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The Day of, Weeks After

Notes from Deborah Snoonian, P.E.
Senior Editor

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 father’s secretary of 20 years, and she sounded panicky. “Thank God you’re home,” she said. “Call your father and let him know you’re okay. He’s been trying to reach you. And call your mother.”

“Um, okay,” I said, confused. “Why?”

“A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

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Wow, that was news. I felt sort of stupid not knowing already: my front windows frame the tall buildings of lower Manhattan, and I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 didn’t. “I was going to a meeting just a few blocks away.”

“It’s 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 couldn’t 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.” I’d 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 couldn’t 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 people—how 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. It’s still there somewhere.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. For a long time I couldn’t get a dial tone on my phone, although occasionally calls got through to me, and by evening I’d 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 much.

I remain amazed and grateful that I didn’t know any of the victims of last month’s 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 fulcrum—halfway between work and home, they jutted up high enough to give me some sense of direction as I learned Manhattan’s streets. In the past several weeks I have spent hours—too many hours—wondering why I was lucky enough to have been spared. And feeling no small amount of survivor guilt because of it.

I didn’t 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, I’m 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 normal—one none of us ever imagined, and none of us wants.

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