October 30, 2001
Notes from Deborah Snoonian, P.E.
At 9:30 am on September 11, I was leaving my Brooklyn apartment
to vote in the mayoral primary and then take the subway to
lower Manhattan for a meeting with my colleagues. The phone
rang as I was walking out the door. Answer it, my gut said,
even though the odds were good that it was a telemarketer.
But no, it was my fathers secretary of 20 years, and
she sounded panicky. Thank God youre home,
she said. Call your father and let him know youre
okay. Hes been trying to reach you. And call your mother.
Um, okay, I said, confused. Why?
A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.
Wow, that was news. I felt sort of stupid not knowing already:
my front windows frame the tall buildings of lower Manhattan,
and Id been listening to National Public Radio. But
come to think of it, Morning Edition had given
way to a staticky buzz earlier that morning, so Id switched
it off. Sure enough, as I lifted the shades on my front windows,
I saw flames leaping from the tops of the twin towers. What
kind of idiot pilot would fly straight into a skyscraper?
Naively, the possibility of terrorism never entered my mind.
I wondered if the pilot had passed out in the cockpit, or
if a flight computer had failed. Badly.
Only one channel was coming in on my television. I reached
my father on his cell phone, and before we hung up, he told
me to call my mother. As if Id forget. I tried, but
got a busy signal over and over. The scrolling text on my
TV screen said, Apparent Terrorist Attack, but
I dismissed this as hype; this was before the station began
showing footage of the planes crunching their way into the
steel tubes, over and over. By the time I dialed my best friend
Carolyn, who lives in Washington, the first footage of the
damaged Pentagon flashed on the screen.
Then, I believed.
I was supposed to be downtown this morning, I
babbled at Carolyn. Heart thumping, mind racing, I thought
about my colleagues who were already at the meeting. How were
they? Did I know anybody who worked at the World Trade Center?
I was pretty sure I didnt. I was going to a meeting
just a few blocks away.
Its okay, Carolyn said, sounding amazingly
serene. Try not to panic. She was waiting for
her husband Nick to meet her at her office, then they were
going to take the Metro home together. Later she told me they
sat on their couch all day, watching the news, holding hands.
Even though I could see the twin towers from the roof of
my building, I was afraid to be that vulnerable and naked
against who knew what was coming next. I couldnt even
bear looking out the windows. It felt safer seeing the towers
boxed in by the TV screen. After the first one toppled, the
local male anchorman described it in hedging, disbelieving
news-speak: It appears that Tower Two, Tower Two has
just collapsed, while his female counterpart said, offscreen,
Oh my God. Oh my God. Id never heard a newscaster
say that before, and it scared me more than the video footage
did. After several minutes of gaping at the television, dumbfounded,
I braved the fire escape and scrambled up to the rooftop.
The Manhattan skyline, usually so clear from that vantage,
was completely obscured by ash and smoke. I heard but couldnt
see the second tower fall: a long, low rumble like an approaching
thunderstorm. My mind was tabula rasa, save for one thought:
everything is different, everything is different.
When I visited Auschwitz six years ago, a guide told our
tour group that during World War II the skies around it were
often ash-gray and sooty with incinerated bodies. What I saw
seemed no different. Clouds of fine ash moved over Brooklyn
and blotted out what had been a glorious late-summer sun for
a good two hours. The smell reminded me that plastic and cement
and steel had been subsumed in flames, but I thought of the
peoplehow many there were, what their lives were like,
what secrets they might have kept. Up on my roof I breathed
in their bones and breathed out their skin; I inhaled their
hidden love letters and exhaled their overdue phone bills.
When my legs felt less shaky, I climbed down from the roof
with people I never knew speckling my black shirt, tiny gray
circles dissolved into the cotton. Inside, I took my shirt
off, not wanting to wash the specks away, and put it in a
bag in my closet. Its still there somewhere.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. For a long time I couldnt
get a dial tone on my phone, although occasionally calls got
through to me, and by evening Id talked to my mother
and brothers and several friends. At one point I left my apartment
to buy groceries at the corner bodega. It seemed silly to
be hungry, but I was. I made tomato sauce and cooked pasta
and invited a couple of people over. Since they were tired
of sitting at home watching their own TVs, they came to my
apartment and ate dinner and watched mine. After eating, we
watched the fires from my rooftop for a while. Nobody said
I remain amazed and grateful that I didnt know any
of the victims of last months attacks. Geographically,
the terrorists picked my trifecta. I grew up 20 miles north
of Boston, where two of the planes originated; I used to be
a consultant at the Pentagon, and spent many hours in the
section of the building that was struck; I moved to New York
last December, and the twin towers were my fulcrumhalfway
between work and home, they jutted up high enough to give
me some sense of direction as I learned Manhattans streets.
In the past several weeks I have spent hourstoo many
hourswondering why I was lucky enough to have been spared.
And feeling no small amount of survivor guilt because of it.
I didnt want to write this account, and I still believe
that those who lost loved ones, jobs, and homes on September
11 are more entitled to grief than I. But a colleague, one
whose writing has often moved me, encouraged me to overcome
my ambivalence. In the end, Im glad I did. I wonder
now if my resistance was less a matter of deference to those
whose losses were larger than mine, and more a denial that
we have all experienced a tectonic shift in what we call normalone
none of us ever imagined, and none of us wants.
to "From the Field"