<< Back to Day 15, Rhode Is.
The Longest Day
We're not sure what made us stop at the video booth in Providence. It just seemed strange that at that time of day there would be that many people crowded around a television in the park. A man turned around, saw our confusion, and said, "Did you hear what happened? The twin towers, they knocked them down. Terrorists." If that's a joke, we thought, it's not funny. Not funny at all.
But we did go up to that television and heard the horrible news. The sun was glaring against the glass of the TV, making it difficult to see the images. We could hear the newscasters and all we saw was a cloud of smoke and dust. They said that the towers had collapsed. We still didn't believe it. We just stood there, shocked and numb, but there was no way in our minds that those towers had gone down. It was impossible to us. After all, we had lived just across the Hudson River from New York City for three years with a view of the Manhattan skyline from our balcony. Those towers are an anchor.
So often we see the news, or the movies, and see destruction like this happening in faraway lands and distant places. Even the World Trade Center bombing 10 years ago, or the Oklahoma City bombing... these weren't real to us. To many of us. It's a devastating tragedy, it's showing on every channel, but somehow, you can't grasp the reality of something like this having never been there. It's like watching a very sad, very real movie, and once you've seen all there is to report, you try to find something else that's on.
But now, for us, this is so different. We lived there. It's not a crime that happened in another country. This is not a crime that happened to other people. This is a place that we know and love. There's a great donut shop near the base of the North tower. There's a booth to buy half price Broadway tickets. There's a bench in the centre of the plaza to take a photo so it looks like you're a giant standing between the towers. There's a bar on the 106th floor that we were planning to go to in a couple of days, since we'd lived in the city for three years and had never actually been up.
It didn't begin to sink in until we saw a clear view of the top twenty floors of the first building falling, toppling onto itself, leaving a hole in the sky. Only then did we realize that they were gone, and that was possibly the hardest thing to get over. They're GONE.
So it is not an anonymous feeling, or a far away tragedy. It is a very personal one.
We lived in New Jersey until two months ago. One of our first jobs was at a company called Delta Three, whose offices are now located three blocks from the World Trade Center. Some of our friends still work there. We lived in Manhattan for a time, less than a block from the United Nations. We worked in Rockefeller Center for a year. We worked on the 73rd floor of the Empire State Building for eight months. Any of these places could have been hit by terrorist attacks, but nobody wants to think like that. Not at the time.
Once our initial shock had diminished, we realized how lucky we were today. We're two and a half weeks into a cross-America road trip, and we had scheduled ourselves to be in New York by now. We didn't rush into the city since we'd never really explored New England, and didn't "miss" New York enough yet, so we took our time. Circumstances--on the news we hear people saying that they decided to skip work that day, or they slept in, or they chose that moment to run downstairs to the bagel place--we feel this. Had we not quit our jobs, had that startup company found funding, had we not wanted to take a vacation, had we not, had we not... we would have been there. Maybe having lunch with a friend in the plaza, maybe in a business meeting, maybe at the donut shop. It's an odd combination of relief and guilt. And in fact, we even discussed how we felt as though we SHOULD have been there. We have a deep sense of helplessness for our friends.
We can't even get through to our friends in the city. We spent hours trying to get a hold of anyone at all in the city that we knew. We thought first of our friends who we know work in the South end of the city. We were able to reach one cellphone, our friend Greg Gardner from Delta Three. He had changed his voice mail to let people know that he was safe and at a friend's house nearby. When we spoke to him, he said he'd heard the crash, they saw what was happening, and the office scattered. He was with a group of about seven others from the office, but they were separated, though he was sure they were alright.
Another was working from home in New Jersey that morning, but his wife works on 44th and 5th, and his daughter goes to school in the city. The towers were hit at 8:45 in the morning, but they weren't able to get in contact with one another until almost 4 hours later. Allan and his family are home safe and sound.
Which of our friends may have been on their way to a job interview in the area? Who did we know that used to work with us but had gone on to different jobs, and where were they now? We were going through our mental rolodex, trying to think of everyone we knew, places we'd had meetings, meals, parties, concerts. It was too real. Those same circumstances that had drawn a World Trade Center employee outside to the donut shop could just as easily have brought someone we knew into the lobby that morning.
One of the hardest things to grasp is that we could have actually known one or more of the people who died in the collapse. Not "known" as in a friend, or even a co-worker, but if you think about the number of people you encounter in a single day, especially working in Manhattan, it's staggering. One of them might have been a salesman who tried to sell us stationery. One of them might have been a tech support rep we may have talked to when we had a problem with our phone bill. One of them could have been a hot dog vendor, a bike courier, a man with a funny haircut that we laughed at on the subway, a tourist we gave directions to, or someone who gave us directions. How many people do we know? How many people do THEY know?
These are the feelings and thoughts that we're grappling with today and we can only try to empathize with what our friends in New York are going through right now, friends who have lived there their whole lives. We'll be heading into the city as soon as they open the tunnels to offer any support we possibly can. At this point, we are both unprepared for how we will react to see the landscape and spirit of our city so deeply altered.
The above entry appeared in the Sept. 13th edition of The Chronicle Journal.