Friday, September 11, 2009


It could not have been a more beautiful day. The sky was as crisp and blue as it had been in weeks and you could already sense autumn’s approach. The slant of light in the mornings and evenings was a little more pronounced and some of the trees already had a few spots of color. Fall on the east coast is spectacular, and it was the kind of day that reminded you how peaceful it could be in New Jersey, despite the congestion.

It was a day that started off just like any other, I was thundering down the New Jersey Turnpike in my 1987 Volvo station wagon, singing as I flipped through the radio stations. My commute was about an hour long, but often dragged on in the mornings as I ran into traffic. It was already 8:45 as I merged onto the Garden State Parkway and came to a grinding halt; 15 minutes late and in stand still traffic I called the office to let them know I wouldn’t be in until after 9. I had just recently gotten a cell phone—on my mom’s insistence, since my commute was so long. I remember clearly, as I sat there in my car, thinking about how beautiful it was outside and that I would love nothing more than to have the day off and take the opportunity to enjoy this gorgeous weather.

That summer my air conditioning in the Volvo had gone out, never to be repaired, it just wasn’t worth it in that old beast, so I used to cruise down the highway with the windows down and radio up. I was young, just a few months out of college, and working in a high level position, making a lot of money, at a prominent bank. My boss and I had a very comfortable relationship and I had learned to take advantage of his leniency, often arriving late, but working long hours into the evening. He was traveling back from our corporate office in Boston that morning, leaving on an early morning flight into Newark, and would be back in the office that afternoon for meetings and conference calls which I would inevitably be drug into. My office was just 15 miles from Manhattan as the crow flies, just a stone’s throw across the Hudson really, and about halfway through my commute I could tune in radio stations from the City, rather than Jersey. I loved hearing about the traffic and news from Manhattan, just being that close to NYC was invigorating. The New York/New Jersey metropolitan area is honestly one of my favorite places in the world. Italian deli’s and grocers line the narrow streets. The people are gruff, but have heart’s of gold. The sense of community is strong and real and while there isn’t a lot of natural beauty there is a ton of pride in the area. I used to honestly get choked up watching the intro to the Sopranos after I moved away, remembering those times and those places.

As I sat in my car that morning, with a light whisp of wind blowing through the open windows, there was a quick news blurb on 95.5 about how a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings. I instinctively looked up into the bright blue sky, as if I thought I could catch a glimpse of this strange event personally. The DJ didn’t have, or give, much information, but speculated it must have been a small private plane gone wildly off course. The biggest news story that morning was surrounding the first day of voting for the mayoral primary race.

As I finally settled into my office for the morning I began scanning my Bloomberg Terminal for more information. I had a 2nd monitor on my desk with a live Bloomberg feed to watch the mortgage bond market, but mostly I used it to read news stories and movie reviews. Something I am sure my employers would not have appreciated as they paid the thousand dollar-a-month rent on the terminal. More and more news stories were scrolling from the bottom of the old DOS screen about an airplane striking the World Trade Center. The general consensus had become that it was, in fact, a commercial airplane, but perhaps just a small commuter jet. As people around the office began to talk and speculate about what was going on no one could imagine the terror we were all about the feel. News spread fast and furious that morning, suddenly there were reports of another plane, something at the Pentagon, explosions in the towers. Planes were being grounded, people evacuating the city. A television appeared and brought fuzzy news about what exactly was going on. Live images of smoke and flames billowing out of the gaping chasms in the side of the towers filled the TV and internet. It quickly became clear that this was neither an accident nor a small event.

Crazy rumors flew as fast as the factual news came in—speculation about bombings in California and more in DC. Roads, tunnels, bridges, schools and offices were already being shut down all over the area. There was discussion of going up the roof of our building, where people imagined we could see the smoke from the towers filling the sky.

I made a few frantic calls to my boss, he had been on a flight out of Boston that morning and Newark airport had already been shut down. Rumors of other planes being shot down and hijacked swirled through the air. I got Dan on his cell, he had landed in Newark just before they shut the airport, and had managed to get a rental car since there were no cabs available. He was on his way to the office and would be in soon.

Then the towers fell.

Colleagues wept and made frantic phone calls to friends and former co-workers who worked there, it seemed that half the people in my office knew at least one person in the area. I distinctly remember thinking about hiding under my desk, for no reason in particular other than to feel safe. Cell phone service went out and no calls could get into the city. People began to head out of the office around 11am. I quietly sat at my desk waiting to be told to go home. I was too new in the work force to understand that on a day like this, they weren’t going to ring the school bell to let us all leave early. There would be no official early dismissal. I finally got Dan on the phone again and he told me to go, he was heading home to pick up his own kids from school. So just as I had wished for that morning, I was getting out of work, but at a terrible price.

I drove home on an empty freeway, the blue sky now mocking the day's tragic events. My entrance to the Parkway was just a few ahead of where they had closed the highways leading into Manhattan. It was eerie, to see New Jersey so quiet in the middle of a work day. I must have passed 50 fire trucks, ambulances and police cruisers, all screaming past me in the opposite direction.

I remember getting home and standing in that small kitchen, making a turkey sandwich on a plain bagel and watching the footage of the tower’s collapsing on a tiny 12 inch TV. I thought to myself that I would never get over seeing that—I felt I could literally watch it forever, my unblinking, disbelieving eyes glued to the TV. I was living with my best friend’s parents at that time, staying in their tiny guest house, but really a part of the family. I slept in the main house that night, in their extra bedroom. The sense of needing to be near someone, part of something, was profound. I was scared to sleep alone in that little house that night. Those day’s events filled our thoughts and eyes for weeks and months to come. The rumors quieted and the sobering truth of that day revealed itself. Coworkers and friends had lost loved ones and colleagues, for some, life would never be the same.

I remember going through the rest of that fall and winter with a very pronounced sense of community. As if I had gone through something, with a group of people, that couldn’t be understood by the rest of the world. I remember the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising play on the radio that fall, I actually cried in my car. The DJ, the same one that I had heard announce the news story about the first plane hitting the tower on that day, sat in silence as the song came to an end and simply said they were going to play it again. Right then. The Mets played the Yankees in the world series that October, as if the universe itself understood that Manhattan needed something to heal itself with, something for it’s people to laugh and cheer about. For those next few months it was like no where else in the world existed. You could feel the power and raw emotion of that day all around you. I would talk with my friends and family across the country and you knew the veil of that tragic day had already lifted for them, but where I worked and lived, we continued to carry it with us, every day. Every night.

I traveled to Ground Zero in late October. You could still smell the smoke and soot in the air. It was freezing and clear; the streets were crowded with visitors. American flags flew on every corner, hung from every window. You could easily see the twisted metal of those destroyed buildings, hear trucks and bulldozers cleaning up the site. There was a small church across from Ground Zero, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. It had served as a makeshift shelter during those first days of search and rescue, and its gates now paid tribute to the heroes who had lost their lives on that day. The fence was covered from top to bottom with photos, letter, tributes, and flowers from all around the country. People gathered quietly, reading and reflecting, some people wept while others lit candles. It is one of my most powerful and cherished memories.

Eight long years have passed since that fateful day. News reports indicate that crowds at the tribute sites have thinned, people have moved on. My life is profoundly different and my ties to New York and New Jersey have faded away. Yet as I sit in my cubicle in Texas today I will remember that day, as I do every year, those feelings, the bond and strength and love that we all gave to each other that fall. I will always remember the people that I spent that day with, images of life seared into my brain. The whole area became a place, once filled with strangers, that came together over tragedy, bonding over loss and grief and relief. Remembering those that died and honoring those that gave their lives. It wasn’t about politics, or terrorism, or agendas. It was about people, people just going to work that day—a beautiful day to be alive. A terrible day to die.

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