Stories Told

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.