Ringside Seat

Today marks 12 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. I had a metaphorical ringside or at least balcony seat to the events of that day, as I was living in Boston, Massachusetts, and working at The Mother Church at that time, and had just arrived at work as the attacks happened in New York City. We watched the second World Trade Center tower get hit on live TV as it happened, as well as the collapse of both towers.

Today’s post is a departure from the usual theme here in this blog. It has nothing to do with Christian Science or my connection or disconnection from it. Here, I share a piece I wrote and posted on-line in September, 2009. It is the story of my experiences on September 11, 2001, a day I will never forget. In memory of this tragic event, I share this with you, dear readers.

It was a late summer morning as I left my apartment for the short drive to the train station. The sun was shining, and I could tell it was going to be warm that day, but it was still trying to get there. It was one of those days I dearly wished I could spend outside hiking or mountain biking in the mountains instead of behind my desk at work. The day was starting out just like any other Tuesday, and I was already looking forward to the weekend.

I settled into my usual seat on the train for the nearly hour long ride to Boston, Massachusetts where I worked.  I took out a book, and immersed myself in the latest Clive Cussler high-seas adventure with his titular heroes Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino–escapism at its best. Soon, I was in another world, far away from the mundane clatter of the train and endless shuffling of passengers. When we pulled into North Station in Boston, I joined a seething throng of commuters from several other trains, heading to the tunnels for the subway rides that would take us to our final destinations. That morning, none of us were aware of events that were, at that very moment, unfolding within our own city just a couple of miles away at Logan International Airport–events that would culminate in a singular series of catastrophes that would forever change the world as we knew it. For now, me and my fellow commuters were just looking forward to getting through another Tuesday at the office.

At about the same moment as I was crowding myself into a car on the Orange Line, Mohamed Atta was settling into his seat on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, along with four other acquaintances. He and one of his partners had rushed through security at Boston airport having just arrived on a commuter flight that morning from Portland, Maine to make the flight to Los Angeles. They had an appointment to keep, and they could not be late.

Arriving at the office at around 8:00 am, I chatted with the electricians down the hall who were completing final touches on some re-modeling that was being done in the building. Settling into my desk around 8:15 am, I began my morning ritual of checking and responding to e-mail, and lining up recording studio schedules. So far, it was shaping up to be just another day at the office. Morning rituals done, I surfed the news sites quickly to see what was going on in the world. Nothing much…yet. Then, my thought drifted towards the projects I wanted to complete that day, and I began to work through some paperwork at my desk.

At 7:59 am, American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston Logan International Airport for Los Angeles, California after a delay of 14 minutes. The flight carried 81 passengers and 11 crew members. Among those passengers were five men who had no intention whatsoever of visiting Los Angeles. At 8:14 am, according to 9/11 Commission estimates, somewhere over Central Massachusetts, Flight 11 was hijacked. It stopped responding to Boston Air Traffic Control and over western New York state, turned abruptly south.

About half an hour later, probably around 8:45 am, I wandered down the hall to begin a project I created for myself to organize and catalog some supplies we used in our work. I had decided to take it upon myself to organize this jumbled mess once and for all. Just another mundane task I had made for myself in an uneventful day. Time to get it done.

At 8:46 am, Mohamed Atta and his companions crashed Flight 11 into the North Tower (Tower 1) of the World Trade Center in New York City. The plane impacted the tower at a speed of 466 MPH between the 93rd and 99th floors. The impact stranded over 1,000 people in the floors above–dooming them to a slow and terrifying death, and instantly killed the 92 people on board the airplane.

At the office, I set about my work on the storage room. Shortly after I settled in on my task, one of the electricians I had talked to earlier, who was working in an adjacent room, came up to me and asked if I’d heard anything about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Towers in New York. I said that I hadn’t and that I thought he was bullshitting me, but he said that one of the other guys he was working with called him on the phone and told him about it. He didn’t seem to know much more. I thought it must have been a hoax or some sort of weird accident. I thought I had remembered some stories of small planes hitting buildings in Manhattan by accident in the past. I figured that’s what it had to be–an accident. At that point, neither of us were worried; we were just curious to see if this rumor was true or not.

I went down the hall to my office and punched in “cnn.com” on my computer. No response from the website. I tried a couple of other news sites. No response. Now, I knew something was up. Either too many people were hitting the sites and they were down, or all of the major news sites were experiencing a simultaneous DNS attack (unlikely). I went to another office down the hall and turned on the TV. Greeting me on CNN was the unmistakable image of smoke billowing out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Others who were working on our floor streamed in to watch. It was true, an airplane had crashed into the tower, but at that point, we all concluded it must have been an accident. Human nature would not allow us to believe it could be something else; until that is, as we watched on the live feed, a second plane–United Airlines Flight 175, which had also departed from Boston, hit the South Tower at 9:03 am. This was no accident. This was an unbelievably deliberate attack. And, it was not over yet.

We watched in horrified amazement as first the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am, followed a half hour later by the North Tower at 10:28 am. We watched the aftermath of the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, followed by the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 into a field in rural Pennsylvania. Investigators later determined that Flight 93 was likely destined for either the U.S. Capitol Building or the White House–both in Washington, DC, but passengers and crew, knowing what had happened already in New York overpowered the hijackers. All civilian air traffic over or into the United States was grounded or re-routed. The news feeds also told of orders to shoot down any airliners over United States airspace. Before our very eyes, two seemingly unmovable icons disappeared into rubble, and the world as we knew it was changed forever.

All of us were stunned. We couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt as if I was living a surreal dream, and I was sure I would wake up soon and it would all be just that–a dream. Our manager released us to go home early so we could be in the comfort of our homes and with our families and begin to process what we had witnessed that morning. I went to my desk and called my parents to assure them that I was OK, and we talked and comforted each other over the 3,000 mile distance that separated me from their home in Canada.

Somewhere around noon, under the warmth of a mid-September sun, I walked across the wide plaza near where I worked towards the subway station. Others were out there, all with the same dazed look on their faces as I knew I must have had. At that moment, we all shared the same emotions: shock, disbelief, anger, deep sorrow. It was all combined in a mix of emotion that none of us felt fully equipped to deal with. The day had started out as just another Tuesday, but it ended up quite differently.

Everywhere, as I walked through the mall and into the subway station, people wore their emotions of shock, and sadness close to the surface. It was an eerie silence, where normally there would be a loud cacophony of voices. Few said anything. Mainly, it was just the sound of shuffling feet and muffled voices that met my ears everywhere I went. Sometimes I exchanged glances with strangers, and in those moments we did not have to say anything. We each knew how the other felt. We shared the emotion together in silence. It was an odd, somewhat morbid, but very surrealistic bond that seemed to be the only comfort any of us could find at that moment. We had all witnessed a carnage unparalleled in our experience, and we realized that this was to be a defining moment for all of us–we would never forget where we were, and what we were doing at the moment we found out about the attacks. On that September day, we each shared an emotional bond, and a need to make sense of it all. Most of all, we just hoped we would make it safely home.

While I did not personally know anyone who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, some of my co-workers and friends did. Radio technicians who were working on the top of one of the towers at the time of the attacks were acquaintances of one of my co-workers.

September 11th and the days following are a time that is indelibly imprinted on my memory, even as the time grows more distant. Boston became a city on edge in the following days. I vividly recall the time a day or so after the attacks when I was out on the plaza during my lunch hour. I heard sirens screaming from all directions and literally dozens of police cars and motorcycles sped down Huntington Avenue. The police were setting up a perimeter around a nearby hotel suspected of having lodged one or more of the hijackers. There was also the eerie absence of aircraft and their accompanying noise from the skies above. And, there was still that raw, shared emotion of shock and sadness that I continued to share, often just with a glance, with my fellow Bostonians.

This is the story of my experience on September 11, 2001 as I remember it. The references to the time line of Flight 11 come from Wikipedia. As I finish writing this, I hear sirens outside. For a moment, I wonder what is happening. Eight years later, September 11th still brings up emotions that, while becoming more distant, never quite disappear. Nearly 3,000 women, men, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, wives, and husbands from more than 90 countries departed this world on that day in an act of senseless violence perpetrated by heartless religious zealots in the name of what they called Allah or God. I have heard that some preliminary identifications of who was lost in the attacks were made by the discovery of their unclaimed cars in commuter rail and park and ride parking lots throughout the Metro New York area. May they never be forgotten.

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