I was fairly sure things couldn’t get any worse. A month earlier, I had been laid off from my job without notice and without much of a severance package. Without a decent severance package I couldn’t pay rent on my Studio Apartment in San Francisco’s Richmond District and I had to give notice to my landlord. I wasn’t having any luck finding a job. I was feeling really worthless in the professional market and I was going to have to move in with Michelle or else I’d have to move back to Oklahoma or be homeless, neither of which seemed like particularly attractive options.
In an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy in my life and to maintain good habits for work, I had been getting up early (well anyway, my alarm went off early) so that I could listen to my favorite morning radio show and search the internet for valid job postings or opportunities. Now that I was moving, I had temporarily abandoned my job search in favor of packing and preparing for move day but I still had my alarm set so I could listen to the show.
It was Tuesday morning. I had five days to pack the contents of my life into cardboard. I hate moving. I love settling into a new place, but I hate moving. I hate packing. How is one supposed to live their life while packing? How do you pack when you’re still going to be in your place of residence for days? How do you decide what to pack? What if you need something before you move and you’ve already packed it away? I’m terrible at this and I’m always still packing the day of the move.
It was Tuesday morning. September in San Francisco, is the warmest month of the year but warm in San Francisco is not necessarily warm, especially not at 5:30 in the morning. I was laying snuggly in my bed when the radio of my alarm clock came on and I heard the familiar voice of the female host of my favorite morning radio show.
“KLLC San Francisco, Sarah and Vinnie, Alice’s morning show. It’s 5:32 AM. Let’s get right to the news. A plane has apparently crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City,” she said. Her voice was the same as every morning and yet it was different. There was an urgency in her voice that I wasn’t accustomed to. I was still waking up and my mind wasn’t fully functional. I wasn’t able to fully process the gravity of what had been said. I’ve never been to New York City. I wasn’t sure what the World Trade Center was, and I hadn’t yet grasped the significance of what had been said. “Kathy,” she said to the traffic reporter in another building, “What can you tell us?”
Kathy worked for KCBS, the local CBS radio affiliate. Her job, and those around her, was to report on the local traffic, but there was news reporting in the vicinity and she was the first to report to Alice’s listeners. “There’s not much to tell yet,” she said, “It looks like a plane has hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Reports are still coming in, but it sounds like it was a small plane. Maybe a commuter plane of some sort.”
I was waking up faster now, but I still didn’t grasp the severity of what had happened. Planes crash and that’s terrible, but it’s generally not that significant a news story. It’s usually a given that the passengers of the plane died. A plane crashing into a building seems terrible, but still how bad can it get? It was cold in my apartment and warm in my bed. There was no rush to get out of bed and start my day. I decided to just lay there and listen for a while. They talked for a few minutes about what it all meant, or more specifically, about how they didn’t know what it meant. And then Kathy mentioned something about an Airbus. At 5:45 in the morning, my faculties weren’t fully engaged and the term didn’t register with me. I’m not sure if I even knew then what an Airbus was. Must be another term for a commuter flight like she mentioned earlier, I thought.
And then someone mentioned hijackers and three more missing planes.
I got out of bed and turned on the TV. I knew it wouldn’t matter what channel it was on because something like this would be on every channel.
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Smoke billowed out of the tower and flames were visible even at a great distance. I landed on ABC. NBC had some young whippersnapper named Brian Williams on the air (where was Tom Brokaw at a time like this?) and CBS had Dan Rather. I never liked Dan Rather. But ABC had Charles Gibson and Dianne Sawyer on the air and Peter Jennings on his way.
I sat down on my ugly, too small couch across from the television, surrounded by boxes and chaos, the clutter an obvious metaphor for the state of my consciousness at that point, and I stared, mouth agape at this tragic scene before me. It was six o’clock.
A thousand thoughts went through my mind. I want coffee but I can’t see the TV from the kitchen. I’ve got a lot of work to do but I can’t tear my eyes from the screen. I should call my mother. I probably can’t call my mother right now, I’m sure everyone is calling their parents right now and the phone system will be a mess. What is happening? Why did this happen? This is a mistake, an accident, right? And then, as if in response to my last thought, the answer swooped in from the right side of my television screen and seemingly melted into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, shooting a ball of fire out the other side.
Looking back, it’s almost like I knew, if I went to make coffee, I’d miss something monumental. It’s difficult to describe how I feel about this. Such a horrific sight, a horrible thing to behold and yet, I had to see it. I had to know. And yes, there were a gazillion replays of the moment of impact throughout the day and weeks that followed, but that wouldn’t have been the same. Perhaps it’s because I’m part of “The Now Generation”. Perhaps it’s because I have a morbid fascination with disaster and mayhem and while it should never happen, if it’s going to, I want to see it. But I needed to see the impact “first hand”. I needed to be sitting there, glued to my screen. I needed to be watching the moment that plane vanished behind the already burning south tower, and I needed to see the ball of fire, the billowing smoke, and the plummeting debris that erupted from the other side. And once it had, I knew there was time.
I made my coffee, brushed my teeth and got dressed, contemplated calling my mother again, fixed something for breakfast and returned to the living room, ostensibly to begin packing and quickly reglued myself to the television screen and the tragedy that was unfolding before me.
Through all this, I listened. I listened as they reported on the missing planes, on the apparent hijackings and on the phone calls the passengers made to their loved ones. I listened as they reported on a third plane that had crashed into the Pentagon and somehow, that didn’t even seem significant in terms of destruction and loss of life. I listened as they reported on building evacuations in Washington and on President Bush’s relocation and the FAA grounding all flights within the US for the first time in history.
Back in front of my television I processed this information and looking at the buildings in flames and the images of the people hanging out the windows in an effort to gain a breath of fresh air, I prayed. I prayed for safety for as many as possible. I prayed for a quick resolution to the situations in those buildings. For the fires to be extinguished quickly and for those poor trapped souls to be able to make it safely out of the buildings and home to their families and I wondered what kind of renovations were going to be in order when this was over. How long would it take? How much would it cost? I was so naïve.
I wasn’t even fully aware of what was being said on the TV. It was all just so surreal. And that’s when I noticed the image on the screen had focused on the corner of one of the towers, where a plane had entered. I realize now, they must have been talking about the strategic impact of the plane and the structural integrity of the building but I didn’t get any of it. I didn’t understand what they were getting at… until if fell.
I was stunned. I sat, literally motionless, until it was done. Shocked, amazed, saddened, it all ran through me at once. Was this really happening? Was it possible, I was witnessing history as it happened? Things will never be the same again, I thought, we’ll survive and rebuild and move on, but things will never be the same again. Little did I know?
At the end of the day, when I felt sure nothing more could happen, when I had seen all I felt I could stand, when I had to be done with it for awhile. I watched Peter Jennings closing comments for the hour, and I looked on as they showed a prolonged shot of the Lower Manhattan Sky Line, shrouded in smoke and dust, scarred and forever changed.
For days after, all the imagery was replayed over and over. Maybe it would be different if that hadn’t happen but the sights of that day are forever seared into my memory. I thought about including some pictures in this post, but as I write, and remember, I realize, photographs aren’t necessary. We all saw it. We were all there. And if you’re like me, even a hint of a thought about that terrible day is all it takes to see it again, in your minds eye.
“We will never forget”, is not just a figure of speech. It’s not just a rally cry for the patriotic. It’s a fact, an undeniable fact, something about which I am simultaneously proud and tremendously, tremendously troubled.
I was fairly sure things couldn’t get worse. I was wrong.