From the vantage point of a decade after 9/11 it seems as fate wanted me to be in New York City -- not just in New York City, but probably at almost the precise location which one would have selected to view those terrible events, had one known in advance what was to happen and, if for some macabre reason, one wanted to witness them.
I had been in New York almost the whole week before on a business deal that just wasn't happening. Finally, I decided to return home to Palo Alto on the theory that (1) the deal wasn't going down and (2) if it did, I could accomplish what was necessary via the modern miracles of email, fax and telephone. Thus, I was very surprised when a colleague emailed me Sunday, Sept. 9, and told me to get my butt on a plane and hightail it back to New York. I arrived late in the evening Sept. 10.
That evening was crystal clear -- every light twinkled and shone and the New York skyline never looked more enticing. I commented to the cab driver that I was glad he was taking the 59th Street Bridge (the "feeling groovy" bridge) into Manhattan. I had grown up in New York and think I must have crossed that bridge a million times.
Feeling uncharacteristically chatty, I started to tell the driver that the skyline looked just as beautiful as when I was a kid -- but then corrected myself. No, it looked even nicer, because, when I was young, the Twin Towers hadn't been built yet, but now -- there they were. (I know that architecturally they had their detractors, but I was always impressed by their sleek strength.)
At about 7 a.m. the next morning (bright and early East Coast business meetings are such a joy when you've just flown in from the West Coast), my colleague and I took a cab down to the law office where our team was meeting -- at One Liberty Plaza -- directly across from the Twin Towers.
The cab driver got lost (I thought he feigned getting lost to jack up the fare -- what New York Cab driver can't find the World Trade Center?), and we ended up circling the Towers. My colleague and I agreed that if we finished the day early enough our team should retire to a bar at the World Trade Center for a bit of refreshment. But there was tons of work to accomplish between now and then. Little did we know...
We were meeting in a conference room on the 36th (or 38th?) floor -- with one of those impressive "Master of the Universe"-type views that well-heeled corporate law conference rooms command. As most of the team was busy guzzling coffee, I was lazily setting up my laptop. As I told the story (many times) in the days immediately following 9/11, although I heard someone shout, "Holy s---, look at that plane," I was too busy (or jaded) to look up to see the first of the airplanes slam into the North Tower.
I imagine that's true because that was what I said right after it happened. Nonetheless, I also now have the distinct image burned into my brain of the plane, seemingly yards away from us, looming, right before it ploughed into the North Tower. Perhaps I've just imagined it so many times that I convinced myself that I remember it? Perhaps I saw it, but the image was so horrific I denied it? No way to know.
After the explosion, our whole group went to the other side of the building for a better view. Our perspective was of the side of the Tower that was perpendicular to the side where the plane crashed. At first there was the thinnest black line of smoke coming out of the side of the building. It rapidly got larger. We stood there in amazement, not really knowing what to do.
One of the fledgling investment bankers on the team -- a young kid, named Christian, turned to me (I never knew why he picked me) and said, "Let's go down and help." I objected, "What would we do? Won't we just be in the way?" One could already hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles getting louder. A short time later we could see a line of firemen entering the building. Christian did go down to help. When I saw him later, he said there was nothing he could do -- he was just in the way. Nonetheless, I can't escape the feeling that he did the right thing and I hid behind an excuse.
I once saw a Harrison Ford movie where he jumps from a very high dam. It always stuck out in my memory as an example of really bad special effects because when you see Harrison Ford falling into the water below, it looks fake -- sort of like a little stick falling from a tree. Turns out they got it right -- that's exactly what human beings look like when they hurtle to their deaths with large edifices as a background. I saw many people jump/fall out of the World Trade Center Windows -- including one couple who seemed to be trying to hold hands. Somehow, despite the fact that it was obvious what we were watching, I wasn't sure what it was -- it looked so fake -- until a woman in our group started to scream. Then what I was watching somehow all came crashing in.
I thought I should call my wife and let her know I was okay, but it was early in California, and I didn't want to awaken her. I had mentioned the week before that we'd kind of been bouncing around between midtown and downtown law offices -- one of which was opposite the World Trade Center. Would she remember? (Turned out she didn't.) Would she be concerned about me when she heard about this on the news? I decided the best thing to do was to call her voicemail at work; that would reassure her, but not disturb her. I went to an empty secretary's workstation and called, leaving a message about this "horrible accident" when a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I still didn't have a clue.
When I returned to the group the discussion was about what to do. Some thought it best that we go back to our conference room and proceed with negotiating the deal. Others thought that, in an abundance of caution, we should retire to available facilities further uptown. Someone pointed out that if the antenna on top of the North Tower fell in our direction, it could be devastating. We decided to leave. Calmly, we set about packing up our belongings. The one hint of crisis was that many people stuffed their pockets with danishes, water bottles and bagels -- emergency provisions.
I started to look for the stairs -- the one thing I knew was that one should not take the elevator if there was a danger of electrical failure or fire. Others thought I was psychotic. The one thing they knew was that we were on the 36th (or 38th) floor. Fortunately, they prevailed. When we entered the elevator, there was some guy going from a higher floor to his office on the 32nd-ish floor, to return to work. I remember thinking that we were being hysterical and we should just go back upstairs and get this deal done. On the way down, we had a discussion in which we agreed that we should all stay together.
That seemed like a good idea until I got out of the elevator. People in the lobby were busily -- even frenetically -- but not yet frantically leaving the building. I took about two steps when the sonic boom knocked me over. I remember looking up at the acoustic ceiling tiles, which were undulating, seemingly the last thing I would see before this 40-story building toppled onto my head. (Of course, this was the explosion of the second plane hitting the South Tower -- but being highly suggestible, I assumed the boom was the sound of the North Tower's antenna collapsing into our building.) Somehow, despite the undulating ceiling tiles, our building did not collapse.
I remember getting to my feet with some difficulty, as if the ground (or my legs) were unsteady. My sole thought then was to get the hell out of the building. Apparently, about two-thirds of the people in the lobby had the same thought; the others decided the safest thing to do would be to move towards the central core of the building. Panic, pandemonium, chaos -- I don't think there are any words to describe what ensued.
The next thing I remember is being outside, enveloped in a blizzard of stuff -- mostly paper. Business records, calendars, stationery, computer printouts -- more paper than you can possibly imagine -- plus the random shoe, purse, piece of metal. I don't really recall seeing any body parts -- but then, as you may surmise from my confusion about whether I saw the plane, I am plagued by a vivid imagination. But the visual is not my main memory -- rather, it was the acrid smell. Here again words fail. Bitterly pungent. Caustic. Stinging. Hellish.
I fled, going a block or two without any real direction -- other than away. I slowed down and realized I was separated from my group. I stopped to hear the news on the street. The Sears Tower in Chicago had been attacked. The White House. The Golden Gate Bridge. I believed each tidbit. It was now time to call home, notwithstanding the possibility that I would awaken them. I wanted to know they were safe. (Were the terrorists smart enough to know what a bonanza they would score if they wiped out Palo Alto?) But no cell service. As I was waiting at a light to cross the street, somewhere near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, someone from my group ran across the street towards me. Apparently, they'd been yelling to me for several minutes to join them -- but I hadn't even heard my name.
Once re-united with my group, we developed a plan. (Well, mostly, they had a plan and I just followed along.) We shouldn't go too far east -- the UN was a probable target; neither should we go as far west as Fifth Avenue -- the Empire State Building was also a likely target (in fact someone in the group had heard that it was already in flames). I remember trudging uptown, turning every block to watch the black plume of smoke (from the fire) turn into a white smoky cloud (from the subsequent collapse of the towers). I had no idea why the color of the smoke changed so markedly. We ended up in a bar somewhere in the 30s on Third Avenue, watching the news, trying to get through to home (I was in fact able to have a very brief conversation with my oldest daughter in which I told her I was okay -- but she had no idea why I wouldn't be) and eating.
I remember watching the stream of refugees from the World Trade Center area covered with black sweaty soot change into a torrent of refugees covered with white ash, the very remains of the World Trade Center. I also remember leaving the bar to see New York at its best -- people stopping to give one another lifts over the bridge, long lines of people waiting to give blood, people hugging strangers who were losing it on the street. My hotel was around the corner from a fire station. Already, by 3 o'clock or so when I returned, the sidewalk in front of the station was covered with flowers and candles.
For brevity's sake (although I may have already forfeited my right to use that word here), I will skip ahead to Sept. 15, the Saturday I was able to fly home. JFK had just re-opened, and I had one of the first flights back to California. The pilot explained that he couldn't give an accurate forecast as to flying time, because those forecasts were based, in part, on reports from planes flying the same route ahead of you. There weren't any.
I also remember how at that time we took airport security seriously. The pilot announced that for the first time in his career he and the rest of the crew had been compelled to go through the metal detectors. He said they would get us to California safely. But he also reminded us that, although it was unlikely, if there were any bad guys on board, we outnumbered them. He also suggested that blankets were a great defensive weapon against box cutters.
I had a discussion with the person I was sitting next to about how glad we were to see how thoroughly we had been searched before boarding the plane. We said that if it were necessary, it would be fine to require us to travel naked -- just to make sure that no one was armed. (I often thought of that when, years later, there was also this hullabaloo about body scanners. Really? Someone else sees a picture of you naked or an airliner comes crashing into the building where you/your spouse/child/parent/friend works. Doesn't really seem like a close call. But I digress...) I remember hugging my wife and daughters when I arrived at the airport and got home. And I think a lot about how the 9/11 victims never hugged their loved ones again.
A short time later I attended some kind of a healing group run by my synagogue. Characteristically, I arrived late. Just in time to hear a discussion about how, in addition to feeling sympathy for the victims, we should understand the perpetrators' grievances. I don't think I got very much healing out of the group: I wanted to strangle them.
Also around this same time -- the immediate post-9/11 epoch (aptly described by a New Yorker cartoon depicting a couple, who were being asked by a travel agent what their destination was, and who responded, "September 10th") -- a friend asked me if I was having nightmares about what had occurred. I confessed I wasn't. I was having the opposite of a nightmare -- dreams in which I heroically saved 9/11 victims. Despite this continuing fantasy, I know that it's not true. Another friend expressed how difficult she knew it must have been for me to want to go to help the survivors, but to recognize that those efforts were best left to the emergency responders. She just didn't believe me when I told her that I really had just wanted to save myself -- but I still think about that on and off.
So here we are a decade later. Osama bin Laden -- may he burn in hell -- is dead. After the attack in Abbottabad, I heard a lot of opinions about whether it was a good thing, whether he should have been put on trial, whether it matters that we got him. I really don't understand those questions. Personally, I had only two reactions. The first, typical of my 9/11 fantasies: I wish I had killed him. The second: Too bad he didn't suffer more.
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