while one guy was still trying to jump in. The uniformed patrolmen jumped into cars, and all the vehicles took off, lights flashing and sirens wailing. I had paused to watch all this action and wondered what was up. Over the ensuing decade, I have often wondered how many of those brave officers I saw rushing to help survived that day.

I walked the few blocks to the office, and just as I was outside my building, I heard a loud, low rumbling. When I got up to the office, my co-workers were gathered around a couple of televisions. Working at a soap opera magazine, almost every staffer had a television in his/her office or cubicle, but people were standing together, watching a few TVs.  “What’s going on?” I asked. “A second plane just hit the World Trade Center,” someone said. “A second plane?” I replied. “When was the first?” I looked at the screen and saw footage of the huge, gaping wounds in the towers belching thick, black smoke. I couldn’t believe what I seeing. “That’s not an accident,” I mumbled. “That’s terrorism.”

People wandered around the office in a daze, keeping eyes on the TVs while trying to get some work done. Bizarrely, I distinctly remember thinking about Baz Luhrmann’s single, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” which contains the line, “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.” It wasn’t 4 o’clock, but it was an unremarkable Tuesday when that day began, and nobody expected this.

As it happened I had an interview scheduled. I was to do a phoner with Tom O’Neil, the well-known TV critic, author of The Emmys, and creator of the awards-show site GoldDerby.com, to chat about the glut of awards shows, and whether the upcoming Emmys were still relevant. I called him, and we started talking. I filled him in on what was happening in lower Manhattan. We moved to the subject of our interview, but I was keeping one eye on the TV mounted on the wall of my office. The sound was muted, but I didn’t need anyone to tell me the Twin Towers were burning. And then, at 9:59 a.m., I watched the South Tower collapse. I was thunderstruck. I told Tom something like, “One of the towers just fell down,” and he was silent. The ridiculous thought that I had to remain “professional” flashed through my brain; I couldn’t believe what was happening but, robot-like, I kept talking to Tom. To his credit, he soldiered on, talking about a subject that then seemed so meaningless that it was ludicrous for two grown men to even discuss it. Awards shows? Powerful, beautiful people slapping each other on the back over silly little trophies? Insane. I got the quotes I needed, we wrapped up, and I clicked off the tape recorder that documented the interview. I still have that tape, but after transcribing it I have never listened to it again.

After the interview, I learned that the Pentagon had been hit, too. And then the North Tower fell at 10:28 a.m., and it was like the whole world had changed. America would never be the same. There were rumors that fleets of planes had been hijacked and were on their way to strike major cities, and especially New York. In the office, we all wondered if the nearby Empire State Building would be next. My friend Mark and I stared out my office window toward the top of the ESB, and wondered if it would land on our building if it were knocked over. (We decided it wouldn’t reach us.) People in Manhattan were told to stay put, and all the bridges and tunnels were closed, so no one was going anywhere. We all had become shuffling zombies, looking at the floor or each other with concern as we attempted to go about some semblance of our duties. (What else were we supposed to do?)  In the afternoon, we could hear the roar of fighter jets patrolling the air above Manhattan, and that made us feel a lot safer. (But it was also rather unnerving to think such measures were necessary. And continued to be necessary for days.)

Later in the afternoon, we got word that Manhattan was being unsealed, and people could leave the city to go home. I was eager to get back to Connecticut. As I stepped outside, onto Madison Avenue, there was an eerie silence. The sidewalks were packed, but nobody was talking. Usually every other person in New York is gabbing on a cell phone as they walk, but the tower collapse had taken out the island’s main cell-phone relay, so most phones weren’t working.  People shambled toward Grand Central or stood in neat, single-file lines for buses. I had never seen such orderly bus stops, or people obeying crossing lights so diligently. Whatever people say about rude New Yorkers, in a time of crisis, society didn’t break down. In fact, I had never seen New Yorkers act so…civilized. The train ride home was conducted in utter silence. Commuters were warned that terrorists might attack the rail system, so everyone was silently eyeing everyone else, wondering what would happen next. Every package in the overhead racks suddenly became a potential explosive. But no one hurled any accusations or, indeed, said anything. The only sounds were the rattling of the tracks and the conductors solemnly collecting tickets.

When I got off the train, I didn’t go home. I drove straight to my brother’s house, where I was greeted by my concerned sister-in-law, and I hugged my 1-year-old nephew (maybe a little too tightly, as he made a squeaking sound). My brother came home from work a little while later, but so many other families were not so lucky. So many other people did not come home that day. Too many.

Today we remember that tragedy 10 years ago – an attack that came, literally, out of clear blue sky. Today we remember the innocent victims, those who were killed and those who were sickened and those who were emotionally scarred. And we remember the heroes: The first-responders who rushed into the conflagration at the World Trade Center when everyone else was running away.  Their brave sacrifices should never be forgotten. And we should also remember the living heroes who protect us to this day. To everyone out there, putting their lives on the line every day to protect the rest of us, thank you.

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