Saturday, September 10, 2016

That Tuesday in September

I'm not as good as I used to be at keeping this blog up. Part of that is social media. Some of my rants don't even warrant the full 140-character allotment Twitter affords us. Perhaps it's because of the microblog tools like Twitter, or the picture/caption ability of (my personal favorite channel) Instagram, that I tend to only use the blog for longer bits.

It's interesting, though: over the course of the past 10 years, our online lives have shifted. Some people are basically live-tweeting their lives. Others use social channels purely to troll, getting a rise out of getting a rise in others.

None of the social media channels we use regularly even existed on 9/11. I'm not even sure I had a texting plan on 9/11. Imagine that. That said, it also means while there is a large media archive of events from the day, we lack a passive archive of individual accounts of the day. If something happens today, there's a hashtag to search and you're suddenly at ground level of any event, anywhere in the world. Even the eventual raid on bin Laden's Abbotabad compound was live-tweeted.

Not the case with 9/11. Unfortunately, the email I sent to friends and family after finally making it home that day has been lost to the ether. It detailed my entire day and, if you;re reading this and you happen to have it tucked away in the bowels of your email, please do forward it to me (if I sent it to you, you most certainly have the ability to get in touch with me on a variety of social channels to get my email address).

Anyhow, I have written on this blog about my thoughts on the politics of the day and about the need to not memorialize quite the way we do. But, I've never written down the details of my day. And I probably should while I'm on the young side of 40. So, come back with me to the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a stupid pretty day. If you've ever been to the mid-Atlantic in summer, you know the days of high 90s and high humidity. The weather forecast would talk about the "three H's: hazy, hot & humid." 9/11 was the kind of gorgeous day that you would script. The walk from the Trenton station parking garage to the train platform was pleasant and I needed it.

9/10, see, had been a bad day. Two months into an entry-level PR job in NYC and I was still figuring things out. A lot of things. Juggling many tasks the day before, I had let a ball drop and, as a result, I had my first real dressing down from my boss. Things had started to look up as, the night of Sep. 10, I had my first rehearsal with a community choir led by my high school conductor. So that lifted me up. The great weather gave me a spring in my step and I had a gameplan for knocking my work out of the park that day. The Amtrak Clocker train arrived and everyone seemed to share in the joy of the beautiful day. The biggest frustration among a lot of riders was how poorly the New York Giants had played the night before.

Also amazing that morning? My train was running very early. About 15 minutes early, really. I remember listening to Matthew Good Band as I looked at the Twin Towers as the train went past Secaucus, NJ (there was no station there at the time) and thinking a day like that day would be a great day to be on the observatory at the World Trade Center. I had never been to the top.

The last time I saw the Twin Towers as they were meant to be seen was at about 8:30 a.m. from the corner of 6th ave. and 31st St. I walked by FDNY Engine 1/Ladder 24 every day to get there, en route to my office at 5th & 26th. I always took a look south at 6th & 31st as it was my only view of the WTC on my walk.

Getting to work before 9 a.m. in NYC puts you in on the early side and it was, plainly, a normal morning. The people who were in early were in early. I was having my bagel and tea (I wasn't a coffee addict yet) and doing my daily skim of the morning papers for clips. I was on the 20th floor of a building catty-corner from Madison Square Park. I don't recall hearing any out-of-the-ordinary noise at 8:46 a.m. and, honestly, if I had, I would have assumed it was the normal din we were accustomed to outside. Our building had no view south, save for the building directly across 26th Street.

It was my boss who first came out and told us that one of our coworkers who lived in Lower Manhattan had called to advise she would be late. A plane had hit the World Trade Center and she was going to see what was what before leaving home.

At this point, we pretty much carried on. A plane had hit the Empire State Building in the 1940s. The air above NYC is always packed with small aircraft. It was a sad thing to think about, but not outside the realm of imagination that a plane could collide with one of the tallest buildings in the western hemisphere.

My office didn't have cable. So we were going off of phone calls from friends. One coworker said a friend saw a landing gear on the street. Someone found a window and said something about seeing some smoke. We had just pulled up CNN.com (believe it or not, we didn't turn to the internet for news as a first choice in 2001) and saw the lead picture of smoke coming from a huge gash in the North Tower when my boss emerged from his office with cell phone in hand "Second plane. It's terrorism. We're getting the hell out of here."

We could clearly see the smoke as soon as we got to 5th Ave, but to get a view, we walked over to 6th. We stood there for maybe 10 minutes. Even from three miles away, you could see little orange dots of flame. Everyone was on their phone. I'd learn later that the NYC cell phone system is designed for 20% of users to be on the phone at one time. Estimates were that 80% were trying. The grid failed. Years later, at the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl parade, the same thing happened. No one could make a call or even text. wifi and Facebook's safety update feature might be your best friend the next time "something" happens.

Standing at 6th Ave., I remember two things. The first is that we were all just watching. There was no social media to check and it was too early in the course of the day's events for the confusion to start (I'll get to that). I'll be honest and say no one was voicing any concern over the structural integrity of the towers. Many had lived there for the 1993 bombing and assumed that if you could blow the bottom out from under the towers and have the still standing, they weren't going anywhere. The second thing was noted when I turned to a coworker and said "this isn't getting better." He agreed. In the few minutes we had been standing there, the fires were noticeably worse. Our boss made the call: "We need to get off of the street."

Where to? That was the issue. Among our group was a coworker who had just moved into an apartment on the west side and it was agreed this was the best spot. By now, rumors of more planes were starting to circulate and, when your office is in the shadow of the Empire State Building, you don't want to be near it. Trains were already shut down through the Hudson River tunnels and a huge crowd of people at Penn Station sounded like exactly the kind of place a suicide bomber would love to find himself. So, west-side apartment it was.

We watched everything there. To give some idea how quickly this all happened, we were already watching TV when it was announced a plane had hit the Pentagon (9:37 a.m., so probably about 9:45 a.m. on TV).

I remember the live shot in Lower Manhattan where a local NBC reporter was interviewing a woman who had run from the towers after the planes had hit. The shot was framed with the burning towers behind them. There was a tremendous noise suddenly and the woman being interviewed started the scream. It certainly looked on TV like something had exploded, but it became clear very quickly that what we had seen was air being forced out from the pressure of the top 1/3 of WTC 2 collapsing into the rest of the tower.

At this point, any of us who were not 100% terrified absolutely were.

There wasn't a lot of talking at this point, as you might imagine. Some time after 10:30, after the collapse, my boss said we should get some air and see what we could do. We walked outside and agreed we should head toward the Hudson River. There's nothing to bomb in the river. That was the logic we used. We noticed that we had air cover; fighter jets were looping over the city.

Bear in mind: cell phones are basically useless right now and they're not smartphones. They are telephones first, SMS devices second and paperweights after that.

We make it to West Side Highway and there are FBI agents in the street. We see a tourist cruise line pier across the street and people walking toward it. Of our group, about 2/3 needs to cross the Hudson River to try and get home. We know the trains and tunnels are shut down from the news. It's a boat or nothing.

We get to the pier and, sure enough, they are loading the boat to take people to Hoboken. We do not get on the first boat as it is full. We wait. No one is announcing if there will be another boat. In the meantime, we look behind us. The line we are in is immeasurably long. People at the end of this may or may not know what they are in line for. We realize we are lucky to be at what is really the front of this line. We are not leaving this spot.

Well, we will yield for the people coming up from lower Manhattan. You don't need to ask them to ID themselves. They are covered, head to toe, in dust. I have never seen anything like it. I don't mean like if you got some flour on you baking. I mean if you dumped a 50-pound bag of flour on yourself and walked through the dust cloud that remained for several blocks. One guy I saw, I honestly couldn't tell you if he was Caucasian or Indian with 100% certainty. He was covered in dust.

He got to go to the front of the line.

As we stood there, the rumors kept flying. Someone had heard there was another plane coming, for instance.

It was some time after noon when a boat came. It wasn't a tourist boat; it was an NY Waterways ferry and it was being staffed by the FBI. In retrospect, I imagine there was a meeting of officials about how to evacuate people and staging how to do it. At the time, I was just happy to get on the boat and off of the island of Manhattan.

The pulls away from the pier and, as we clear the Chelsea Piers, we get our first look of lower Manhattan. It looks like a volcano is erupting.

The boat pulls into the Hoboken ferry terminal. As we exit, the announcement coming from officers on the ramp is bleak: "Everyone heads this way, except for anyone who was below Canal St. If you were below Canal St., you go this way to be decontaminated."

Walking through the Hoboken terminal and seeing people wearing only a few towels helped me understand what that entailed. People later would tell me that they essentially hosed people off and that the dirtiest clothing was discarded. Others who kept their clothes wore damp garments as though they had just exited a water ride at an amusement park.

New Jersey Transit was running trains. The first was from Hoboken to Newark. A short journey that took the better part of an hour. I can only assume it was because they were only letting so many trains flow on so many inspected-for-sabotage tracks. Then a train from Newark back to Trenton. I think I got home at 4 p.m.

It was a bad day and, my experience was most definitely better than many others', needless to say.

I can think of many ways social media could have made things easier that day in terms of getting word out. I can think of many ways the same channels just would have added to the mania. The thing that stands out, though? We made good decisions based on the info we had and good intuition. We didn't need to check our phones.

I certainly hope we never see another day like that, but 15 years later, I think that's the best advice: we may never be able to be fully safe, but we all have the ability in moments of chaos to make good decisions based on what we know. There is always a place of refuge away from the chaos to take stock and make a plan.