I remember the sky that day. Anyone you ask about 9/11 who lived in the northeast talks about the sky. It was impossibly blue. Achingly beautiful. That day was a 10 out of 10, a perfect late summer day.
I was a teacher in Minisink Valley High School. The morning of September 11th, I sent my oldest to his new private school and my younger two children to their elementary school in our neighborhood. We lived about an hour and a half northwest of Manhattan. My husband was working at his firehouse that day; he went in the night before. His firehouse was up in Harlem, northern Manhattan, Ladder 26. I had no feeling, no intuition, that the world was about to turn upside down for all of America and much of the world.
After 2nd period, around 9:10AM, I went to the cafeteria to get something for breakfast. One of the janitors asked me if I had heard that two planes had crashed into the WTC. I was confused for a second. A small plane, like the one that had hit the Empire State Building years before? Two of them? How had that happened? I never imagined large jets hitting the building. There must have been lots of safeguards against that happening, right? I was completely befuddled.
I ran up to the main office and our computer tech woman had MSNBC on her computer live. I saw the gaping hole in the north tower, and I knew that these were no small planes. This is exactly what it looked like on the MSNBC website.
The secretary yelled over to me that Bill had called at 9:15AM and that he was just being sent down to the WTC site then. I knew my oldest would be panicked. He was only 11, but a history buff and smart enough to know that his father would be sent down. I called his school and told them to tell him his dad was OK, as at that point, I though he was. I’m glad I did that, because he had been distraught with worry for his dad, but that calmed him down.
Everyone who was not teaching at that moment was in the Main Office, watching this on the computers. People were saying things that sounded totally implausible to me: the White House was under attack; the Pentagon had been bombed; I felt that we were truly under attack as a nation. I wasn’t worried about our safety in the area in which we lived, but my mind did realize that this was war, of sorts.
I went back to my classroom. When the towers fell, I was listening live on the radio. I was so worried that my husband had gotten down there by then, but my partner teacher, Maureen, kept telling me that there was no way that they got down there that fast, considering the traffic. Neither of us knew that they had closed down the West Side Highway to get everyone down there more quickly. The other half of Bill’s firehouse, the Engine, had been sent down there and were on-site when the buildings fell. Their Lieutenant, Bobby Engle, had his guys wait in the Marriot Hotel, which had been reinforced after the 1993 bombing and he went where the leaders of the FDNY, the Chiefs, had their staging area. On the way down to the WTC, he had told his guys that he had a bad feeling about this. When the first tower collapsed, Engle was buried under rubble. His guys looked for him, and found him: they could still see his hand, and he was able to talk to them, saying, “I’m in a little bit of a tight space here.” As they went to get their equipment to get him out, which took a while, the second tower collapsed, destroying most of the hotel, and burying him further. They didn’t find him alive.
All day long I told myself that my husband was fine. That he didn’t get down there before the towers collapsed. As I looked out the window in between classes, I felt a breeze of sorts, a warm breeze, and I felt like my grandmother was there, telling me Bill was OK. I held onto that all day, and even stayed after school to attend a meeting about the students who had parents who perished.
I was calm until I headed home and heard on the radio that hundreds of firefighters were missing. I tried to continue to hold onto the thought that he would have taken a while to get down there, but I was sick all the way home. I raced into the house when I got home and listened to the messages. First one, not Bill. Second one, not Bill. Third one, no. Fourth message, Bill’s voice came on. As I listened, I almost collapsed in relief. Bill was saying that he hadn’t been sent down; Ladder 26 was left in its station to cover northern Manhattan. Amazing. My husband was working that day, and didn’t die. His brother was a firefighter in Brooklyn, also working that day, and his firehouse was out on another fire that morning, so he didn’t get to the WTC site until after the collapses. My brother was the Captain of a firehouse right at the foot of the Trade Center, but was off that day. He headed right in, but, again, the buildings had collapsed before he got there. Finally, my other brother-in-law was a police officer and was there, but also okay. They found each other, but were all looking for Bill. It’s hard to imagine that cell phones were in their infancy then. I didn’t get one until the next day for the first time. So no one was able to contact each other. And even if they had phones, the big antenna on the WTC’s north tower went down, so there was no service and the circuits on the regular phones were all busy, so there was no communication.
After I spoke to Bill, I tried to call my children’s school. No answer. My friend pulled up with them in the back seat and told me that the school had closed that day, and my poor kids were some of the few left there. I felt terrible. Not only was it a horrible day, but they had to sit there all day, while their father might have been dead. My older son’s school had them in the auditorium watching this live for most of the day, but then they went back to classes and sent them home on the regular bus, at the regular time. Gotta love those private schools – they are pretty unflappable.
Rumors flew all that night. People said they got calls from people after the towers fell, but their phones didn’t show any calls. Many weird things were reported that day, most of which were probably from a combination of grief and wishful thinking. It was like living in an alternative reality, one in which everything you had thought about the world was turned upside down. Huge towers don’t fall. Thousands of innocent civilians don’t die in one day. Hundreds of firefighters don’t die in one fell swoop. It took years to process this, and we still are trying to make sense of it.
I was furious for years. I thought the Chiefs in the FDNY sent those firemen into those towers to die because it would have been bad PR to say, “No, those towers are coming down. We’re not going to risk our guys.” How could they not have known? How could all of those Chiefs, Captains and Lieutenants been so ignorant of building failure causes and results? They all knew the construction of the WTC. My husband said they studied that frequently. And if I could look at those towers from 100 miles away on a tiny computer screen and think that they weren’t going to stand, how could experienced fire chiefs not come to the same conclusion? It was ridiculous, crazy and infuriating. To this day, that is the one issue I haven’t been able to resolve: were all those firefighters sacrificed on the Altar Of Public Relations, or were those Chiefs really so foolish?