9/11/01 I knew from my mom that my dad, a reporter for the Washington Post, was headed toward New York from Philadelphia. That was all. Much of the day, the circuits were busy. It felt like 1989, when the Loma Prieta Earthquake tore apart highways in the Bay Area, right when some of my friends were commuting home, and I wanted to find out if everyone was OK, connecting heartbeats through phone calls.
Every week I talked to the therapist at $85 an hour. Every week she said, “Pay attention to your negative emotions.” This day, I did.
Finally, at 5:30 p.m. on 9/11, I talked to my dad, who was at his twin brother’s house in New Jersey. I’d been worried about him all day. Who knew if there were other attacks planned: bombs—anything? No one knew who the enemy was.
One cousin, who lived in Manhattan, said he got up and was having coffee with his wife when their cats started acting weird. They looked out their window and saw the second plane crash and the second tower collapse. Another cousin, who usually transferred at the World Trade Center subway station to her editorial job uptown, happened to stay home in Hoboken that day.
On the news I heard that one woman, hysterical, wanted to find her husband in the rubble. She wanted to hold his hand so he wouldn’t have to die alone.
I heard on the news that they thought the pilots must have been trained, so perhaps they would be identified. One hundred and ten stories had collapsed into six stories. The first wave of emergency workers was lost. A structural engineer interviewed on TV said the towers collapsed because the steel got so hot that it couldn’t support the weight.
The first news report was that a plane crash near Pittsburgh was due to “pilot error.” Yet then I heard one woman had called from the airplane bathroom on her cell phone that the plane was hijacked. News was being built on rumors. And body pieces crashed and evaporated in smoke and flames. I grew up six miles from DC and my dad worked there for years. My hometown was under attack.
I obsessively wrote notes in my journal, a reporter’s notebook pilfered from my dad’s work, yet I had no assignment. I was just a witness:
The USA is at war. I am sick. I have a sore throat.
William Safire said the next act of terrorism would be a nuclear bomb or germ warfare. I was a pacifist.
Thirty-eight passengers tried to overwhelm the hijackers.
Six thousand body bags in New York City.
Hundreds of rescue workers missing.
It looked like a war zone in Manhattan.
The towers fell 40 feet into the ground.
The heat rose to 2000 degrees. The smoke was seen from outer space.
The financial markets were closed. Who knows what would happen next.
I saw a widower on TV. He heard his wife’s phone call from the 101st floor. She told him a plane hit the building. Tears were streaming down his face.
And right away, I heard on the news about a wave of bigotry against Arab Americans, including looting of Arab-owned stores. Someone in San Francisco hurled a bag full of blood into an immigration office that supposedly catered to Arab Americans, and a computerized voice on the voice-mail left the message, “You’re next.”
My dad hitchhiked with a news photographer to get as close as possible to Manhattan that first day. They were picked up by a U.S. Customs official who was desperate to get to Jersey City to find out information about colleagues in the Customs office alongside the towers.
They used the official’s badge to pass through police checkpoints and got to the Hudson River. The marina was off-limits, but they stopped at an aid station for people who were trapped between the tower and the river and were carried over by police and fireboats. My dad ran next to an injured woman in a gurney, trying to get information from the nurse. A financial firm on the New Jersey side had opened its lobby to the victims, and there he interviewed people who had fled the towers and the collapse.
He talked to one woman named Monica Watt, who had two children: a two-year-old boy she’d carried in a backpack, and a five-year-old girl who was in a wheelchair. She and her daughter were still stunned. They still had dust throughout their hair and clothes. She said she had left her apartment near the Trade Center when the first tower was hit. As she started away from it she said she heard her son say, “Look, Mommy. Birds!” They were people leaping from the top.
She had forgotten her daughter’s medicine and went back for it. She was near the Trade Center when the first building went down and fled with this monstrous cloud pursuing her. Two strangers suddenly picked up either side of the wheelchair and ran with her and they all reached the river.
My dad contributed to front-page coverage, not even caring if his by-line would appear or not. He knew the voices he captured would create history. They would become the primary sources of future historians.
Meanwhile, his family, who would be forgotten, worried for hours.