Saturday, September 10, 2011

My 9/11 Story

With tomorrow being the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, it's hard not to remember everything that happened that day.

I was boarding a suburban Metra Train en route to Chicago's Union Station when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Cell Phones were not yet ubiquitous, few people had iPods, and before Kindles, most people spent the morning commute reading the newspaper.  My view was that of opened Chicago Tribunes, with the exception of one person who looked frantic and disturbed.  Probably someone who had a business deal go wrong.  I put on the headphones to my Discman and slept or stared out the window.  Getting closer to the station, I noticed a few more people looking a little frantic.  Those with cell phones were on them - we were running late that morning, so probably just calls to the office.

When we got to Union Station, I remember thinking about checking the TV at the McDonald's to see if anything was up.  The ride into the city was at least that unsettling that while I don't totally remember the details about why I sensed something was wrong, I still remember thinking I needed to check the TV.  Air Force One.  I had heard that they were retiring one of the old planes - Good Morning America (which was always on in the morning - old school Chicagoans tend to be WGN or WLS people) must be doing a piece on that.  I remember the relief.

I had been up late the previous night.  At 10pm, I was *so* close to finishing "Corelli's Mandolin", and I figured I'd just stay up to read a romantic novel set in Occupied Greece during WWII.  Instead, I was reading about atrocities at 2am.  When I did get to sleep, I had dreams that India and Pakistan had declared war, all men were drafted, and my father, a retired army officer, was trying to call the Pentagon to have my brother stationed at a "safe" location in Alaska, and I kept pleading to have my boyfriend stationed there because he spoke Russian.  (I know this makes no sense.  It was a dream.  Although my subconscious obviously favors my now husband over my brother.)  It's a moot point, because while my dad was calling his friend at the Pentagon, his phone calls were not going through.  I had one of those terrifying experiences where I wake up in a cold sweat... a swore to never stay up late to finish a book ever again.

I didn't notice anything strange as I walked across the Loop to my job.  All fears had been allayed by seeing that GMA was covering fluff, and I was running on 5 hours of unsettled sleep.  It wasn't until I boarded the elevator of my building that I knew what was going on.  "Did you hear about the World Trade Center in New York?" one lady asked her coworker.  "Yes, it's so sad," she responded. Nothing else.  They exited before I did.  I assumed it was another car bomb.  I figured I would hop onto CNN's website when I got to work.

No one was in the lobby.  I ran back to my desk, and the phones were ringing off the hook.  I can't remember the sequence of events - they may have all happened at the same time - but my mom had left 4 voicemails to call her, someone said they had the TV on in the conference room, and I managed to pull up  By the time I reached the conference room, it was seconds before the first tower collapsed.  I had not even come to terms that this wasn't the same magnitude as a car bomb, and I was watching the towers collapse.  I remember that Elizabeth, who sat in the next cube over, had announced she was pregnant the previous day, was now questioning what kind of world she was bringing a child into.  Then someone mentioned the attack on the Pentagon.  My dad.  My parents.  I had to call home.

I went back to my desk.  I called my mom.  I told her I was okay.  She told me there was a bomb at Union Station.  I just wanted to go home.  I was 22-years-old, and I wanted my Mom.  Or my Dad.  I just wanted not to be an adult, and have someone tell me it was all going to be okay, and envelope me with a hug that might make me believe it.  I told her I would just stay at the office - I would stay away from Union Station.  I was right by the Lake, and the Lake had been a refuge during previous crises.  It is the soul of Chicago.  I knew she had seen the first tower collapse and had thought of the streets and the crushing debris.  Now, I was thinking of it too.  I would go to the Lake.

I returned to the conference room.  I can't remember who was there, just Elizabeth and Jennifer, who were to the left and right of me.  There was a missing plane.  It was headed to Chicago.  The Sears Tower - and I was between the missing plane and its target.  There were 2 missing planes.  Then the North Tower collapsed.  I called my mom - I was going to get into the subway, head towards the suburbs underground, away from any falling debris should the target be in downtown Chicago.  I remember hearing the evacuation order for the building, but I was already on my way out the door.

I got underground on the Red Line, waiting on the platform for the train.  Someone, a guy no older than 25, approached me.  We were both moving around in a fog.  "I work in the Xerox Building.  They just evacuated.  Did they evacuate your building?"  "Yeah," I responded, "I'm over at Mid-Con Plaza.  We just got the word.  I promised my parents I'd head underground."  He laughed.  "Yeah.  Parents."  I remember a nervous sense of being safe.  That I was out of immediate danger, but not exactly sure what this meant.  Xerox Building guy understood.  He was the first person to ask where I had been when September 11th had occurred.  I longed for longer human interaction at that point, but I was completely incapable.  The train came.  We left downtown.  When we resurfaced for the Fullerton Stop, I turned around to see which building had been hit.  Nothing.  I soaked in the skyline, afraid I would never see it again.  As we passed Wrigley Field, the person in the next seat over had called New York on her phone, and discovered that her friend had been riding his bike to his office at the WTC when the first plane hit and was safe.  Within a month, I had a cell phone.

Looking back, I remember the lack of communication, the lack of details, not knowing what was going on or what to do.  I wanted to grab a hold of everyone I loved and not let them out of my sight.  I remember thinking that I wanted to do something, but not knowing what that was.  I just wanted someone to tell me what to do to make everything okay.  No one offered anything.  We were told to go shopping. and it felt like betrayal.  Did they not see what I had seen?  Felt the panic that I had felt?  Do you really think that I'd want a new handbag and a Chevy right now?  If I had been told to enlist in the Army, I would have.  If I was asked to donate a year of my life to the Marshall Planning of Afghanistan, I would have.  Shopping?  Go on Vacation?  It was a punch to the gut from which I still haven't recovered.  I am transported to that same sense of outrage I felt 10 years ago.  I remember my father turning ashen white and falling into a chair when he discovered that someone he knew decades before in Chicago had died on September 11th when Robin Williams read his story on the Tribute to Heroes benefit telecast.  How cheaply do you value human life when you ask people to shop?  I was not directly affected by the events, but I am still scarred with a deep emotional wound when I think about what that day felt like to me, and how lost and abandoned I felt by the official government reaction.  Instead, it was family and friends that I turned to, and I had a stronger appreciation for them for everything they did in those final months of 2001.

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