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My 9/11 memory

I’ve meant to tell the story of my 9/11 experience for years. As I’m sure it is for most Americans, the memory comes with considerable sadness and some pain, so I keep putting it off. Now here’s the 20th anniversary of that terrible day and I still haven’t done it. So I’m writing it now. I am sure the telling will be rough and uneven — I usually work on a story like this little by little for a long time in advance, including several editorial passes to make it just right. I’m not doing that today. I’m just getting the words out there. Perhaps on 9/11 anniversaries to come, I’ll revise and republish this story.

After 20 years, some details of even such a momentous day get lost in the tangled web of memory. Some elements of this story might be flat wrong, but they’re as right as I can make them. This is another reason to write this story now: so I don’t forget even more of it.

Twenty years ago this morning I awoke in a bed with my children in a motel room we’d rented for the week. Because of serious problems draining water in our home, we were having all of the plumbing under our house replaced. It was wicked expensive. It’s remarkable how much you take for granted being able to flush a toilet, take a shower, or pour water down the drain until you can’t do it anymore. It makes a house a lot less useful. I was still married to my first wife then, and she was sleeping in the house overnight with our dogs, who weren’t allowed in the motel.

I got the kids up, fed them breakfast, and took them home. Their mom had arranged with neighbors to use their bathrooms when necessary. She would cook on our gas grill for lunch. She had a strong survivalist bent and had recently ended her time in the United States Army — she was fully in her element, figuring out how to make life work under challenging circumstances.

As I pulled into the parking lot at work the radio played a quirky album rock station that was on the air here in Indianapolis then. I was only half listening to their regular newscast when it reported that a plane that had apparently flown into one tower of the World Trade Center.

It defied belief. I didn’t look to this radio station as a real source for news, so I punched the button for the city’s primary news station to find that they were running the ABC radio network feed, a very unusual move for that fiercely independent news station. ABC reported the same thing.

I raced into the building and upstairs to my desk, where I the phone was ringing. It was my wife, anguished, crying. She was watching Today and had seen the first plane hit. She had been talking to the lead plumber in our living room, and he was a Vietnam vet. When he saw the plane hit, he had a full PTSD meltdown in our living room. I don’t remember the conversation in detail anymore but I do remember that she was deeply torn up that she had recently exited the Army, as she believed her place was to be in service to her country at this critical time. It cut her to the quick that the phone was not ringing with an order for her to report.

I said I’d come right home; she said stay right at work, as there was nothing I could do and she would push through her feelings.

At work, at first the atmosphere was of shock and disbelief. Nobody had a television, and the Internet was neither as rich nor as reliable as it is today. It’s hard to believe it now, given the ubiquity of these things, but nobody had a smartphone and there was no Wi-Fi. The company did, however, have a high-bandwidth wired connection to the Internet, and given our work as software developers we all had powerful computers on our desktops. I searched the Internet for news. In those days, streaming video was in its infancy. But I found a live stream of, I think, ABC News on the Web site of, I think, Channel 6 in Indianapolis. I let it play all day. I have a memory, one I can’t verify, of watching the second plane hit and, later, the towers falling, live. It’s hard to remember for sure, and I’ve seen video of both events several dozen times since.

Many in the office were not able to connect to live streams, not even the one I had found — such was the state of streaming then. People came and went from my cubicle to watch the story unfold. As it unfolded, I became numb to it. I got no work done that day. I imagine few, if any, of us did.

The executive team was away at a retreat and planning session amid a challenging business forecast. Our small software company had gone public during the dot-com bubble, which burst in 2000. The stock-market decline that followed put the pinch on our company’s valuation, and if I recall correctly the economic situation led to falling sales.

They returned the following day, having abandoned their retreat. They said that they accomplished nothing, and sat watching the news together all day.

I remember this as a turning point in this company’s future. Sales continued to miss the mark. We had already had a couple of layoffs, and they continued every quarter. In January of 2002, my number was up in one of those layoffs. A private equity firm bought the company in 2003 and later merged it with a few other companies in similar lines of business; the resulting company still operates today.

At the end of the work day on 9/11, I no longer remember whether I went home or met my family at the hotel. I no longer remember what we talked about or how we felt. I do remember the incredible feeling of national unity that followed; it lasted weeks, maybe months. I wish it had lasted for years. I regret how divided an fragmented we have become in the 20 years since.

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19 thoughts on “My 9/11 memory

    • This memory is still painful after 20 years, but I feel fortunate to live in Indiana, so many miles away from New York City. One of my oldest friends works in New York City, and did on 9/11 as well. She had to walk all the way home to Hoboken, New Jersey that day, amid the smoke and rubble.

      • it’s really terrible
        Here in Europe we have also seen all these terrifying images and now the television is talking about this painful birthday.
        At the end of 1979 I had the good fortune to be able to go to the United States, I was young, I went there alone and I spent three days in NY when I arrived, I saw the twins standing towers

  1. It’s really inspiring, Jim. I suppose I should write about it on my blog… but if I comment here, somebody might actually see it…

    It’s funny how it seems kind of “recent”, but you’re right, so much has changed. It’s hard to remember that day in detail. What I do remember was hearing about it first on the ICQ chat client I had installed on my work computer. My friend Jody down in Dallas told me a plane had crashed into one of the WTC towers. My first thought was of that plane that hit the Empire State Building many years ago. You know, “Wow, what a terrible accident…” I never thought it was deliberate. But then when I heard the second tower was hit, that’s when it sank in. This was no accident.

    That was a wild day. I do remember all the rumours. The White House had been hit. The Capitol Building had been attacked (hmm, suddenly that doesn’t seem so incredible…). The Pentagon. How many planes were hijacked? Where? In how many countries? Nobody knew for sure what was real and what was just hysteria. Sitting there at work back in 2001 it was kind of hard to get the news or see what was going on. My mother called me up, urging me to go home. I worked in a three-story building, on the ground floor. She was worried it would get attacked… flown into. I told her I thought the terrorists had a lot of more important targets before they got to around to a business low-rise in Buttonville outside Toronto.

    I do remember that work pretty much stopped that day, and that some people did head home, and that management was okay with it. I remember how strange it was over the next few days not seeing a single plane in the sky, since we’d shut the airspace over whole continent down to everyone but the military. Empty skies for the first time in 50 years.

    I recall wondering how the world was going to change in the aftermath of it all. I remember Jody, probably the most peaceful, cynical, and globalist guy I knew, smarting enough that he just wanted to lob nukes at whoever was responsible… he felt ashamed of that within days, if not hours, but I totally understood it. Even I kind of felt that way. Luckily cooler heads prevailed. I think we lost some innocence, some arrogance that this side of the world was isolated and untouchable, and some of the freedom and privilege we blithely took for granted eroded to some extent. I remember arguing with Dad about whether or not we had grounds to invade Afghanistan. Canadians used to be able to visit the US without a passport… that ended. Arriving three, four hours before your flight, even domestic… that became a thing, and it still is. A lot changed and has stayed changed. Unquestionably the defining moment of the first quarter of the 21st century.

    • Your story unlocked more of mine. I had much the same reaction – I remembered the plane accident into the Empire State Building and assumed this was an accident too. Though I had a sense of foreboding that it might not be, given how direct the hit was. Then the second plane, then the Pentagon, then the field in Pennsylvania — these were no accidents. Then on TV the face of Pres. Bush when he was told.

  2. Shirley B. says:

    Thanks for sharing, Jim. Like most of you, I will always remember where I was when I heard about the first plane hitting the WTC.

    I was in my car, about to drive home from work. I turned on the radio and heard the DJ’s talk about disaster in the WTC. We in The Netherlands have our own WTC, in Amsterdam, so I thought it was about that one. It soon became clear they were talking about the twin towers in NY…

    I arrived home 20 minutes later, turned on the TV, switched to CNN and sat down… totally horrified about what had happened on the other side of the Atlantic. In America, the land that protected us like a big brother. The land I admired so much, ever since I was a child.

    I couldn’t tear myself away from the screen. I saw the footage of the first plane hitting the tower repeatedly. I watched direct coverage and after some time I saw the second plane hit. What an awful sight …

    Watching as much as I could of what was going on. And realising this was not a movie. This was actually happening as I watched it…

    I will always remember those images. The horror of that day. Empathising with those who were left behind, knowing I would never be able to fully comprehend their loss.

    That people did this willingly … is something that I will never understand.

  3. I still freeze it out of my reality … I lived in NYC and NJ …was in NJ when it happened, but could still smell it 25 miles away!!! I go into a bad place every year when it’s “celebrated” I guess I want to say is don’t forget, but stop picking the scab every year!

  4. tbm3fan says:

    Being in California and 3 hours behind all this happened before I got up at 7:30 AM. I was alerted by my mother calling me on the phone and I heard her crying which I had never heard before. She said turn the TV on. Both parents were born and raised in NYC. One in Manhattan and mother in the Bronx. I was born in lower Bronx. So obviously hit her hard.

  5. I remember watching it on the TV. It was a world changing moment. We are living through another such moment now. I don’t think I will ever feel really comfortable in a large crowd again. Or a tall building….

  6. DougD says:

    Geez, 20 years already.

    On 9/11 I was on my motorcycle, heading back from a cottage we were sharing with another family. Tammy and the kids were staying a bit longer, hence the motorcycle. No phone at the cottage, no radio on the motorcycle so I had no idea while it was happening. I saw something was up when I stopped for gas, but didn’t realize the full horror until I got home at 7pm. My main thought was is this the end of it? What might happen next?

    The small airport near our house took 4 diverted flights. My regret of the day was that I could have taken some people in but didn’t know about the need.
    Tammy called me from a payphone the next morning and asked “So what’s new in the world?” and I said “Nothing you want to know about” so she completely missed it by about 3 days.

  7. A well written post Jim! I agree with you about the unity. Hard to believe the enemy gave that to us by their actions and look what we’re doing to one another now. Ironic. Thanks for sharing this.

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