My 9/11 story

The picture above was taken in New York City in 2002, not very long after 9/11 took place. A church in lower Manhattan had become the closest thing anyone had to a memorial for those who were killed on that day. People came from far and wide to leave notes of condolence or encouragement on those sheets. That’s what I did, and my oldest daughter is on my shoulders in the green jacket. It was part of our grieving process because, even for those who weren’t in New York and didn’t know any of the victims personally, there was a sense of collective violation and sadness. And standing at that fence was something we could do to acknowledge that feeling.

This weekend will be filled with 9/11 stories, remembrances, and reflections. This post will certainly be a tiny contribution to that process. All these years after, I still remember that day very vividly. Whatever shroud I wrap most days in once they have left my consciousness does not exist for that day, even though I was 1,000 miles away from New York. If we weren’t there in a physical sense, we were all there in an emotional sense.

I had a dentist’s appointment early in the morning on September 11, 2001. I was taking a day off after having been in Michigan on a business trip the week before. After the dentist, I had lots of things to do, and I was supposed to return to the office out in the suburbs the next day. Our offices had moved the week that I was away, and I had to get into the new offices, which I had not yet seen, to start unpacking my things. So I wanted to make the day count.

I came back to where my car was parked  and found it was gone. I had never had my car towed away before, and I haven’t had it towed since. The signs that were posted on the street where I had parked were misleading, and the City’s tow trucks always interpret things in their own favor, so away my car went. As everything was beginning to play out in New York, I was walking around in downtown Chicago, trying to find the place where my car was impounded.

As I was waiting to pay the parking fee, along with many other unhappy drivers, I got a call from my wife. She asked if I had heard about what was happening in New York. I told her no, that I was busy trying to get our car back. She said something about a terrorist attack, but I didn’t process this very well, because they were running the credit card through and I was about to get out of there. I still had a chance to salvage my day at this point.

They pulled my car up, when I discovered–to my great disappointment–that the $150 dollars I had just paid to get the car back did not include the price of the parking ticket, which was wedged underneath one of the wiper blades. So I took the ticket off, got in my car, and drove away. In hindsight, I got out of there just in the nick of time, since the city towed everything it could in the chaotic few hours to follow. But I couldn’t know that just yet.

I got on to Lake Shore Drive heading northbound, and turned on the radio to see what my wife had been talking about. And then the enormity of what was going on hit me. I remember a reporter on one of the news stations saying that one of the Twin Towers had collapsed. Another reporter asked if he meant that a section of the building had collapsed, and the reply was no, that the entire building had given way. I looked at the longer than usual backup on the southbound lanes of Lake Shore, and realized that nothing like this had ever happened before in this country.

My first thought was to get to my daughter, who was two years old at the time and getting home daycare from someone in our neighborhood. I went to the house, picked up my daughter, and felt better right away. Whatever came next, I knew that at least we would be with each other.

I then took my daughter home to a house that we don’t live in anymore. I turned on the TV, and sat in disbelief as the remaining tower burned before my eyes. I watched it for some period of time, still not aware of the large fireball that resulted from the impact with the tower. One building was already gone, and the other was spewing out smoke. It could not have been any more surreal.

I went to change my daughter’s diaper, which I had become pretty good at after two years of being a dad, and I rushed back to the TV. History was unfolding, and I didn’t want to miss out. But the tower had already collapsed by the time I had returned. I didn’t witness it live, but have watched it over and over again on TV and on YouTube  since then.

My wife had been calling me throughout the morning, since she worked in the shadow of the Sears building. It seemed logical to think that whoever had brought down the Twin Towers might be looking to target other prominent buildings as well. Everyone thought they might be next, and nobody knew for sure what was going to happen. For me, that was the hardest part about that day. But I realize that others had it much worse than I did.

Downtown Chicago emptied out in a hurry, and my wife drove home as a result. My family was all together, and whatever happened next we were all going to face it together. We took out as much cash as we could from the ATM, to have it with us if anything came up. We even discussed getting away from Chicago and heading to more sparsely populated places up north (i.e. Wisconsin). Hearing the fighter jets that were circling above the city made anything seem possible, no matter how far-fetched it may appear in hindsight.

As the smoke cleared in New York and the other places involved, we wanted to help in some small way. I remember going to Evanston Hospital and donating blood that evening. There was a lengthy wait, so apparently other people had that idea too. I remember some television commentator saying it was the deadliest day on American soil since the battle of Antietam in the Civil War (and while that may have been true in absolute terms, the American population in 2011 dwarfed what that number was in 1862, so the comparison of the two was very misleading).

I remember somebody asking John McCain for his thoughts, and he immediately declared it an act of war. Little did any of us know that a decade later, that war would still be going on, with no end in sight. What was later called the “War on Terror” has lasted longer, and cost more money, than any other war we’ve ever fought in history. But we couldn’t know any of that on that day.

In the first few years after 9/11, it became an annual commemoration day. But now that we’ve reached a decade, I would expect that future September 11s will become less about what happened on that day. It won’t ever be “just another day” like July 17th or December 4th, and nobody who was alive on that day will let that happen.

The people who died, and the families they left behind, will never again be what they were before that day. America, too, has been changed forever as a result. I don’t like those changes, necessarily, but change is something that we all have to deal with if we want to keep on living. The world keeps turning, and we have to keep up with it.

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