Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?

I hadn't planned to write a 9/11 blog. So many bloggers I follow were writing them, and I had already commented on theirs as to where I'd been on that day. But after listening to Alan Jackson's beautiful ballad, Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)? I thought about where I'd been that day, how I'd felt, and here I am.

As bad as my memory has been of late, my memories of that day are quite clear. Collin was working at a cafeteria--he'd finally been moved to the day shift. He'd just left for work. I was getting dressed to go to the library. The Today show was on TV. It was interrupted for a news bulletin. I was in the bedroom, but I could hear Katie Couric saying, "A plane has hit the north tower of the World Trade Center." 

I came out of the bedroom. Looking at the screen, the black smoke billowing from the tower, made me think of a night fifteen years earlier. I was in New York for the first time, celebrating the sale of my first novel with my agent, Maria Carvainis, and her assistant, Elizabeth Spencer, at Windows on the World. We'd gone there because the WTC played a large role in Alexander's Empire (which would later be retitled Dance of the Gods). That night, the fog was so thick that on the 104th floor it looked as if thick pea-green shades had been pulled down. I was disappointed. I'd been waiting to see the view of the city from there.

"We all worry when it's this foggy," our waiter confessed. "We've had more than one close call with planes." Not surprising, since there were three major airports in the area (JFK, LaGuardia and Newark). 

I said, only half-joking, that it must be a tempting target for terrorists.

Flash forward to that sunny Tuesday morning in September 2001. With the media focused on the north tower, the second passenger plane slammed into the south tower, putting an end to any notion that the first could possibly have been an accident. We were under attack.

Don't ask me why, but I didn't feel the panic most people seemed to feel. Maybe because in St. Louis, I was so far inland that I didn't believe such an attack could ever happen in my hometown.  I recalled what my dad had always said: "No war will ever be fought on US soil." He firmly believed that after being caught with our defenses down at Pearl Harbor, our military would never let it happen again.

I did feel a need to talk to Collin, to let him know what was happening. In 2001, we didn't have cellphones yet. I couldn't call him until he got to work, so I decided to go on to the library and call him from there. I took both my Walkman radio and my pocket TV with me so I could keep up with the news. By the time I got there and was able to call Collin, the Pentagon had also been hit and the fourth plane, at that point unconfirmed as being under terrorist control, had crashed in Pennsylvania. 

After I left the library, I stopped at the grocery store. I remember all the talk in the checkout lines. I remember watching the towers fall on that pocket TV as I was checking out, the checkout clerk watching with me.Even though I was seeing it, I couldn't believe it had really happened. Again, my thoughts were in the past, recalling that night at dinner--timing our ascent in the elevator to see how long it took to get to the 104th floor...Elizabeth dragging me off to the restroom so I could see it just in case I wanted to set a scene there...Maria carrying off a menu because I'd mentioned wanting one for research....

I still have that menu.

In the days that followed, the news teams were on the air 24/7. The nation was in shock.Everyone was cautious, even suspicious of their Arab-American neighbors. In Hollywood, movies with violent themes were put on hold and comedies were prevalent. Collin and I were the oddballs who watched movies like Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, etc. back-to-back. I don't know what a psychiatrist would make of that, but I felt a need to see good triumph over evil, mankind beat impossible odds.

Today, ten years later, the war on terrorism may not be over, but with the death of Osama bin Laden, the snake's head has been cut off. Finally. 


  1. Ah, precisely why I wouldn't want to go up in a really, really tall building...especially if it's foggy out. I'm glad you got time to at least see the bathroom. LOL

    It was a sad day, but one that will never be forgotten. Great blog.

  2. Thank you for sharing such a touching story from your "author" perspective and experience. I myself have only been up in the old Empire State Building.

  3. Most of the world was in shock at the time, and it feels like it's never quite lifted. The topic's been going around in the last few days, but your past experience at the WTC is good to share. Thanks!

  4. I noticed one thing that rang true with almost everyone was a need to get in touch with loved ones, even if they were nowhere near the attacks.

  5. @ Beth: As bathrooms go, it was unique.

    @ Eve: I've been up there, too. I've got some photos I took from the observation deck.

    @ William: I wish I had taken Collin. He missed out on a cool experience. On a clear day, one could see all the way to Connecticut.

    @ Mark: You're right. Even knowing we were safe, I wanted him home.

  6. What a sad and touching story.
    That day it felt like I was standing in a vacuum.

    I watched some of the special reports on Saturday and Sunday but in the end I turned them off, I was crying so much. If I was feeling such pain how hard it must be for the loved ones left behind.

    I remember driving past the Twin Towers, and at the time I thought them too tall for me. I understood the reasoning behind them but I didn't want to go up in them.
    I like the shorter older more ornate buildings from the 20's and 30's. The Chrysler Building, 40 Wall Street, Empire State Building, Equitable Building (1915) and of course the Flatiron Building.
    I have an interesting story, for another time, about a bathroom in Hong Kong.

    Take care,
    cheers, parsnip

  7. So beautifully written. I cannot understand, nor will I ever, so much hatred in someone's heart that they could willfully attack another nation and kill so many innocent victims.

  8. No matter how much one hates another government, it is not an excuse to take it out on innocent civilians.


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