Time Warp 9/11: Last Year, My Story and Today

Today, I decided to replace our American flag. This wish was a surprisingly urgent feeling. I’ve felt our home seems naked without our old glory, somehow. It comforts me to see it fly out our front window. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized tomorrow is 9/11.

My father-in-law confronted me about the flag, not long after I decided it needed to be retired and unfurled.

“Why do you keep that flag up?” he asked, genuinely perplexed. “I like it,” I replied. Not really sure why. I hadn’t grown up with a flag flying outside my home, but somehow, here, it feels right.

“You know that famous quote about patriotism,” he stated.

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’

This afternoon, I found a flag. But his words echo in my mind.

*****

Last year, I wrote about September 11th.

I didn’t tell MY story, because I wondered if it was my story to tell. And I still wonder that today.

Every year, I read “For Thou Art With Us,” still the definitive essay of the event for me.

*****

The morning of September 11th 2001, I flew into London on a red-eye flight from San Diego. A great friend had gotten married in Mission Bay, and I had risked jet lag hell by flying from London to San Diego and back in four days. I remember not being able to attend the beachside rehearsal dinner because I had SUCH a headache. I took a black cab from the airport to my flat early in the morning, and ever the workaholic, I was worried about missing any emails or phone calls from my important clients. So I took the tube to my office in Piccadilly Circus just as soon as I showered and changed. Darcy was in the South of France for a conference.

Around 1:50 PM, I went to CNN.COM, and before I could click on the technology tag (keeping on top of that news was part of my job) I noticed there was a headline that said “Small Plane Crashes Into World Trade Center” in a very straight foward manner. There was an accompanying picture of a hole with smoke (but not flames) in the midst of the famous building’s pinstriped facade.

I blinked at my computer screen, unable to compute this message.

Then I went to a local newsstand and bought a Dr. Pepper and a package of Starburst. I remember that, well. I remember thinking I was going to need some sugar to withstand such awful news, especially given my jet lag. It was one of many odd things I did that day.

One thing to explain about my office is that I was the only American who worked there, other than an intern who was out that day. The office was staffed, appropriately, mostly by Brits, but there were small packs of Aussies and Kiwis too.

When I returned, almost everyone in the office was standing and staring at one of the many TVs populated throughout the office. (It was the firm’s job to monitor broadcast media, too.) I saw the image of the enormous firestorm consuming the North Tower. And as I watched, still unable to compute and perplexed that I was listening to Katie Couric instead of a British talking head as usual (BBC had cut to live American TV), the second plane hit the South Tower. “Bloody HELL!” exclaimed one man. Bloody was not a word that was normally acceptable (as I had found out painfully, early on) in the office setting. That exclamation was about the only signpost I had the rest of the afternoon that what was going on was extraordinary in any way.

Phones began ringing. Our Business division of course had many ties to New York. Guys would calmly run in and say stuff like: “Ten planes are unaccounted for!” Then they ran back to their phones.

Suddenly, I realized my parents might be on an airplane: they were scheduled to fly from New Orleans to Salt Lake City then Montana that day. I tried to dial information for their hotel in New Orleans. But I couldn’t get through to America. “Circuits are busy at this time,” was the message I kept receiving.

Right about then, the jokes began. That “Keep Calm and Carry On” business is for real in Britain. One guy kept making the remark, “Where is Charlton Heston when you need him?” Referring, I think now, to The Towering Inferno. At that point, I started to have difficulty breathing. My parents were unaccounted for. Darcy was in another country. Why wasn’t anyone taking this very scary situation seriously? It was a cultural divide that seemed unconquerable at that moment.

I finally reached Darcy by calling his hotel and asking for his room. “Are you SEEING this?” I asked him. “What?” he replied. And at that moment, the South Tower fell, crushing itself into dust as it began its slow descent into nothingness and ash. “My God, one of the World Trade Center Towers has just collapsed!” I shouted into the receiver. “I don’t believe you,” he said.

He didn’t know. He’d been writing a story in his hotel room with his cell phone turned off.

“The Pentagon has been hit!” politely yelled a Business group person, shortly thereafter, in the same manner he would report that one of our clients was on BBC, and we might want to pay attention to the TV.

A co-worker came up to me and asked quietly: “Are you familiar with New York City?”

“Sort of,” I replied.

“Is Greenwich Village near the World Trade Center? My son is staying there.”

I blurted out in an ugly stream of words: “I think so! You should try to call him! This is serious! Really serious! My parents are supposed to be flying! I can’t reach them!”

“Right,” she said, and politely stepped away.

I regret now that I hadn’t said something more reassuring to her. I guess I was trying to wake her up to the severity of the situation. Everyone seemed to be walking and talking, and yes, laughing (gallows humor) with ice water running through their veins.

“A plane is suspected to be heading towards London!” called out one of the business guys, matter-a-fact.

At that point I approached my boss. “My parents may be flying, I can’t reach them and I just want to go home and try to find out where they are.”

She told me: “The clients need us. You need to stay at your desk and…”

Just then, the North Tower fell.

I guess this kind of response to crisis is what allowed the Brits to hold up so well during the Blitz. It’s admirable no one lost their shit like I did. They had friends and relatives in NY and maybe they even knew people who were on airplanes too. They kept their cool.

Finally, I called Darcy again, even though my boss was giving me the stink-eye and probably was wondering why I wasn’t writing a press release or something. “The Second Tower has fallen,” I screeched.

“I saw that,” he replied hollowly.

I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. I silently stood with strands of wetness running down my cheeks, fully aware that I was the only one who was giving into the instinct to cry, as the footage of the crash in Shanksville was shown. I knew I had seen thousands of people die. It was beyond my comprehension and the tears were the only release my body could find. And then I quietly made my way to the door, and for the first and last time I worked there, I left promptly at 5 PM. And because I couldn’t be alone, I went to a friend’s house and we stayed up all night watching the footage over and over and over.

I didn’t find out that my parents were safe until that night.

Later I found out that my building housed the conference firm which had handled the “Windows on the World” event. Several people in our very office had died in the awful attacks. Tony Blair visited, and we weren’t allowed to leave our offices for security reasons. I saw him out our window stepping back into his Jaguar.

I may have been the American, but so many people suffered that day. It’s important to remember that. And we all responded in our different ways.

*****

Even today, I remember the horrible, abruptly assembled footage of photographs on BBC of 9/11. I remember in particular Adagio, by Samuel Barber, playing in the background. I have to change the radio each time that song plays. I detest that composition, now, and will probably for the rest of my life.

*****

For my children, 9/11 will be history. There will be a few pages dedicated to the event in their American History primer.

This is the music I prefer to play, to honor all those who lost loved ones during 9/11.

Go here for more Time Warps about 9/11.

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14 Comments

Filed under Time Warp Tuesdays

14 responses to “Time Warp 9/11: Last Year, My Story and Today

  1. Wow, I cannot imagine not being around Americans on 9/11. I stood in a room on my college campus surrounded by hundreds of friends and strangers and classmates…all staring at the huge projection screen that the TV was streaming live on… crying and talking and hugging and crying. What a day.

  2. Like Josey, I had never considered how it would feel to be surrounded by non-freaking out people that day.

    Love that song. And thanks for referring me (again) to the Tomato Nation piece.

    Congrats on your new flag.

  3. Thank you for inspiring me last year to write the post I warped back to today. I think 9/11 is everyone’s story. Some of us experienced it more directly than others but it had a profound effect on so many. I found your story very compelling. It was such a surreal day to begin with, I can’t imagine experiencing it away from my country.

  4. What a story. I’m sorry you felt so alone that day. You have to remember that besides the Blitz, the Brits also have a lot more experience with terrorism than we do in North America (albeit on a much smaller scale than Sept. 11th). And they most certainly have their own unique brand of humour. ; )

    I’m Canadian, & believe me, we were freaking out that day (at least where I was). 😦 My dh & I work in a 68-storey office tower (him on a trading floor near the very top, just like so many of the men who died that day) on the Toronto equivalent of Wall Street. Nobody knew what was going on, if we were going to be hit next. It was all just a litlte too close to home, both literally & figuratively speaking, for my liking. Ever since then, I tend to get nervous in crowds, particularly at the train station during rush hours.

  5. Thank you for prompting me to re-read that piece again, that you linked to last year. From revisiting it tonight it appears that you and I are not alone in returning to it year after year.

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience and memories from 9/11. As Lori said in her comment on my account of my experience today (that I wrote in 2002 and shared on my blog in 2009), I too find reading such essays to be hard, but also healing. I am fascinated to read different perspectives, especially of those I know personally, like you. As I always tell you when you talk about your time in London (which I love when you do), having lived there for a semester in college when I studied there, I appreciate what you shared about the reactions of your coworkers there. I never fully understood the British humor when I lived there, on TV shows and even one night when I went to comedy club with some other American friends who were studying abroad as well. We were lost trying to “get” their jokes.

    Also, you mentioned about what your children may learn about it in school in the future. My son is in 3rd grade and was sent home on Friday (before the teacher’s strike began here in Chicago) with a entire book about 9/11 through Bin Laden’s death. So at least at this point, some schools may be giving more time to it than just a few pages. That said, I was surprised today how little time the mainstream media seemed to spend covering it. I recorded the 8:00 a.m. (CST) of the Today show this morning hoping to return later to see some memorial coverage and there was little more than a mention of the anniversary date and some events planned for today. I also heard that they missed the moment of silence and instead played part of an interview with the Kardasian (sp?) family during that time.

    Thank you for doing the Time Warp again this month and for sharing your story of 9/11.

  6. I remember reading that essay last year … it was so powerful, and exactly what I needed. Reading your story is remarkable in its own way, though. I’ve never written mine … partly because I also am not sure what’s mine and what’s not. I wonder what the students who came in contact with me that day remember … because I was trying to hold it together for them, to conduct business as usual for people who needed that, and to be there to hold those who could not. It was a strange place to be.

    Thank you for writing this.

  7. I cannot imagine how you felt not being able to find your parents. My brother was in New York that day and was scheduled to be working on the subway rails under the WTC. He was out sick along with the rest of his crew, so they were lucky. We didn’t hear from him until that evening either. My heart still pounds when I think about it.

    As for how your boss responded, I have to say I would have lost it with her. I know what Brits are like in a work sense (albeit, mine were in Yorkshire, not London, but still), but she and I would have had a come-to-Jesus meeting. I don’t play around when it comes to my family.

    I’m so glad your family were safe. I still think of those who lost family members that day and it breaks my heart. All we can do is never forget and be sure to give our children a better understanding than history books can give them.

  8. Thank you for sharing what it was like to be living and working in London on that day. My boss at the time was former military, and I’ll never forget how blase he was about the entire thing and didn’t understand why I was so scared.

  9. It must have been really hard to be away from your home country on that day. It surprises me that the Brits at your office didn’t react (at least not in public) stronger and more or less just kept going. Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. Not all Brits reacted the way your colleagues did. I had just returned to work after going home for lunch when my husband phoned me to say the first plane had hit. I was back home and watching all the coverage within 20 minutes and in that time the second plane had hit. We spent the afternoon glued to the news in total disbelief at what was happening. We watch coverage every year. This year we were on holiday in Antigua and had US news channels showing the reading of the names, I was unable to keep watching due to the tears. MSNBC was showing the footage from 2001 when no one knew what was happening. It was terrifying then and it still is now. I cannot imagine what anyone went through that had family/friends in New York or on flights that day. I am glad your family members were safe x

    • Thanks Sian. I’ve always wondered why my office mates reacted this way, and you make an important note: those 100 people I worked with were not representative (nor should I make them representative) of a diverse nation of 56 million. It’s been interesting to hear people’s reactions regardless of where they were.

  11. (Cross-posted under your comment on mine)

    I think you sorted it out quite well in that post. Everyone responded in their own ways. Nobody was in any way failing to notice the seriousness of the event itself. Telling the British (I should say your coworkers – I was also in the UK on that day and saw a range of reactions like Sian, above) not to make jokes would have been like telling you you weren’t allowed to cry or try to contact your loved ones (although surely they could have let you go home?). When terrible stuff is happening you have to allow people to use their coping mechanisms, and to do that you have to recognise them for what they are.

  12. P.S. I also learned about the word “bloody” the hard way.

  13. Oh! I was just watching Octonauts and I thought of this post again. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Octonauts, but for the benefit of anyone reading who isn’t, it’s a BBC kid’s program aimed at the 3-6yo agegroup about a team of undersea explorers. In this episode:

    (Season 1, episode 1) one of the team, Dashi, is accidentally swallowed by a whale shark, and Captain Barnacles and Kwazi go to her rescue. They are hunting for the shark, talking about their plans, and Kwazi is blustering about how he’s going to use his physical prowess to save the day, “leaping about like spaghetti”. Then they get accidentally swallowed by the whale shark.

    What’s the first thing these two British heroes do, faced with such mortal danger? They look about in silence, taking in their situation. Then Captain Barnacles remarks drily, “You never got to leap about like spaghetti, did you?”

    This is a British-made show for 3-6yo’s. Somewhere there must be a film school thesis contrasting wise-cracking heroes (especially children’s heroes) from different cultures, because the stereotype is not absent from American culture (nor do all the British members of the Octonauts team respond this way – but their *Captain* certainly does, and he always insists they follow suit – my impression is that the wise-cracking hero is more often a renegade, a barely-tolerated outcast, in US productions). Anyway. I present this to you as food for thought.

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