Terrorism Strikes Home - As it Always Does, for Someone
September 11, 2001 - Tonight I hugged my son and said goodnight, as I have done for many of his 16 years. When he was little, his hugs celebrated the ending of some happy day. But tonight's hug lasted just a little bit longer - because of the terror that shook our world.
At 8:45 this morning, American Airlines Flight 11 traveling from Boston to Los Angeles with 92 passengers and crew, crashed into One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Although I live in New York City, I didn't hear it because I was 10 miles away in Queens. My son didn't hear it either - but he was only four blocks away at Stuyvesant High School.
My wife called from Michigan to tell me the news. She had taken an early flight from LaGuardia Airport, and was learning the details from an airport TV. Although she was a thousand miles away, she knew more about the danger to our son than me - or him.
Back at school, the day proceeded without interruption. Word began to spread that a plane had hit one of the twin towers, but like most New Yorkers, the students and teachers guessed it was an accident involving a small plane. It was something you could imagine happening and not worry much about - like a car accident in the sky.
Only eighteen minutes later at 9:03, United Airlines Flight 175 - also traveling from Boston to Los Angeles, with 65 passengers and crew - crashed into Two World Trade Center, just to the south of One World Trade. Once again, I knew nothing, since I had left the TV to prepare for our planned press conference in Washington DC. At the time, I was debating whether to take Amtrak or fly, oblivious to the carnage in the skies. Once again, my wife called, this time with urgency. "This is serious - you need to watch the TV," she said.
Back at Stuyvesant, the crash at Two World Trade got the school's attention. Thankfully, the students did not actually see the massive fireball, because it was blocked by One World Trade. But they heard an explosion, and knew something was very wrong. The students were sent to their homerooms, to be addressed by the principal over the P.A.
Soon thereafter, a portion of one of the towers collapsed. This produced a powerful tremor, followed by a blast of debris that pounded the school. From their windows, the students could see people running north to flee the fire and debris. At that moment, the terror struck home.
Quickly, the students were told to evacuate from the northern side of the school. The school was being turned into a field hospital, so the students had to leave. Since they look big, they were sent off on their own, although they felt a bit like they were being thrown overboard. Across the street, the elementary and middle schoolers were bussed to safer schools uptown.
The teenagers walked out onto the bright sunshine in Hudson River Park, looking for their friends, trying to call home from cellphones that didn't work, and occasionally glancing back. As they watched from a growing distance, the towers which dominated their skyline collapsed inside a shroud of thick black smoke. In an instant, the landscape of the city changed - and with it, their lives.
My wife called again, as did my mom. Strangely, I was not terribly worried. I assumed (correctly, it would thankfully turn out) that the students were walking up the Hudson, far enough from the collapsing glass and metal towers to be safe. Although the collapse of the buildings was terrifying, on TV it seemed somehow orderly and limited, not a gigantic explosion bursting from a Hollywood screen.
I happened to see a neighbor who also has a son at Stuyvesant. She was definitely not calm. From her window several stories above mine, she could see over the middle school next door to the thick black smoke rising in the distance from the World Trade Center. From that distance, little Stuyvesant practically touched the twin towers.
Soon thereafter, our son called. He and his classmates had made it to Houston Street, where there were pay phones that worked. They waited in line to call, and spoke just long enough to let their parents know they were safe and heading to someone's home. Then they signed off to let the next student call. With many of the school's 3,400 students waiting in line, there just wasn't time for more.
My wife and my mom were greatly relieved to hear the news. Thankfully, the TV images were still being shot from a quiet distance of miles. The blackout, the speeding tornadoes of debris, and the chaos on the narrow streets had not yet appeared on our screens. But if we had waited much longer for our son's call, our imaginations might have filled in the gaps.
A little while later, he called from a friend's home. Inevitably, they had turned on the TV. It might have been better if they hadn't. Safely out of danger themselves, they began to realize the danger they had been in. I spoke with the friend's dad, who said the kids looked ok. Unfortunately we can't see if there is damage within, I said to myself.
A few hours later, he arrived home. Although he isn't small any more, I hugged him and told him how grateful I was that he was safely home. We sat down, and he began filling in the details. Eventually he spoke with his mom, and then went online to check on his friends.
Over dinner, we talked about the other students. As a junior, he was now a "big sib," responsible for easing the way for a group of six freshmen. With 850 students in a grade, and the most demanding academic standards in New York City, it is essential to give the freshmen someone to talk to, and someone to look after them. But in this crisis, the rush of evacuation prevented him from finding his "little sibs." We decided he should call them to see how they were, and he put aside his dinner to pick up the phone. Eventually he reached most of them; one kid from the Bronx walked over six miles before catching a subway, reaching home after four hours.
We watched most of Larry King, listening to a debate over airport security and retaliatory measures that would "send a message." Official Washington had already reached an instant consensus - namely, the countries which harbor terrorists must be "held accountable," a euphemism for "bombed to smithereens."
Thankfully, Rudy Giuliani interrupted, flanked by the people who actually put their lives on the line in a crisis. Giuliani choked up when asked about the people who had been killed. Top officials in the fire department had died, he said - only 10 minutes after he stood with them. Reporters asked for the total number of firefighters and cops who were dead. Thankfully, Giuliani refused to say. But his anguish spoke volumes.
The next show promised graphic and disturbing images. I was appalled but grateful for the warning, and immediately turned it off. I loathe TV violence, whether fictional or real. After seeing UA 175 slice into Two World Trade at least 50 times, I had seen more than enough.
He called his girlfriend. I answered a few e-mails. Eventually, he came to say goodnight, and by now he was a little upset. "The worst thing," he said, "is the retaliation. Everyone is going to demand revenge. But no one else should have to go through what we went through."
I agreed. But there wasn't much I could say. This wasn't the moment to denounce the unelected pretender in the White House, who will inevitably want to appear "tough" by unleashing bombs and terrifying someone else's child. That's what terrorism is - grownups feeling justified - or worse, feeling compelled - to frighten, maim, or kill someone else's child.
(Of course, the Republican media will never accuse Bush of "wagging the dog" to divert attention from his lies and sagging polls, as they did when Clinton punished Saddam Hussein. Nor will they insist that military action will weaken our troops' readiness and morale, as they did when Clinton stopped Slobodon Milosevic. And they certainly won't argue that Bush's malign neglect of the Middle East conflict put America at risk, or his mindless vacationing while warnings swirled, or his raw contempt for world opinion on a dozen global issues. But we'll leave these for another time.)
So instead, I gave him an extra-long hug. What a horrible day, we said to each other. Pray for the children, I said to myself.