This is a bit of a deviation from my normal entertainment industry theme. There are no movies, books, or television shows in this one. On September 11, 2001, I lived in the middle of something known as the 9/11 Triangle. As each year passes and we are further away from the event, it becomes more and more important for people to share their memories. This is my 9/11 story.
The Morning of September 11, 2001
I was pregnant with my second child and still working on settling into our new location. I was a military spouse, freshly moved to New Jersey with a toddler and no real support network. I had no friends in the region yet. There was no family in the area and my husband was working all the time. We barely saw each other during the time that we lived in New Jersey.
I had the television playing as white noise in the background while I fixed breakfast for my daughter. I was arranging her food on the high chair when I heard the gasps explode from the Good Morning America team. On the television screen, there was smoke pouring from a massive building in New York. I thought it must have been some sort of flight error. After all, not too long before this, John F. Kennedy Jr had been lost in a plane crash and the media had talked about how instruments were to blame. It wasn’t inconceivable to imagine that this was similar.
That’s when the doubts started to niggle in the back of my mind. This wasn’t a small commuter plane. Or a tourist helicopter. It was a passenger flight. With a lot of people. And it had flown directly into that building. Everyone saw it. New York City was less than an hour from our home. In a short 45 minute drive (traffic not withstanding) we could be standing on Broadway in Times Square. My husband was working and at this time, we didn’t have cell phones. I called his office, but got his voicemail. I left a message.
I went back inside and made another phone call to hubby. Voicemail again. I looked at my daughter in her high chair. Was I going to need to evacuate or go somewhere? Where would I go? Did we even have neighbors? What was I supposed to do? I was a military spouse and a mother. Shouldn’t I know something more about what’s supposed to happen when something like this goes down?
I heard a plane overhead and didn’t really think twice about it. From where we lived on base, we were pretty much right next to the flight line. Large transport planes went over our house constantly. But this one sounded different. I went out the door, stood on the porch, and watched the plane as it came closer and closer to my home.
That’s when I realized there was something different. It wasn’t right. The engine sound was different. It was too low. It was flying the wrong way. And it was a civilian passenger flight. Those are absolutely not allowed in military airspace. Yet there it was.
My skin crawled even as my mind screamed logical answers. Of course flights were being grounded. They must be bringing planes in anywhere they could. Later I would realize how implausible that concept was. Security wise, any plane that wasn’t military just would not be allowed. But at that moment, I was frantically grasping for anything that could explain what I was seeing.
I could see the colors. The airline name. I could count windows. I saw exit doors. My house was rattling so much that we had pictures come down off the walls. It was so low that a simple bump of the stick in the cockpit could have been the end of my whole housing area. At the time, I couldn’t imagine they would want to hurt me. Now I’m selfishly and guiltily thankful. I could clearly see details of the plane that shouldn’t be visible from the ground. That means they could clearly see the entire military population stretched out underneath them. I couldn’t conceive of the hate in that cockpit at that moment but now that I know, I’m so very thankful they didn’t decide to dive right there and take out ‘the enemy’ at its source.
In my memory, sometimes I see faces in the windows. That’s probably a trick of my imagination, but it still strikes me that it was possible. After all, if I could see the windows, is it really such a stretch to think I might have seen someone’s face peering down at me? Was I the last civilian outside the plane that someone saw that day? Pregnant me, shading my eyes, staring up at them? What terror were they experiencing at that point?
There are no life hacks for what to do when something like this happens.
I watched the plane disappear over my house and went inside – through the house and out the other door to watch it go. It cut directly across the flight path and climbed a bit. No attempt to land or shift directions. Maybe they were circling back around? No. Later the puzzle piece would click for me that these were people with a purpose. At the time, all I could think of was how odd the whole thing was.
I remember pacing the house and the whole time, telling myself that it wasn’t as big as what I thought. Surely I was overreacting. Of course my mind would play with this tragedy and make it bigger, right?
My daughter fussed in her high chair getting ready to start throwing her leftovers. That brought me out of the panic. I could handle that much. Cleaning her up. Wiping down the chair. Putting the dishes in the sink. It was when I came out of the kitchen a few minutes later with her balanced on my hip that I heard the next bulletin. A plane had just hit the Pentagon. It was on fire.
At that point, in my mind, everything was burning. There was nowhere safe. New York and Washington D.C. had been attacked. That was just north and south of where I was standing. It was Pearl Harbor all over again and I was right in the middle of it all – literally. The area where I was living at the time would later come to be known as the 9/11 Triangle.
I tried to call my husband again. And still I got voicemail. I left yet another message. Much less composed. Later he would tell me that his memories of September 11th are inextricably wrapped around getting back to his office that night and listening to all my messages in one sitting. Starting with a simple “Hey, are you watching the news?” and each message building in intensity. The increasing panic and fear of hours had been condensed into a few short voicemails.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. For some reason a shower came to mind. I took my daughter upstairs, turned on the television, settled her in a play yard, and took the fastest, but most thorough shower of my life.
And still, when I came out, yet another plane had gone down. This one brought me, very literally, to my knees. It had gone down in Pennsylvania.
This was home. I grew up in Pennsylvania. It was in my blood. My DNA. I knew that area like the back of my hand. My adopted brother, the man who had given me away at my wedding, lived right under the big red X on the map currently splayed across my television screen.
As I was trying to wrap my brain around this news. an interview with a high level official popped up on the screen. I sat on the edge of the bed, sick to my stomach, wondering what could possibly come next. That’s when the expert said something that, to this day, still turns my blood cold. He believed the last plane that had gone down had probably been headed for the exact office where my husband worked. Just a couple of minutes from where I was sitting. The place I had taken homemade cinnamon rolls for the guys a week or so earlier.
The world was not only crumbling, it was on fire and exploding bigger and bigger around me. And it wasn’t stopping. It was getting worse as each hour crept by. I couldn’t even breathe between reports. It was all too much.
This was the end. And the beginning. That day had become a fixed point in time (thank you Doctor Who) for everything before then and everything after. We were at war. And I was pregnant. I was living every bad military movie I’d ever seen.
The base we lived on became the staging point for all of the rescue efforts. We watched the people walk the bridges to get out of New York City and the following day, those same people in tattered business suits, covered in ashes, bleeding, broken, and stunned, weren’t on TV anymore. They were standing outside our gates in our little town. It wasn’t a movie or TV show. I saw the bleeding, battered population in person every time I left my home. It was devastatingly real.
We had a friend who was at ground zero that night serving the firefighters as they struggled to find survivors. He said that one of the firefighters asked where he was from and when he said Jersey, the man dropped his plate and started to sob. My friend reached out to pull him close and the guy said, “I didn’t know anyone outside the city even knew what happened. I thought we were alone.” That thought has always horrified me. They all thought they were alone. They had no idea the world was watching. That America was with them.
In the days after, I couldn’t leave the base because security was so tight that it would take hours to get back in the gates. It wasn’t worth it. When we finally got back to church weeks later, we found out several of our church family had perished in the Towers and the subsequent rescue efforts. We gathered around those widows and mothers, huddled close in tears and prayer for years afterward. The sounds of grief in those prayer meetings still haunts me now – decades later.
The personal stake didn’t end for us on 9/11 though. A lot of people don’t even remember the anthrax poisoning, but we do. That mail came through our local post office. We had received mail on that same day that had been sorted with those poisonous letters. I was pregnant and terrified that we might have contracted something without even realizing it. Could something as simple as an electric bill be the end of our little family? People were in comas from receiving letters that had been sorted with our mail. It wasn’t over the top to imagine. It was very stark reality.
Our post office closed down completely. We got no mail for months upon months. I believe it was almost a year before everything started moving again. I remember spending countless hours on the phone with creditors and even Netflix, trying to explain it. Email statements were not the normal practice then. The people on the other end of the phone honestly could not conceive of a world where we couldn’t get mail. Many thought we were using excuses. Netflix threatened legal action if we didn’t return the movies we had out. We hadn’t gotten them. We couldn’t return them. We canceled our account and had to pay tons of penalties for stealing the movies. (Almost two full years later, as we were getting ready to leave New Jersey, we received a massive clear garbage bag stuffed full of all the mail that we hadn’t gotten. It had radiation symbols all over the outside and warned that all of the contents had been irradiated. We took pictures and sent them to Netflix. They issued us an apology and a credit. Told us we could keep the movies. Turns out they didn’t need them that badly after all.)
Years later, while filming a documentary series, I had the absolute honor of spending this remembrance day with both the NYPD and NYFD. I spoke with men who were in the towers. Men who lost colleagues. Brothers. I met kids who had never met their fathers and wives who were beautiful young widows.
There are thousands of people with bigger stories. More horror. My friend has pieces of the tower on his desk – saved from his own rescue efforts on the ground. Another friend is still in counseling from things he experienced in the towers. I could tell you about the mother from my church who lost her son and carried his jacket everywhere with her for more than a year. The young man who signed up to fight because his brother was killed and then who, himself, was killed in Iraq.
It’s more than a tagline or a hashtag. We hold on to this. That day is burned into the souls of us who remember and in the DNA of those who have come after. We are changed. I would love to hear more about your 9/11 memories. Feel free to share your thoughts here and we can remember together.