Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11 in New York

This morning, President Barack Obama is leading observance of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed several thousand people and destroyed the World Trade Towers in New York. I can only imagine what this time of the year is like for the people who lost loved ones in those plane hijackings and the destruction of the office towers and part of the Pentagon.

My connection to it is merely one of my memory starting with walking to work in Manhattan. The offices for Internet World magazine were located just a couple blocks north of Union Square, which means that if one went to a north-south street, one could count on seeing the twin towers. I had a nice four-mile walk from my li'l apartment further north, coming down Second Avenue, eventually cutting in toward Park Avenue South so I could stop at my favorite bakery. This is not just hindsight: I clearly remember thinking that morning as I headed to the office that it was an incredibly beautiful morning, just the perfect New York City weather to me. Warm enough that you didn't need a jacket but probably wore a light one anyway; cool enough that the air was dry and refreshing. Not many clouds, but not bright sunshine hurting the eyes. Just incredibly blue sky over a great city humming away as it got to work in the morning.

I've always tended to get to work 30 to 60 minutes before most of the rest of the staff, and as the office eventually filled up, we got a call from our web architect that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We started following it on the online news sites, which were too slow to do much more than choppy video and intermittent reports, but it was enough for us to realize something awful had happened. And then the second plane hit, and we all knew this wasn't just a terrible plane accident. Rumors of the White House being hit (false, of course) and the Pentagon (true) and a fourth plane crashing (also true, alas) spread quickly.

Again, I knew no one who was hurt in the attack. But I worked with one woman who lived in New Jersey. She and her husband went to the train station together every morning, and got on separate trains -- hers heading to midtown Manhattan and his ... to the World Trade Center station. Her train was already underway when the attack happened, and she got to the office fine. But the cell phones had become unusable after the attack, so she couldn't get through to her husband. She spent a panicked morning trying desperately to get any information about the trains or get through to him. In one of the few fortunate stories about that day, she eventually heard that her husband's train had just gotten started when the attack came, and it was called back; he was safe.

The rest of the day was a strange one. Our editors, publishers, and ad reps who lived outside of Manhattan had to scramble to get hotel or other lodging in the city for the night. A group of us IW editors went to a nearby pub to watch CNN and fret. Eventually, we started streaming home -- to actual homes or to their temporary overnight lodging. I walked up Park Avenue South -- everyone walked, no one drove -- with a colleague who lived near me. People walked in the streets, like a post-industrial city; they also walked on the sidewalks; they said "Excuse me" if they accidentally bumped into each other; and otherwise they didn't talk much.

My colleague's boyfriend (later husband), a city police officer, got through to her cell phone and told her to get off Park Avenue; try to stay away from high-profile landmarks. So we switched over and walked up Second Avenue, I think. As we passed the entrance to the Queens/Midtown Tunnel, we saw a building with a long line wrapped around it. Many residential towers in New York have large grocery stores in the basements, so our first assumption was one of disappointment: People were already hoarding food.

But as we walked further north, we saw the side of the building where the line entered, and it wasn't a grocery store. It was a blood donation center, and people were lined up around the block to give blood at this horrible time in the city's life. That scene choked me up, and it still does, because it shows New Yorkers at their best. Shaken, but not deterred from doing what's right.

September 11 was an awful time, and much of what has happened since has also been awful. But thank god it hasn't been repeated. It might well be; there are people who are willing to hurt any number of other people in their efforts to get what they want. No religion or country has a monopoly on such madness. But I remember one headline in the week that followed 9/11, though I don't remember where it was, so I'll just paraphrase it. It said that people really wanted it to be 9/10 again. Remembering my walk to work in that stunning blue-sky morning of 9/11, I can understand that desire.
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