This morning on Facebook I saw a lot of posts about September 11, 2001. Of course this is a date that everyone will remember and think about on the anniversary. One of the posts was by my friend Terri. Her son Matthew, who was a baby then, had a homework assignment to interview someone who remembered 9/11. He interviewed his Mom. That resonated with me, because I was at her house in Washington DC that morning.
We all have our stories of that day. Where we were. What we did. How we reacted. This is mine. I don't think I have any great revelations here, or insights. But Terri's post reminded me we now have children who don't remember, and those who were not born yet to whom this is just history and not memory. We should share those stories, not just because we should never forget, but because they help unite us in our humanity.
At the time my friend Fred (whose name regular readers of the blog will recognize as my collaborator of the Grey Legacy comics), was living in an apartment in the house of our mutual friends Terri and Peter in Capitol Hill, about three blocks from the Capitol building. I had driven to DC from Pittsburgh to visit all of them and to see the musician PJ Harvey at the 9:30 Club on the evening of 9/10. She was on tour for her Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea album and played an amazing show. I think that's the night Fred and I walked all the way back home in the middle of the night instead of waiting for a cab.
I had planned to leave early the next day. All of my friends had to go to work, and my car was illegally parked and I wanted to escape the city before getting a ticket. Peter had left for work and Terri had taken Matthew to his daycare, then returned home to get ready for work herself. Fred and I were up, having breakfast and watching one of the morning news shows. I don't remember which one, but at the end of the hour they were planning on interviewing a British man who was the world's foremost “Ugly Model.” I don't know why I remember that detail, because we never got to see the interview.
Someone broke into the show with garbled information about a plane having crashed into the World Trade Center. Like everyone, we watched in horror as the story unfolded. I can't remember the exact timing, but Terri had seen the news and came down to Fred's apartment to make sure we knew and were watching. We saw the second plane crash into the tower live.
The one thing I specifically remember Terri saying is, “Do you think the Towers might actually collapse?”
The panic hadn't quite set in yet, and Terri decided to call off work and go pick up Matthew at daycare. Fred decided to go with her, and they have their own stories of traffic and confusion. I went to my car to go home.
The route I took out of DC took me past the Pentagon as I made my way to the George Washington Parkway (not the way I usually went, but I think I made an accidental detour). I was very conscious of the low-flying planes coming and going from Ronald Reagan Airport and Dulles. I made it to the Parkway and onto the Beltway and out of DC with very little difficulty. The second tower was hit at 9:03. The Pentagon was hit at 9:37. I drove past the Pentagon during that short thirty-four minute window.
I drove home. I took Route 68 through Maryland instead of the Pennsylvania Turnpike because I had planned on going to my parents house in Greene County, south of Pittsburgh. Very early in the trip I started to get a migraine, something that happens to me periodically. I'm sure the lack of sleep and stress of the morning contributed. I remember it being a really horrible trip. I made the whole four-plus hour drive without hearing any news. Somewhere along 68 I stopped at a convenience store to use the restroom and buy some painkillers. The entire rest stop was in an uproar. They were talking about blocking off the parking lot and closing down and there was a general air of panic. I didn't catch all of it because my head was killing me, so I did what I needed to do and left.
After the fact I looked at some maps and saw that the rest stop was not very far south of Shanksville, PA.
I arrived at Mom and Dad's in the early afternoon. They weren't home. I immediately turned on the TV and the very first image I saw was the smoking Pentagon. That was really when the first real sense of the enormity of the whole thing hit me. I had just been there. I had just seen the Pentagon. When I heard when this happened I realized how close I had been. That was when it really became real to me. In the next few minutes I saw the film of the collapse of the Towers and Terri's words came back to me. I spent the rest of that day trying, futilely, to reach her and Fred (they were all right).
And that's really it for my story. The rest was shock and mourning, like everyone else. I didn't personally know anyone in the Towers or the Pentagon, or on the planes. I know people who were there. I have a cousin who was in New York. She had an appointment at the World Trade Center later that day, but hadn't left her hotel yet. She was among the people who walked out of town. One of my customers at Phantom of the Attic was on the New York subway and didn't know anything was going on at all until he came up onto the sidewalk in time to see the dust cloud and a collapsing building.
I think it's important to remember. I think it's also important not to let this wound define us. That day, and in the days after, we were united as a nation in our grief. That unity, one based on recognizing our shared humanity, is what I think is most important to remember. The victims of 9/11 were men and women, straight and gay, conservative and liberal, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist and all the others. So were the first responders and heroes of that day. All of these differences ceased to matter in the face of catastrophe and death. No one stopped to ask religion or party affiliation. In those terrible moments we were all human first, and the natural reaction to other human beings who were suffering was to help.
That gives me hope. That is what we should remember.