Any Other Day?

Ground Zero - Nat GeoEvery year I wonder if this is the year I will forget. Every year I wonder if this is the year it stops feeling so fresh. Every year—as September 11th, 2001 slips further into history—I wonder if it’s strange it still haunts me like it does. And every year, as the anniversary of that fateful day approaches, I wonder… Is this the year it starts to feel like any other day?

Yesterday I tried to remember what September 10, 2001 had felt like. What was it like to wake up in a world where September 11th was just another non-descript day on the calendar? What did it feel like before the words nine-eleven lingered bitterly on our lips or hung heavily in the air like an acrid cloud of black smoke?

Try as I might, I can’t recall. I remember the weather was beautiful. People always talk about the weather that day. Have you noticed that? Sunny, warm, and cloudless… Everyone says it was the sort of late-summer day that makes you happy to be alive. In fact, everyone seems to marvel at just how extraordinarily perfect and “normal” that Tuesday was when it began.

As most people do, I still remember the day so clearly. I remember what I wore, what I ate, where I was when it happened, what I said, how I felt and how I didn’t sleep at all later that night. I remember experiencing a sensation that the sky was falling because a nameless, faceless enemy had brought the horror of war to our doorstep. And I remember wondering if anything would ever be the same again.

I don’t know when it will feel like just another day on the calendar, or if it ever will. I hope it never does. I do know that so far every year—like picking a scab off of an old wound—I still remember. I know that so far every year it feels as though it only happened yesterday.

So I guess I have my answer.

Tonight when I turn out the lights to go to sleep… I will close my eyes knowing that this was not the year that I forgot.

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September 11: 2,000 Miles Apart

I wrote the following story around September 11th of this past year—the 10th anniversary—but have not had the luxury of time to finish it until now. Although I know I could wait until September 11, 2012 to share it with you all… I feel like it doesn’t really matter. We all remember where we were that day. It is a topic that enters many, many conversations that I have with people to this day… on any given day of the year. It is an event none of us will soon forget and there are as many accounts of this infamous day as there are people on the planet.

This one is mine.

And hers. Thank you Jan for allowing me to share just a part of your story…

I was so proud of her for moving out of Ohio and embarking on an adventure all her own. With no job she decided to roll the dice, take a chance and move to New York City.

Brave girl, I thought. I admire her. I envy her. This experience will change her life forever… even if she winds up right back where she started… in the Buckeye State. She will have had the time of her life.

In the summer of 2001, she and a friend took an apartment in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Two blocks from the World Trade Center. Two blocks from what would soon become the site of the worst attack ever to occur on American soil. But of course, during the long, sunny days of summer in the city, the events of that fateful day couldn’t have been further from her mind.

Though job hunting, she still found plenty of time to go shopping and enjoy some big-city glam. I still remember the new clothes and trendy haircut she showed me once while we were both back on our home turf, visiting our families at the same time. She was a New Yorker now. And, as Carrie Bradshaw would say: She looked fabulous.

On a random, mid-September, Tuesday morning the sound and vibration from the first explosion woke her from a dead sleep. Eventually she made her way to the rooftop of her building to see what was happening. Not long after, another collision convinced her this was, indeed, not a dream. Fire and smoke and chaos reigned.

2,000 miles away in southern New Mexico it was a little after 6 a.m, Mountain Standard Time. I had gotten up like every other day, set my feet on the floor and flipped on the news. A plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers and, like many others, I thought it an accident and hoped no one had been seriously injured. That was, until I watched—on live television—a second plane smash into the other tower. I was immediately sick. I knew this was no accident.

On the drive to work the news informed me that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania. Reports were also coming in that people had been spotted jumping from the twin towers. And it felt as though the sky was falling. In many ways… I suppose it really was.

My thoughts immediately turned to her.

I had no cell phone in 2001, so I began driving faster to the office to use the phone. Miraculously, when I rang her apartment, she answered—practically hysterical. Because of the news coverage here and the power outages there I quickly realized I was more aware of what was happening from a technical standpoint. She, much more aware than I of what was happening from a sensory one.

With 24-hour news coverage, instantaneous broadcasting, cell phones and the internet, technology had shrunken our world in such a way that even from 2,000 miles away I knew what was happening at the very same moment she was witnessing it. A voice yelled down my hallway: “The second tower just collapsed.” As I simultaneously heard her cry out the same words through the phone lines.

As she saw it begin to fall, her voice was gripped with terror and disbelief. She would soon report that her windows and view was becoming blackened from the overwhelming billows of ash rolling through the streets, swallowing everything in their path.

I told her that they were reporting for people to grab what they could from their homes, including towels or clothing to place over their mouths and noses and get out—NOW. We said our good-byes and hung up.

Later that night—from a hotel room in Albuquerque where I had traveled to on business—I spoke to her parents and found that she had safely arrived at a friend’s beach house on the Jersey shore. They had walked all the way there, relying on the kindness of strangers along the way to give them masks and bottles of fresh water.

And I thanked God she was OK. And as I later learned of all the people who never got to speak to their loved ones, let alone KNOW whether or not they were OK or gone forever… I thanked God that I was fortunate enough to speak to her in that life-changing moment from 2,000 miles away.

Jan and I at an Ohio State tailgating party. November, 2011