Cloudless blue sky, comfortable temperature, low humidity. The kind of day that when you walk outside, you place it on your mental, Top-10 days of the year. That’s the way my Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 had started. That’s the morning everyone in my town, fifteen miles due west of midtown Manhattan, started that day. We live within view of the iconic New York skyline, so close we took it for granted, we believed that since it’s always been there, it always would be.
At the time, I worked for ADT as a Systems Manager. That’s a fancy name for the one in charge of large integrated security and fire alarm installations. We had been at the Sheraton hotel across from Giants stadium for a couple of weeks. The hotel is ten miles from New York.
One of my guys told me that a plane had hit one of the towers. We thought it had to be small plane, like a Cessna, anything bigger would be impossible. The TVs in the hotel lobby were switched to a local news channel and the reporters were trying to make sense of it. No one could confirm what size plane had hit the tower, but from the smoke and flames, we all knew it had to something bigger. It occurred to me that we would be able to see it from the roof. The hotel is 21 stories, there are none taller between it and New York. From the roof, there is an unobstructed view to the city.
We took the elevator up, then climbed the two flights up to the access door. We reached the east corner and saw the smoke, could make out licks of flame from the edges. I called my wife, she worked at a building in Newark that I thought might also have a clear view. I regret this, because she too saw what happened next.
My call-waiting beeped and I saw it was my boss from the ADT office. I hung up with my wife and picked him up. He said they had rigged up a TV with rabbit ears and although the reception was grainy, they were watching the news cameras of the fire. He told me that the news report was that it was a big plane, a jet out of Newark airport. We talked about how crazy that was, how there’s no way that could have been an accident. In the distance, south of where we stood, I saw a jet flying toward the smoke. I began to narrate on the phone what I saw.
“There’s another jet coming.
He’s heading toward NY. Maybe he’s trying to get a better look. Not that makes sense but why else would he be going that way.
He’s still going that way, he’s heading right toward…”
I fell to my knees, I’d always seen that in movies and thought it was a contrived reaction, but I couldn’t hold up my own weight. My brain couldn’t handle what I had just seen.
A jet flew into the side of the second tower, and a ball of flame came out the other side.
You’ve seen the video, or maybe watched it happen live on a newsbreak on a small screen with just the plane and the building. We saw it in context of a beautifully clear day, the sun on our shoulders standing on that roof with the rest of the New York skyline in view. A panorama of peaceful beauty framing the senseless horror of innocent people being sacrificed for what we didn’t know.
The next day my boss told me that he had put me on speakerphone so everyone could hear me and my voice reminded him of the reporter narrating the Hindenburg exploding. He said they felt the emotion and the whole office was in tears.
I looked behind me and my three coworkers had split as soon as the plane hit. They were getting out of the building. I stayed. I watched.
I called my wife and she was in tears, she had seen it too. I wish I hadn’t called her, maybe nobody there would have told her to look, maybe she wouldn’t have it engrained in her mind the way it is in mine. Maybe her dreams would have been spared.
I told her to go home. I was going to wait. Worst case I could walk home from there, only five miles, that’s nothing on such a beautiful day.
From other calls to and from my boss, I learned that there were other planes, other targets, other deaths. The FAA ordered all planes down wherever they were. Which means something unique about where we live, this close to three major and several minor airports.
You know how in movies that want to show how the future skies around big cities have spaceships flying to and fro, as though these aircraft have taken the place of earthbound vehicles? Those depictions crack me up, because that’s already our present. At any given time, we can look up and see no fewer than four, sometimes as many as ten airplanes and/or helicopters zooming along. We don’t even need to look to know they are there, even on the cloudiest of days we hear their rumbles, sometimes right overhead, other times off in the distance like a faraway thunderstorm. The sound of them is ever present. Mix that sound with NJ State Route 3 less than a mile from my house, it’s a main highway between the Lincoln tunnel carrying thousands of cars a day in and out of New York City, and the entire country to the west, and it’s never quiet here.
Except on this day. Silence. I remember thinking that must be what it’s like for most of our country on any random Tuesday afternoon. I’m not one for clichés, but in this case it’s appropriate, the silence was deafening. There were no planes, no cars on the highway, people didn’t know where they would strike next so nobody was on Rt. 3.
I watched a helicopter try to take off less than mile from where I stood, from out of nowhere a fighter jet swooped down from the sky forcing the helicopter back down. As swiftly as it appeared, it shot straight up and was gone into the clear-blue sky. It vanished.
Then the first tower fell. Collapsing into itself as flames, smoke, dust cascaded up into the sky. I knew there had to be firefighters and police in there. They would be trying to put it out, trying to save those trapped. When the second mimicked the first, I left. There was nothing left to see, no hope of the smoke suddenly stopping and then everything would be okay. And I was still standing on the tallest building for miles.
They burned for two weeks, we saw the smoke every day, when the wind was coming in off the Atlantic we could smell it. I knew guys who were there, I wanted to go, to help. But I knew there were men more qualified than I helping, and I suspected that the news reports that claimed the air was safe were bullshit. I have friends who went anyway, they’re all gone now. Victims of mysterious cancers and lung infections, years after they went to help people they didn’t know.
I had a couple guys in a training class in California who were supposed to come home later that day. With all flights cancelled indefinitely, they drove their rental car back. They called Hertz and said that’s what they were going to do, the agent told them they couldn’t, to bring the car back. My guy told me he said, “Sure, it’ll be in New Jersey tomorrow, go get it.” They drove straight through in a day and half.
Since then, we’ve learned who did it. The heroes who perished in New York, DC and in a field in Pennsylvania. Ten years later we got the man behind the attacks, but we’re still fighting, our boys are still dying. Two days ago a 29 year old neighbor, a veteran of Afghanistan, killed himself in his backyard. His mother found him.
I heard an NPR report that said the people in charge think this may go on for another ten to twenty years. Two more decades of our children and children’s children fighting to overcome this threat. There’s got to be another way.
Peace to you all, never forget.