Fear

This is the story of my 9/11. I felt compelled to write it down, but it was hard – as Brad Feld said earlier this year, it feels self-indulgent. I was deeply traumatized by 9/11, but I’m ultimately fine. I’m alive. I still mourn for the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives that day, and I feel sorrow for those that loved them.

In July of 2001, I started working a contract for a large bank on Wall St in New York City. The contract was through a mentor of mine that I respect greatly, Desmond; I was thrilled to be working with him, so I was willing to put up with the travel. I was actually kind of proud of the commute. I’d leave my apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan by 5:00 am Monday morning and arrive at my desk in downtown New York before 10:00 am. I’d leave work by 3:30 pm Friday and be home by … well, the flights out of LaGuardia were always late on Friday night. My wife, Paula, hated it, but the contract was REALLY good money, so we were both willing to put up with it “for a while,” especially since we were about to make an offer on a house.

It was the first time I had been to New York since high school, and I was barely there. I just walked from the office to my hotel and back until I flew home. For the first seven weeks, I stayed at the Marriott World Trade Center, between the two towers. Their room service was pretty good (I was particularly fond of the beef curry), so I often ate in and worked or just watched TV. I figured I would wait to explore New York until Paula could join me.

I’ve always been partial to Marriott, but this hotel irritated me. Even though I wasn’t paying for it, I hated being charged $390 per night (plus copious taxes) while little things like elevator lights went unfixed for weeks. Three out of seven weeks I had to change rooms because something important like a shower was broken. Enough! The week of September 3rd, I decided to try an alternative, the Holiday Inn Wall Street. It was a few blocks closer and a hundred bucks cheaper. Turns out it wasn’t nearly as nice, either. It was kind of dreary and had that vague, damp smell frequent travelers know all too well. I was thinking of switching back to the Marriott, but I decided to give the Holiday Inn one more week. I checked in after work September 10 and went to bed.

The next morning I got ready as usual and headed out the door a few minutes before 9:00. I heard a hotel employee saying something about a fire to the front desk clerk. Her manner was odd – not “FIRE! FIRE!” – more like, “no really, I’m telling you, it’s on fire!” as if trying to convince someone to come look at something. I wasn’t sure what that was about.

I walked out the front door, turned the corner (I think it was onto William St, but it might have been Nassau), and saw about about 25 people looking up and out across the street. I looked up, too – at about a 45 degree angle – and saw the top of a World Trade Center tower on fire. I immediately burst into tears (as I just did while remembering it). It was surreal to see something that I knew to be concrete and steel literally burning from a gaping hole. It was impossible. And I couldn’t imagine how they were going to put out a fire on something so huge. I knew people were going to die. That rush of thoughts and the visceral power of the first-hand image were instantly and overwhelmingly sorrowful.

All around, traffic was already at a complete standstill. Some drivers were honking. Everyone was pretty rattled and somewhat confused. I walked over to a grassy median to compose myself and noticed that debris was floating down from that shocking black plume of smoke. It was to have been a beautiful, clear day; papers and coffee cups fluttered in the breeze and glistened against the sun. Many of the papers had already littered the ground. The place looked trashed, like after a parade. A memo that minutes earlier had been on someone’s desk landed at my feet. I felt that I was violating the privacy of a person I didn’t even know.

I heard snatches of conversation from a couple of people talking, “a plane or a helicopter hit it” … I mumbled something to join in the conversation. We had no way to know if it was an accident or an intentional act at that point.

And then the second plane hit. I do not remember that exact moment. I don’t remember a sound; I don’t remember a sight. I think my back was turned to the towers.

I do remember shortly after someone yelling “another one hit it!” and at that moment, I knew this was no accident. I also assumed I was in danger, and I went immediately into survival mode. Instinctively, I thought I might have been in the “circle of debris,” so the first thing I did was take cover in the nearest doorway (a restaurant that was not open).

My next fear was that I would be trampled, because now people were completely freaking out. I remember someone yelling “run for the bridge!” in reference to the Brooklyn Bridge. That made sense, except for one thing – I had no place to go if I crossed the bridge. I wanted to get off the street – it did NOT seem safe – but I was pretty sure I would ultimately be OK. I didn’t want to be a burden to others, and I wanted to call Paula. I reached for my cell phone, but I remember thinking that other people might need to call more than I did (this was an era when cell phone towers could easily be overloaded). The thing to do was go back to my room.

I got to my room and called Paula from a land-line. No answer. I left a message to call me right away.

I went into combat mode. I closed the shades to protect against flying glass. I tried to remove the pictures from the wall (more glass), but they were bolted on. I changed into my tennis shoes and shoved every energy bar I had into my backpack along with candy bars and waters from the minibar. I learned what I assume to be the derivation of the term “scared shitless” … apparently the body doesn’t like to hold onto anything extra when one is frightened.

Turning on the TV, I heard the announcers talking about hijackings and terrorists. Some people were jumping. Oh my God … who would do this?

As horrific as this experience was, I remember clearly a moment where it seemed as though the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr or Ghandi or Jesus was there with me urging me not to hate back (I wouldn’t learn how to hate for another five years, but that’s a completely different story).

I called my wife again and reached her this time. She had turned on the TV right before I called. We talked for a few minutes, but again, I didn’t want to be selfish with the phone lines, just in case. I asked her to call my family, but I called my brother myself. As Ed screamed “who would do this?” and we cried, I wanted to encourage him not to hate. I called Desmond after that. For some reason, I felt compelled to make him laugh.

Back to panicking … as the TV announcers were trying to figure out what was going on, things got worse. The Pentagon was hit and more planes were feared hijacked. Now I was truly terrified. There was talk of poison gas and the possibility of tens or even hundreds of thousands killed. Could the poison reach me? Would I be a name on a memorial? If more planes were headed to New York, the next logical target would either be the Empire State Building or the big buildings on Wall St, right next door to me. I felt I was in immediate danger but didn’t know what to do about it. I doubted my earlier decision not to run for the bridge. I took towels and tried to make a seal under the hotel room door, and I inspected the windows for ways to do the same.

Back on the phone with Paula, I felt some momentary comfort. Then on TV I saw what appeared to be one of the towers collapsing. Even the announcer was unsure (NBC, I believe). “Oh my God! Paula, did that just happen?” The TV switched to a distant shot showing the ash cloud rushing down streets between buildings. I could see that it was heading my way, and then a moment later, all the light outside the room was gone. I don’t remember the sound. I don’t remember the tremor. I peaked out of the window, and the sun was gone. All I could see was the black snow outside my window.

I didn’t know I could get more scared than I was before, but apparently I could. Was this the end? Was there poison or even just something like asbestos from the building that would kill me (quickly or slowly)? Yes, I was thinking about myself at that point. I thought there was a damn good chance I would die, and I was scared.

Then came the smell. Have you ever left a plastic-handled knife or spatula on a stove? Now imagine burning a million of them. The smell of the fallen buildings lingered for months after 9/11. That smell haunts me still.

Yet I wasn’t dead. I didn’t appear to be choking. I seemed fine, though nearly exhausted from the physical toll of prolonged fear.

You can follow the timeline on Wikipedia. Flight 93 crashed (heroically taken down by its passengers – did they save my life? They saved someone’s). The second tower inevitably fell.

Surprisingly, the Internet connection in my room actually worked pretty well that day. I had bitched to management several times the previous week that the paywall was not working. Finally I convinced them to unplug the paywall appliance and just plug their connection into the damn router, so it was working fine. I sent some emails to people letting them know I was OK. I took solace in communicating with people on the “Dallas Stars Mailing List” (back before facebook, we used to communicate with likeminded strangers through email lists).

I think it was a few minutes after the second tower fell that I heard a rustling outside my door. Peering out the eyehole, I saw a couple covered in ash. I opened the door to see if they were OK, and they entreated me to stay inside my room so that I didn’t get ash all over myself. We had a conversation through the door. They were from Northern Ireland and spoke in a casual brogue. “Oh, we’re used to this sort of thing. Terror is nothing new.” They were walking back to their room but got caught in the ash cloud when the second building fell. They dove behind a car to take cover. As they were shaking themselves off, the gentleman actually ministered to me. He encouraged me to take a drink and maybe get a meal. “You’ll feel better, you know …”

At some point, I took his advice and went down to the restaurant for a bowl of soup.

It annoyed me that I had to take the elevator down to the restaurant – and this should tell you something about me: I already knew that the stairwells exited into the street and didn’t let me walk down to the lobby (very odd). I discovered this the previous week, because I actually check for fire exits at hotels.

When I went back to my room, I tried to drink a whiskey and Coke, but it didn’t taste good to me.

Eventually the ashcloud settled and I could see out into the street. There was about three inches of grey ash on everything. There were police helping pedestrians and trying to get traffic to leave the area.

On the TV, the mayor said that they were evacuating lower Manhattan. I WAS IN LOWER MANHATTAN! WHY WASN’T I BEING EVACUATED?!? Once again, I was very scared.

I reached my cousin Mary who lived near Penn Station. She said I could come stay with her, so I began making plans to head out. I called Paula and let her know. I packed a couple of things into my backpack – I couldn’t take my suitcase, because I would be walking about 40 blocks. As I left my room, I decided to prop my door open – I thought it was possible someone without a key would need to use it.

I started to walk into the elevator, and then I went back to my room … there was one thing I didn’t feel good about leaving unlocked – my laptop, since I had client information on it that I was obligated to protect. So I put it in the room safe and started to type in a security code …

The power went out. Holy shit. If I hadn’t come back to lock up my computer, I would have been stuck on that elevator. I’m pretty sure this was 5:20 p.m., when 7 World Trade Center fell.

I couldn’t see a thing – everything was completely black. I opened the door to my room and heard people talking. There was the Irish couple plus maybe two more people. We couldn’t see anything. There was no emergency lighting and no illuminated exit sign (aren’t these things supposed to be regulated?).

Luckily, I hadn’t locked up my laptop yet, so I pulled that out and used it as a flashlight, and we all took the stairs down to the street. (If you are wondering why I didn’t just use my smartphone, then you need to remember that there were no smartphones at the time. The 2001-era StarTac was a fine, fine phone, but it didn’t emit enough light to use as a flashlight.) I shared the water from my backpack with one of the people about to leave the building, and I recommended everyone cover their mouth and noses with a towel or napkin.

Because a massive building had just fallen (Building 7 was half the size of the two towers, yet it would have easily been the tallest building in my home town), there was plenty of ash in the air again. We decided to walk across the street to a glassed-in lobby where we could see about 20 other people. I remember one businessman who was coping with a fifth of Jack Daniels. He literally staggered diagonally across the street at one point.

When the ash had died down a bit, I set out to walk uptown. There were a few police on the street directing the remaining pedestrians, and I was very thankful to see them. I remember walking past a hospital. I had an inclination to go in and see if I could help or donate blood or something, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t let me donate – I was too scared. I was pretty sure they’d admit me if I walked through those doors, so I thought the only way I could help was to keep walking and leave the area.

As I followed the path the police suggested, I latched onto a guy named Allen leaving the area. I needed to talk with someone, and he was kind and supportive. He lived in the area, in the building across the hotel.

It seemed important to me to remember him, so I got his email address, and we touched base a few times after that. He was one of my first facebook friends, and I still enjoy seeing his updates. I don’t know him, yet he’s important to me.

After walking about 5 or 10 minutes, we left the dome of ash and emerged into a beautiful, sunny day. That’s another surreal memory – the image of destruction getting smaller and smaller as I walked further uptown.

Allen and I parted ways. I walked to midtown and found my cousin’s apartment. I crashed on her couch, but I slept fitfully – simultaneously frightened and comforted by the sounds of fighter jets flying above Manhattan.

The next day, the message on TV was that people should leave Manhattan if they can, since there was no way to support people with food and other essentials. All the trains would be free – just get out. I had another cousin who lived in New Jersey, so I went there; Paula and my mom drove 16 hours from Michigan to pick me up there.

There were people who thought I was dead. I forgot to call Desmond back until the next day after so much more had happened, and he thought I was still staying at the Marriott. He thought I was gone. I still feel terrible for making him experience that.

Things were different for me once I got home. Looking back, I was clearly experiencing “post traumatic stress.” I didn’t care about trivial things like money anymore, and there was no way I was going back to New York … until about three weeks later, when Desmond convinced me I was needed and that returning was my way to contribute to the important task of making the world normal again.

Going back to New York after 9/11 was chilling. Much of downtown Manhattan looked like a battlefield. It smelled terrible. For months I could hear trucks hauling debris off to Fresh Kills; the bouncing debris often crashed against the metal bed of the truck, and it always jolted me back to memories of that day.

I worked with other people – living people – who had stories vaguely similar to mine. There were probably a couple hundred thousand people like me who were in the thick of the experience but were ultimately fine. Many of us were shaken to our core – many people who watched on TV were shaken. But life went on. We took comfort in sharing our stories with each other. We got regular air-quality updates from building staff. I remember before 9/11 having a series of fire drills that were treated with customary ambivalence. That process continued after 9/11 – but those were the most serious, crisp fire drills you could imagine.

Direct flights from GRR to New York were gone, and I couldn’t bear to be away from Paula, so I convinced her to travel to New York with me for about three weeks at a time. We had purchased a house a couple of weeks before 9/11 but hadn’t moved in yet, so it seemed like a good time for a transitional living experience. We later learned that our new neighbors thought we were government agents or something, since we bought a house but were never around.

Through all this, a funny thing happened – we fell in love with New York. It was an odd time to be there – very little tourism, so we bonded with the natives. My customer let us have a corporate apartment near Lincoln Center (celebrity sightings in our building included Howard Stern, Regis, Jon Bon Jovi, and Jeremy Irons). We went to operas, ballets, concerts, hockey games, movies, and ate incredible food every day – it was pretty awesome. We essentially lived there for about 7 months before I impetuously quit the contract, ostensibly because I wanted to nest and have a kid. I’ll talk more about those things another time.

At the beginning of 2002, I switched to a different project for the customer. This one was at an office in Long Island, so I no longer went downtown much after that. On that project, I became friends with a woman who lost her husband, his brother, and their best friend in the attack. I lost touch with her after the contract ended; I think she had to change all her contact info to hide from reporters. I miss her, and I worry that she’s OK.

As I said, after a few months, I left the contract (earlier than I should have). I thought about 9/11 almost every day for the first year or so. I came up with a couple of ideas for tributes but didn’t submit them. Both had to do with the power of the buildings themselves, as well as the people who were lost. Like many people, I used to know where I was in Manhattan by looking for the towers. It was disorienting to lose that experience. I wanted to place park benches all around the city – one for each victim lost – with a simple sign next to it, showing where the towers used to be from that vantage point, memorializing the towers along with the victims.

My other idea was to create a scale-model concrete replica of Manhattan as it was on the morning of 9/11 before the attacks. If it were about 40 feet long, the towers would be about 10 feet tall – taller than non-basketball players can reach. Most of the rest of the big buildings would be 6 or 7 feet tall. That would emphasize just how huge the buildings were that we lost. The streets would be about kid-width, so this would be a living history lesson to tell future generations what things were like in New York before the attack. I originally thought that a model this size would fit between the footprints of the two towers, but you could put a tribute like this anywhere. I love the tribute they made at ground zero, but I haven’t seen it in person yet. I hope to soon.

I never knew fear before this experience. I never knew what it felt like to be frightened for my life. I never knew what it meant to feel anguish, to feel sorrow for people I didn’t know, to feel terror. Now I do. But I also know what it means to persevere, to recover, to grow. I hope I never see anything like that again, but if I do, I suspect that I won’t be frightened. I think that kind of terror only works once.

I am truly thankful to the people who conquered fear that day. I am thankful to Rudy Giuliani for stepping up as a leader during and after the attacks. I am thankful to the first responders that sacrificed their health to help others and to help New York recover. I am thankful to the people who lost loved ones and somehow managed to get out of bed the next day, and the next, and the next … I am thankful to everyone around the world who responded to the multiple tragedies of 9/11 by showing genuine concern and kindness toward others, even if only for a moment. I am certainly thankful to everyone who picks up a weapon and risks their life to defend people like me from threats of future attacks, even when they don’t necessarily agree with all the decisions made to deploy them. And yes, I am thankful to the people who make those difficult decisions, even though I don’t always agree with them. In their own ways, all these people work to conquer fear – conquer terror – and I thank them. Thank you.

8 thoughts on “Fear

  1. Pingback: Failure, part 2 « Patrick Foley

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