Friday, September 11, 2015

Accidents Happen: A 9/11 Story

My first car was a 1998 Honda Civic. That car went through a lot before my parents finally traded it in last year:  Several cross-country trips, one kidnapping job by an auto thief, and a few fender benders, none very serious fortunately. I pride myself on being a careful driver. Still, I was behind the wheel for at least two of these accidents.

One of them was in late September 2001, on my way to visit a friend in Vermont. I merged with traffic off an exit outside Boston and side-swiped an 18-wheeler because I was being inattentive. I wasn’t on my cell phone or texting—(there was no texting then), and I wasn’t changing the radio station or eating a cheeseburger. I was just distracted and probably lost. It was Boston before Google Maps, after all.

The truck driver was pretty nice about it, even though the accident was my fault. The damage to my little Civic was minor, and his outsized rig suffered only a few scrapes. But it was a hassle for him, and scary for me. I called my dad, who's pretty good in these types of situations, and asked him to come rescue me from three hours south. I pulled into the parking lot of a nearby gas station and waited.

Two weeks earlier, I’d left my apartment in Brooklyn as usual for my job at a city agency in the financial district. I’d eaten a bowl of Cinnamon Life cereal for breakfast after deciding the cold I was fighting wasn’t worth staying home for. I was sitting in my cubicle, talking on the phone, when a co-worker came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder.

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” she whispered into the ear that wasn’t attached to the phone. I put my hand over the receiver and glanced up at her.

“What do you mean? Like a skyline tourist type plane?” I asked, instinctively knowing I was right.

“Actually, no.” she said. “Supposedly it’s a 747. Must be a bad accident.”

Our office was on the second floor of a non-descript, medium-sized building on Rector Street, a block east of the West Side Highway and Hudson River and about four short blocks south of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. We hustled downstairs and joined a growing crowd of gawkers. Everyone was standing outside with their necks craned up at a gaping hole in the north tower. That hole looked like a portal to some dimension of hell, with flames shooting out and paper cascading through the air and down to the street like confetti. The engine of a large jet plane had landed—intact—just a few feet from the front door I’d strolled through a half hour earlier. It was the size of a small building.

“Don’t go over there,” another onlooker said to me, gesturing toward the West Side Highway. “They’re saying there are body parts there.”

My eyes stayed fixed on the flaming hole. A few stick figure shapes tumbled out from time to time among the fluttering paper. I asked myself if those could be people and told myself there was no way.

Suddenly, a low frequency hum sounded overhead and began to grow louder. A flash of an airplane was briefly visible in the narrow gaps of bright blue sky between several office buildings, and then the loudest sound I’d ever heard overtook the world. It was a sound with its own gravity. A true stereo surround-sound that wasn’t something you heard from the outside, but more experienced from within.

The group of gawkers and gapers, myself included, transitioned from stunned shock to a loosely organized panic. This wasn’t an accident after all. Someone was really pissed off at someone here. Yeah, that was the painfully obvious observation that crossed my mind at that moment. I did that thing they always tell you not to do, and ran upstairs to grab my keys and wallet.

I looked down at my stupid Winnie the Pooh watch. (What 23 year-old woman wears a Winnie the Pooh watch?) “I don’t think we’re going back to work today,” I told my co-worker. My second brilliant observation in as many seconds. To the west was the highway and water, parts of airplanes—and worse. To the south was more water. To the north was an inferno. There was only one way to go: East to the Brooklyn Bridge, toward home. Sirens blared from every direction and helicopters whirred in the sky. People rushed instinctively eastward in an anxious herd that seemed on the verge of erupting into a dangerous mob at any minute.

By the time I reached the Brooklyn Bridge, I was with two different co-workers, both of whom, like me, were in their early twenties. We hopped a railing to the pedestrian walkway of the bridge and helped as many other people as we could over the barrier. A man walking the other way mumbled something about a car bomb in Washington, D.C. I was annoyed with him for spreading rumors and panic. I had an odd moment of gratitude for wearing sensible shoes today. We began a mass exodus toward Brooklyn, and were nearing the middle of the bridge when it began to tremble. 

Everyone on the bridge turned around to look.

The south tower—the second hit—was the first to fall, and it fell in spectacular fashion. Really, there’s no other word for it. No frame of reference for the human mind and eye to process the sight, sound, and smell of a hundred-story skyscraper groaning, buckling, and flattening straight to the ground, leaving in its wake a black, impenetrable cloud of gray dust and smoke. In an instant, that jewel of the New York City skyline—only a few years older than me and--like me and all buildings--immortal, had simply ceased to exist. 

Grief and its twin sister—shock—rushed in, but there was no time for either.

An earthquake followed that probably lasted about ten seconds, though it felt like more. The bridge shook harder, and I began to entertain the possibility of its collapse as I quickly surveyed the cables I was sure I’d be clinging to at any moment.

I turned to my co-worker: “Wait a minute . . . Do you think we're gonna die?” I asked her. I was really racking up the stupid questions and observations today.

“Of course not!” she scoffed. “We can’t die! We’re too young!” But she didn’t sound convinced of her own assurances.

Because for ten seconds on the Brooklyn Bridge, I (and probably lots of other people) was one hundred percent convinced I was about to die. Time stood still and all was quiet. I felt totally calm and at peace. I felt prepared to fight for survival, but I also felt ready to accept whatever was about to happen to my body. In those ten seconds, my view of death changed forever. The end result is that I’m no longer afraid of that moment. I’m afraid of dying for many other reasons, of course, but not the actual moment of death, or at least not in the same way.

When I think of that moment on the Brooklyn Bridge, I think of everyone who died both on 9/11 and in countless other acts of war around the world. That moment makes me hope that maybe these people did not actually die in abject terror and despair, as circumstances would suggest. But that rather, at least at the end, they were simply at peace and open to whatever was in store after this life.

Back at the rest stop near Boston, I cried in the driver’s seat of my damaged Honda Civic. I cried in frustration at the ridiculous stupidity of this car accident in light of everything that had just happened.  My parents’ next-door neighbor and friend, Bill McGinn, was a lieutenant in the first FDNY fire company to respond to the World Trade Center. He was married with two young kids, and he never came home from work again. My office building wouldn’t re-open for almost two months. When it did, acrid air still hung in such a pall over lower Manhattan that people wore surgical masks at their desks. 

I was three weeks away from my twenty-fourth birthday. My dad showed up, and I was on my way home. I was lucky this time. 

And I knew it.

This post is adapted from a story I told last year at Mudrooms, a very cool story-telling event in Juneau.

Print by Judy Filarecki


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