Reflections on September 11th-As a Witness Finding a Way Home

“That’s what we storytellers do, Mrs. Travers. We restore order through imagination.

We instill hope again and again and again.”   -Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

Everyone old enough to remember the plane bombings in New York City on September 11th, 2001 has a story to tell. Memories are etched deeply in our psyche–where we were, how we felt, what we did. I have a tale about that day as well, having witnessed the unfolding events from a mile and a half away in Brooklyn. My daughter and I were a mile and a half away when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I have told that story before.

It is not lost on me the parallels between that event 20 years ago and the place our country finds itself in at this time, dealing with the same chaos and destruction perpetrated by evil. My thoughts are not far from those desperate to get home to a place of safety, aided by remarkable and courageous military as well as civilian volunteers.

My story is similar-ish and tells of the days after September 11th as my daughter and I found our way back home from New York to Seattle. There were sacrificial heroics along the way as well as the ordinary gift of human kindness that helped get us safely home.

*****

In September of 2001 my daughter and I celebrated her graduation from culinary school with a trip to New York City to meet Ruth Reichl, then Editor of Gourmet Magazine. She’d written three of our favorite books and had agreed to meet us to sign our copies.

We stayed with my nephew in his Carroll Gardens apartment in Brooklyn and spent five glorious days sightseeing in and around NYC. The evening of September 10th, we met him for drinks at Windows on the World restaurant in Manhattan. From our vantage point on the 106th floor we had a front row seat to a tremendous summer storm that came through that night. Thunder rattled the windows, lightning flashed all around and rain fell in buckets.  We walked home in near dusk while it still poured, D assuring us we’d soon dry out as the sky cleared. He was right, and we headed home on the subway.  
The next morning was the day of our appointment.  I remember a voicemail from Ruth’s assistant, Robin.  “See you at 11 on the 11th,” she said.

The sky was crystal-clear, a blue scrubbed clean as only a thunderstorm can do. My daughter and I prepped and dressed, chatting about the adventure ahead.

As my nephew headed out to work at his job in Midtown Manhattan, he stood at the door of the apartment to leave and the house shook. He lived only a mile and a half away across the river from midtown.

“What was that? A thunderclap?” I asked. Of course, it couldn’t be, the sky was cobalt blue and cloudless.

“Probably a dump truck rumbling down the street,” came his confident reply.

Then he walked out the door and took three flights of stairs to the street to catch the subway into the city.

I looked at the clock. It was 8:45.

After D left for work the phone rang nearly instantly. It was his girlfriend, J.

“You may not make your appt. this morning.”

“Why?”

“The World Trade Center is on fire.” That was all she knew.

Minutes later the earth shook again. It was 9:02 a.m.

My daughter and I ran to the windows. The blue sky filled with smoke, ashes and dust filled with paper glitter. Our lives would be forever changed.

—–

I immediately went into Mom mode. My daughter was 20, D and his girlfriend a few years older. Their ages didn’t matter, I still felt responsible for their safety. It was nearly ten hours later that I finally heard from D—he was safe with friends Uptown. J was also safe, thank God; we reunited with them the next day when they made it back to the apartment.

The following 36 hours were a mix of shock and surreal, an experience that was filled with a somber fear coupled with the surprise of just how friendly, resilient and kind New Yorkers can be.

My daughter and I pondered the remaining days of our ten-day trip—would we head upstate to see my sister-in-law, as planned? We were unable to rent the car we’d reserved—there were no vehicle services anywhere in the city. Emergency vehicles were streaming in across the Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) and streets were barricaded everywhere.

And never mind New York; how would we get back to Seattle? Our return was scheduled for Saturday September 15th and airplanes were currently grounded all over the country.

I decided traveling the four and a half hours to Norwich would be the best bet for our mental and emotional health. D’s girlfriend generously loaned us her car to make the trip, noting that she and D could retrieve it at a later date.

Late Wednesday afternoon we said our goodbyes and set off on our journey.

The neighborhood was a grid of blockaded streets, makeshift stop signs and police officers at nearly every corner. It seemed there was no getting out of Brooklyn.

Twenty years ago, there was a New York law against drivers using cell phones and there was no Google Maps to assist us. Relying on street signs and the shouts of police and firemen, we finally made it to the highway. Columns of smoke and ash were still billowing above the buildings in downtown as we glanced across the river. The fires would continue to burn for 99 days.

As we began driving north there were streams of rescue and emergency vehicles heading into the city. Tears streamed down my cheeks as a parade of fire trucks, army vehicles, police cars and ambulances drove by in a parade of hope.

Anxious for some news, I turned the radio dial; every single station was playing patriotic music. I heard Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America”, Ray Charles soulfully sang, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies….” The host played Simon and Garfunkel’s “We’ve all come to look for America.” We could barely sing along for the sobs in between as my daughter and I continued to weep.

We arrived in Norwich late Wed. evening and were welcomed by my brother and sister-in-law. Attempts were made to rest and eat and process what we’d just been through.

I began the task of figuring out our return flights. Airlines were scrambling to accommodate passengers from all over the country and if you had a paid ticket on any carrier, all the other airlines would honor it. I started to cobble together a new itinerary as the previous one on United had us flying out of LaGuardia on September 15th through Denver and home to Seattle. That would no longer work.

Part of our original schedule for Thursday, the next day, included a 4 ½ hour drive from Norwich to Rochester to see my other nephew and his wife. My brother-in-law did the driving (we left the borrowed car at their house), and I relished the time to get further and further away from the shock and surroundings of what we’d experienced.

We had a very late lunch at a brewery where I was able to relax a little. Judging from the way we’re smiling in photos from that day, New York City might have been a million miles away.

Late that night my daughter L and I fell back into bed. Friday morning, the plan was for my brother-in-law to drive us back to Rochester where we would stay overnight at a hotel near the airport. My daughter worked at the time for Marriott hotels in Seattle, so we had him drop us off there. The room rate on the receipt I saved was $49.00 for the night.

When we checked into the hotel, I notice a small basket on the counter with black and white ribbons in a knot similar to the yellow ones worn to honor returning Gulf War vets. Hotel personnel with time on their hands, I was told, decided to do something positive. The pins were for everyone who checked in. I still have mine.

I’ll never forget the sight of pilots and flight attendants milling about in the hotel lobby or entering the front door. Every time I saw someone in an airline uniform, I wanted to run up and give them a hug. In those early weeks, anyone whose occupation included air travel was facing a jarring and uncertain future—would their plane be the next one to be taken over? Would they be killed on the spot when they showed up to work? It was an unthinkable burden, and yet they carried it.

That Friday evening the 14th, my daughter and I walked to a nearby Outback Steakhouse for dinner. President Bush had designated the 14th as a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. Businesses and communities were to be united at a set time across the country, pausing to remember the 9/11 victims with candlelight vigils and prayer. In the middle of our meal without a word, people began getting up from their tables, silently exiting the restaurant and gathering in the parking lot. Someone passed out candles, others held lighters in the air. Children hung close to their parents’ sides. No one spoke. It was simply a five-minute pause to hold out “a thousand points of light” as the President coined it, to honor the people who had lost their lives, the tally of which we were still uncertain. Then people quietly entered the restaurant and returned to their meals.

Early Saturday morning the 15th, we checked out and met my brother-in-law in the hotel lobby. We took the short drive in J’s car to the airport, where he was unable to drop us off. The FAA had established new perimeter guidelines which forbade anyone driving within 500 yards of an airline terminal. Therefore, my daughter and I said our goodbyes in the empty parking lot and rolled our suitcases across the asphalt into the building.  

We were uncertain of what we’d find when we arrived at the United counter. Commercial airspace had been shut down nationwide for an unprecedented 2 ½ days and airlines were scrambling to find pilots and flight attendants to staff their planes.

Once inside, we approached the counter with our soon-to-be-voided plane tickets. I had been told when I called that “any and all available airlines flying towards your destination that day will honor your ticket.” The extraordinary circumstances made for interesting conversations all around as we met folks flying into Rochester from out of the country who had no idea what had happened in the US until they landed.

We were all in the same boat—just trying to get home.

The desk agent was able to piece together a new itinerary for us, of which I still have the copy. The heading reads: “Reason: Involuntary Reroute.” The printout is on plain manila paper, signed by a customer service rep named Steve. His business card is also in my box of keepsakes.

Our new flight left at 12 noon from Rochester to NYC/LaGuardia on USAirways.

From LaGuardia to Chicago, we’d switch to United Airlines.

From Chicago to Seattle, we’d continue with United, arriving home at 9:35 p.m.

All told with the time difference, that would be a 12-hour trip.

There were countless occasions along the way of kind and patient people at airline gates, ticket counters and waiting areas. Airline personnel were a jumbled-up company serving us along the way, providing order among the chaos. Fear swam just below the surface; the pilots we saw in every airport showed the weight of it the most.

Most of the other details of our return are a blur. I’m sure I hugged my husband hello when we arrived in Seattle. I probably cried. I know he did.

In a conversation a few days later, a health professional determined I was in shock, a circumstance that lasted many, many weeks as I recovered. But that is a story for another time.

******

When it was clear this week that the US government via the military would be unable to handle the evacuation of Afghans and Americans, commercial airlines were once again called on to make heroic sacrifices. Eighteen different planes from six different carriers, private and commercial, were asked to provide what was needed to fly Americans and allies home safely. And they all said yes.

In the middle of unspeakable horrors on the other side of the world or here on our own soil, I am more than ever convinced of the goodness that lies in so many hearts of Americans. The past two weeks have shown that over and over again, just as it did 20 long (short) years ago. Sometimes it seems like yesterday.

We are all indeed a thousand points of light.

***

I have written other reflections as well as two poems about the events of September 11th. You can read them HERE and HERE.

Note: Brooklyn photos are mine. Candle image is Creative Commons, 2000.

#September11th #bravery #courage #faith #Americans #kindness #sacrifice

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