Seventeen years ago, I was sitting in my office in Franklin, TN. I was a single dad, two years into a painful divorce. My office had become my refuge on those days when my daughter was not with me. I spent a lot of time there, waiting for the next Thursday visit, or “My weekend” in the every-other-weekend carousel.
That’s where I was on September 11, 2001. My morning routine was to get up at 5:30, go to the gym, and then be at my desk at 8:15. I had forty-five minutes to prepare my day, review the current files, and my sales plan, and be ready for 9 a.m. when the underwriters began their day, and the banks opened, and I discovered which fires needed to be put out, and which ones needed to be lit.
I was watching the headlines on my computer when the first plane hit the tower. That’s all they said at first…that a plane had hit the tower. Nobody said whether it was a commercial jet, or a Piper Cub. Being a history buff, I instantly recalled that a B-25 had hit the Empire State Building in 1945, so there was a precedent for this being an accident.
But it wasn’t.
While they were still trying to sort out the details and figure out what happened in the first crash, another plane hit the other tower. This time I saw it in real time. We all did. There was no mistaking it. The stress load on the wings as the demonic hijacker veered the craft into the building at high speed was ominous. This was no mistake. This was hitting a target.
Before I could blink, my phone rang. It was a friend of mine in town who immediately said, “Jesus…we’re under attack.” I’d already thought the same thing but couldn’t put it into a sentence. We’re under attack. Once I’d accepted this, I knew who it was who’d done it. They’d already tried this eight years earlier, and these particular devils aren’t the kind to give up easily. They are pure evil. You hear that term a lot…”pure evil,” but you don’t see it as often. Manson was pure evil. Hitler was pure evil. The Muslim attackers on 9/11 were pure evil.
I sat there at my desk, in a trance. “The people,” I thought, “All those people.” I thought of the people in the buildings. I thought of the people on the planes. How horrifying were their final moments? How much pain did they feel? What about their children? Their families?
I called my ex-wife and talked to her about what we were going to do about our daughter. She is a nurse and worked at a hospital at the time. She told me they were already on lockdown, that there had been rumors of threats in Nashville as well. I told her I would sit tight for another thirty minutes to see what was happening and then if I needed to, I’d go get Daisy at the day-care. She agreed and we hung up.
My attention turned back to the screen. I sat there in tears, watching two iconic buildings burn. I prayed for my country, through those tears. I prayed for the victims and their families. Then the horror got even worse. At first I thought they were pieces of the building falling to the ground. Then it became clearer, and the commentators confirmed it: those were people. People jumping from the windows of their offices, because they would rather fall to their death than burn.
I remember rocking back and forth in my chair, sobbing now. Thinking about someone’s daddy, making that terrible choice, maybe calling to say goodbye first, and then leaping to their death. Or someone’s mom. Or someone’s fiancé, or son, or daughter.
It was hitting me full force now. These were my family. By right of their citizenship in the US and further…by their very humanity. Those were my brothers and sisters, hurtling to their death, because to not do so was to suffer an even more gruesome end. Twenty minutes later, the scene exploded into a nightmarish, twisted, surreal vision of ash, and glass, and molten steel, and fluttering papers, raining down on white-faced survivors fleeing for their lives, and brave first responders, running the other way, into the danger, to do what they do willingly.
The first tower collapsed in forever-slow-motion. I can still see it in my mind. I’ll never stop seeing it in my mind. Never. I can feel the temperature of the office I sat in, the warmth of the sun on that picture perfect morning, flooding my office with a light that suddenly didn’t seem to be appropriate.
There was no chance now. No chance for survival for the thousands in that building. I knew it as I watched. And I sobbed again. “What are they doing to my beloved country?” I thought. “Is this happening anywhere else? Are we safe here in the South?” By the time news broke of Flight 93 missing in Pennsylvania, and the plane hitting the Pentagon, I’d already decided to go get my daughter. “Maybe they’ll target daycare centers” I thought. “These people are animals, really. They want to inflict maximum pain. What would be more painful than attacking children?”
I was already in my car and on my way to my daughter’s daycare when the second tower fell. I heard it on the radio. I could barely see to drive, for the tears. I called Daisy’s mom on my way across town and told her I’d have her with me, and we’ll coordinate later. Again she agreed. She was scared. The hospital was a rumor mill and she’d heard them all.
I called my family to check in. Everybody was okay. All accounted for. I turned into my daughter’s daycare and saw the line of cars. I parked in the lot and walked to the front doors. I punched in the special code and walked in the lobby. The same fear and anger and sorrow I was feeling was on every face. The moms and dads who, like me, had decided that the best place for their kids was with them, protected and safe, all had the same look in our eyes. “What in Hell was happening?” That wasn’t a figurative or a colloquialism. It was what we really felt. Only Hell itself could have cooked up a plan like this. Were they done? Was there more?
I walked toward the big room where the 3 and 4 year old kids played together. My little girl was three-and-a-half at the time. The apple of my eye. I paused outside the room as other parents went in. I spotted my daughter in the corner, playing with some of her friends, oblivious to what had happened.
She was still just a child.
I waited. I watched her playing. Something deep inside told me to let her play just a few more minutes. The other parents instinctively knew not to mention what was going on and not to scare the children. We all put on a smile and pretended that we were just there to pick them up for a special day together. I let Daisy play for maybe three minutes or so…while I thought.
I thought about the world she was now living in. How in one ten minute span, her entire future was changed. I didn’t know just how much, but I knew that after today, things could never be the same. And I cried again. I cried because I knew that somehow, the childhood I’d dreamed of giving her; the one I was working for, and planning for, was not possible now. This evil monster would always be there. From now until eternity.
I finally walked in the room and she ran to me as she always did. Because she was a daddy’s girl. I scooped her up and hugged her as tightly as I could. I was trying to shield her. To block the evil from affecting her life. Like maybe if I squeezed her enough, the morning would be undone and she could just have a normal childhood. But that could never be.
The day was a blur after that. We went to get breakfast and then we went grocery shopping. I called her mom and she talked to our daughter for a minute, just to hear her voice. We went to my home, which was ten minutes into the countryside, where we felt like it was safer. But was it? She played outside in the sunshine oblivious to what was happening, while I listened to the radio and pushed her on her swing.
By the end of that long day, with the sky empty of planes, except for the occasional military jet, patrolling, and with the stunned sorrow beginning to turn into righteous rage, I wept again.
I thought of my grandparents. Was this what they felt on December 7, 1941? Was this how it felt that Sunday evening, after the smoke had settled and the body counting had begun?
I cried a lot more the next day, seeing the smoke and fire where two works-of-art in building form had been. When the reports came in of the brave 343 first responders who willingly ran into the buildings and died when they fell.
Seventeen years later and I still can’t see those pictures. I still can’t see the stills of the ones who chose to jump. I still can’t see the flag, flying from a mast still attached to a piece of the building now laying in the street. I can’t see any of that without crying. In fact, I think that if I ever relive that day in my mind and don’t cry, I’ll question my own humanity, my patriotism, and my compassion.
When I see people who don’t get emotional it angers me. When I see that in some pockets of this country, people who openly espouse the kind of sick evil are actually running for elected office –and in some cases winning—I am sickened and seething.
I will never fully trust those who belong to the sect who did this to us. Sorry…that’s life. That’s what happens when you attack us. There is going to be a bit of guilt by association and you had better just understand it. You’d better just understand my distrust and my holding you at arm’s length and you’re having to prove yourself to me and to my country.
Because I still cry.