I was here, at least at night. This is a picture I took outside a Kinko’s in Monroe, Louisiana on the evening of September 11th, 2001. I was waiting in the car while my friend Mark, who was with me on a road trip across the South, sent emails to his friends and family saying that he was in the two-week window where he would not be in New York City or Washington, and that he was fine. I took the picture because the sunset was so stunningly beautiful, I couldn’t think of a more stark contrast to the events of the day.
I wrote the following on 18 September 2001 and sent to a musician mailing list I’m on, where people were sharing their stories. It is divided into two sections: The story of what happened to me, and my opinions about what happened in general. This is the best summary I have of what happened and how I felt in the week after the attacks. I’ve left it pretty much untouched except for grammatical errors and capitalizing that which needed capitalization.
I apologize in advance for my really bad tendency to go off on tangents.
So I am just writing now because I just got back Sunday night from a two week road trip going Chicago-DC-Atlanta-Dallas-Chicago. Counting 2 side trips to Chatanooga, one to Centerville, Texas and one to Fort Worth, I just drove in a 4200 mile circle.
I had picked up my friend Mark (he goes to school with me at Northwestern U. just outside Chicago), who had been staying with my mother in DC while doing an internship because he needed someplace cheap to stay, and nothing is cheaper than free. We left DC at 7am the Saturday morning before all hell broke loose and went to my dad’s in Atlanta.
One of the oddest things about the trip to Atlanta was the fact that me, Mark, and two other friends who had joined us for the day took the CNN Stuido Tour the day before the attacks. The guide was pointing out various portions of the newsroom, showing us where a story came in, how it got approved, who wrote the copy, and how it bounced around the newsroom. The guide said the fastest they had ever gotten on the air with a story was nine minutes in the Oklahoma City Bombing. i heard later they were on the air with WTC in four minutes, and i had the exact picture in my mind of how the newsroom was laid out and how it came in and got around and to the anchors.
Early in the morning of the 11th, me, Mark, and my friend Will all piled into my car, and we took Will back to Chatanooga. We dropped him off at his house about 8 Eastern time. We were listening to CD’s all day, because frankly radio in rural Georgia is pretty much mainstream country or nothing (sorry, country fans). We had no idea what was happening.
We stopped at a McDonald’s just outside of Birmingham, Alabama shortly before 10:30am. I remember this time because I really wanted a sausage biscut with egg and because we had changed time zones, I could still get one. Mark and I each went to our respective restrooms, and when we came out he had an odd story for me. He told me some guy in the bathroom, who he could barely understand through his thick southern accent (Mark’s from Utah and has trouble understanding anyone south of DC), had told him something about planes crashing into buildings. We were like, wow, what a paranoid guy. When we left we turned on the radio to see exactly how much crap this guy was full of.
After some fiddling with the radio to try and find a station: “Both World Trade Center towers have collapsed, the Pentagon is in flames, and there are now reports coming out of central Pennsylvania of a plane crash there.”
I felt all the blood rush out of my head. I could barely feel my foot leaning on the gas pedal before I suddenly realized that I was going 90 miles an hour and that this was probably not a great idea. I got very, very cold, and nothing came to my mind other than “Oh, shit.” We pushed on to Tuscaloosa, where we had intended to stop for lunch at U of Alabama, trying to figure out what the hell to do next. We were listening to simulcasts of the ABC television coverage, occasionally interspersed with ABC radio network. When we were listening to simulcasts, Peter Jennings kept going, “Wow, look at that…” and we couldn’t.
So we stopped at a Sears and went in, and that’s when I saw the horrible pictures for the first time, the one of the tower collapsing like a flimsy banana peel, and of the second plane tearing through the building like it was made of paper, not steel. These pictures have been replayed so often they almost seem like wallpaper now, but I will never forget the first time I saw them, and the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I thought about how many people could be dead. I had heard the estimates that 50,000 people worked in the Trade Center. I was so numb at that point I couldn’t even think.
I went outside and tried to call my mother back in DC and after several “lines jammed” signals, I finally got through. she was fine, watching it on TV like everyone else. she said Arizona Avenue, which leads to Chain Bridge (which for those not from DC is one of the main routes out into the Virginia suburbs), was completely jammed, but it was sort of an orderly panic. I told her to call me if she left. She said she wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t end up getting back through to her until Wednesday afternoon because so many people were trying to call in and out of DC.
We got back on the road after a bit, and we had several bizarre radio moments:
- We think we’ve found Superman. a woman was talking to a reporter, begging, pleading for more information about her husband, who had been on the 57th (or so) floor of the second building that got hit, first to collapse).All of a sudden, her husband walks out of the dust and smoke, and they have an incredibly emotional reunion right there on the air. After 30 seconds in which I had a lot of trouble keeping hold of my emotions just listening to it, the reporter asks the man, “Sir, are you okay?” The man, in the most calm voice I have ever heard in my life, as if someone has just handed him a menu at an upscale restaurant and asked him how he is, says “I’m fine, thank you.” He went on, in the same absurdly calm voice, to describe his miraculous escape. It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever heard.
- At one point the announcer, in a minor bit of paranoia, said “Nowhere in America is safe right now.” Mark and I looked around. We saw trees for 20 miles in all directions with a thin stretch of highway running through them in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. We decided this was about as close as you could get.
- At another point it was announced that all airline travel had shut down, Amtrak was stopped on the northeast corridor, and Greyhound had stopped everything for the day. Mark looks at me and says, “So really, we’re the only people in the country going anywhere right now.” I had to agree.
Mark eventually realized, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m supposed to be starting an internship at City Limits (a magazine in NYC) in a couple of weeks. I think it’s close to that part of the city.” So we dug out a map and discovered that their offices are 5 blocks from what was already being called ground zero. As of right now (9/18) he should be pulling up to his apartment in Hoboken, though he still hasn’t gotten in contact with anyone there because apparently all their communications are still down. But he’s lucky: if he had decided to start two weeks early, as he had been considering, he would have been getting off the Path Train with his parents right at that station when the first plane hit, and god only knows what would have happened then.
Things that just broke my heart kept happening. When we got to Dallas, I finally got in touch with one of my friends in DC. She had been going to college out in California but was taking some time off. She was very shaken up because one of her best freinds in California had his brother on one of the planes that hit the Trade Center. His brother was on that plane for no other reason than to come and visit him. The guy was a wreck, my friend was incredibly paranoid that something else was going to happen, and I just wanted to hit something out of frustration that anyone, anywhere could possibly think that doing something like this could possibly be somehow valiant or noble, no matter how twisted their logic.
A coda to the whole thing: on our way back up to Chicago from Dallas, we took a bit of a detour and ended up stopping at the Oklahoma City Bombing memorial. It is a sad, quiet place, and the day we went, the sky was gray and ominous, and people were just weeping everywhere. On the first gate of the memorial is the following inscription:
We come here to remember those who were killed,
Those who survived and those changed forever.
May all who leave here know the impact of violence.
May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope, and serenity.
It is a very emotional place. when you go into the memorial, you see 168 empty chairs, each representing one of the victims. Some of the chairs are smaller than the others, to represent the children in the day care center who were killed. The sadness there Saturday was overwhelming. You can feel the emptiness there, but what made me just want to turn off my ability to think was the fact that there will be twenty five times that number of empty chairs as a result of what happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
I offer my condolences to anyone who has lost someone, or even just their sense of security in all of this. There is a terrible sadness that I just can’t seem to shake after all of this, I think founded in my feeling, strengthened since I visited the OKC memorial, that all this violence is just useless. Someone hits us, we hit them back, they hit us back harder, and it just keeps going. and here I get into:
I grew up in DC having nightmares about something like this happening. Not like it was every night, and not like 90% of the time it wasn’t attributable to eating leftover pizza shortly before going to bed. But especially since the Gulf War, when my middle school, where the sons of the Kuwaiti ambassador went, was the constant target of bomb threats, I have always been a little more paranoid about things like this happening than most.
There is a certain kind of fire alarm that sounds like an air raid siren (I think it’s also used as a tornado warning), and whenever I hear one the bottom drops out of my stomach. When I heard the reports of fighter planes doing combat patrols over major US cities, I got the same feeling. There was always the nightmare of World War 3 breaking out, but now it seems like a real threat. I know good people in several branches of the Armed Services, and it is for them that my heart truly trembles.
I’m torn. I’ve seen throughout my brief lifetime how useless the cycle of violence and terror and blame is around the world, particularly in Israel, where we have seen constant escalation for the last year. It really shows how useless the “you hit me, i’ll hit you back” mentality is, especially when both sides think that god is on their side. One of the most dangerous things in the world, in my opinion, is people who take what they believe is god’s will, regardless of what version of god they subscribe to, and use it to hurt their fellow man. However, i still feel a boiling anger and a sharp desire to see the people behind these attacks brought to justice, even though i’m not sure what that really should mean anymore.
One thing that has made me sadder and angrier than anything is these idiots who are going around attacking mosques. it’s been said before, but it needs to be said again and again: Islam does not condone violence. the people that did this, and as of now it does appear to be Osama bin Laden and al Queda, are a splinter faction. only a very small minority of people who claim to subscribe to the Islamic faith believe what he believes. most of the world is as aghast as all of us that something like this could happen. But it only takes a few yahoos shooting out windows, spray painting slurs, and generally being morons to make the rest of the world think that these terrorists have succeded in tearing this country apart.
This type of knee-jerk reaction is almost as bad as the idiots who were firing off weapons in celebration when they heard of the destruction. But if you look in the background of those photos and videos, not everyone is doing that: Very few people are actually celebrating. There are many people standing around going, “What the hell are you doing? Thousands of people just died and you want to dance on their graves?” It won’t be the first thing you notice, because you will be gripped by rage at those who would be ecstatic at the deaths of thousands of innocent people. But when you see it, you will be reassured. Maybe this doesn’t all have to end in violence after all. But I fear that it will.
Tony Blair, who I respect more and more as time goes on, said the one thing that I think really sums up what happened last tuesday: “This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life.”
Please, please, please, give blood if you are eligible (and there are many, many reasons you may be disqualified, some rational, others not, but at least take the time to find out if you can), especially if you have O negative blood. There was already a critical blood shortage in this country before any of this hit. It’s really not a big deal in terms of pain, just make sure you eat something before you go, otherwise you may get a tad lightheaded.
If you can’t give blood, or even if you can, give money. I don’t care if it’s 2 bucks, 200 bucks, 200,000 bucks, or 2 million bucks. My mother has worked with nonprofit organizations her whole adult life and they always take whatever help they can get, especially in times of crisis. 1-800-HELP-NOW is the number for the American Red Cross, and there are many charities now being set up to help victims’ families, especially the families of the NYC firemen and police officers who were killed while trying to help people get out of the buildings and saved countless lives before their own were lost.
And though it was on the fake list of banned songs, I think it’s quite appropriate here: “I can’t believe the news today/ Oh I can’t close my eyes and make it go away/…How long, how long must we sing this song?/ How long, how long?/ ‘Cause tonight we can be as one/ tonight, tonight…”
We are all human, and we are all touched by this stupid, senseless act of violence. My hope is that it will awaken people to the humanity in all of us. I fear that I may be hoping for too much.
Whew. Thank you for reading this, if you managed to get through all of it. I’ll be surprised if anyone does, but I think I needed to write this all out just to get through everything I’ve been feeling for the last week. thanks.
If you’d like to start an argument with me about my opinions, email me and I’ll try to work it into my schedule.