Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
A generation ago, the question was, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?”
For my generation, there are too many questions. Tragedies and calamities abound in our collective memories, but one question that will be asked again and again is, “Where were you on 9/11?”
At this time of year, that question doesn’t even have to be asked.
I was at home in northern Virginia with a cup of tea and a newspaper in my hand, standing in the breakfast room and looking out into the backyard through the bay windows. N was already at the baby sitter’s and V was on his way to work.
Three days ago, N and I had returned home from a six-week trip to India.
I savored all the little things I had taken for granted, but had missed sorely when I was away from home.
Outside, the sky was blue, cloudless, bright with that early fall sunshine that was not too hot on the skin. A slight breeze ruffled only the tops of the tall trees in the backyard. Everything looked fresh, clean.
Inside, Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson’s easy, morning talk show banter filled the silence in an otherwise quiet house.
In Diane Sawyer’s voice. In Charlie Gibson’s voice. The banter was gone. Replaced by broken sentences, words that were coming out staccato. Too many pauses in between. They were searching for words, for understanding, for any information that would explain what has just happened. I turned to look at the TV screen.
There were no video shots yet. Just two lines repeated over and over – the Vice-President of CNN had seen a plane crashing into the Twin Towers. His office had a direct view of the World Trade Center.
I flipped furiously to the other channels – NBC, CBS, CNN.
The first images that replaced the Good Morning America studio scene were shots of the Twin Towers, smoke billowing out of a gaping hole near the top of one of them.
None of the TV channels had any confirmation of the news that a plane had crashed into one of the towers, yet. The discussion focussed on whether there was an explosion in the building. Or speculation that may be it was a helicopter or one of those chartered planes. They are known to fly low, staying just above the Manhattan skyline, sometimes even seeming to dip in between the buildings. At this point, there was no thought (at least none that was voiced) that it was anything but an accident.
I called V, who was still on the road, on his way to his office about eight miles away.
I watched the TV screen, describing the scene to him. Then I saw a plane entering the screen from the center-right side. My first reaction was, “God, how stupid is he? He’s too close to the buildings!”
Within a few seconds the plane rammed into the other tower. A ball of fire followed by an inferno, black smoke.
The TV anchors were just repeating what I had said to V when describing the second plane. The theory of the pilot’s stupidity now duelling with the theory that may be, it was not an accident. Compounded by the shock that this was happening twice within the space of a few minutes.
There was no other way of reporting it. They had no more information than I did. The pictures were there for all to see.
There were no backround file photos. No fillers. There was no script.
This was not pre-meditated war. This was not a natural disaster. This was not a multi-car pile-up on some icy interstate.
This was the story of two planes that came out of the clear blue skies that sunny September morning and crashed into the Twin Towers, those pillars of American achievement.
This was as real as TV could get.
I wanted all three of us to be home. Right away.
There was a deep sense of foreboding. Something was not right. I could not explain what I was seeing on TV. The people that were supposed to be able to explain could not, did not, explain what I was seeing on TV.
I wanted V to turn around wherever he was and come right back. I wanted to get N back from the baby sitter.
I could not. I was stuck at home. One of the cars was in the garage for maintenance. V had taken the other. He told me not to worry, that he would be back home as soon as he could and pick up N on the way back.
I’d been standing all this time. As I sat down on the sofa, remote in hand, I heard a loud thud. The windows rattled, the house trembled. Blasting at a construction site, I thought.
Without warning, the the television screens switched to Washington, DC. Claire Shipman was on TV, mike in hand, her back to the Vice-President’s office, plumes of smoke rising from a building behind her.
From one angle, the building behind the Vice-President’s office is the White House. No one was certain what this meant. May be a fire in one of the buildings? At this point, no one, least of all me, was connecting the loud thud with the smoke.
A few minutes later, the connection was clear. A plane’s tail was sticking out of the side of the Pentagon that faces Arlington.
I called V. The cell phone circuits were jammed. I called all of my family that’s in the US, made sure everyone was fine. I called India, told my parents and in-laws we were all fine. Everyone was trying to call everyone else. It took us all a few minutes to reach each other.
I still could not reach V. He managed to call me.
Washington, D.C. was being evacuated. He was turning back. But there was no place to turn. By this time, the morning rush hour had mushroomed into a monster. Two-way roads were switched to one ways, vehicles were going around in circles. Rush hour that was usually uni-directional was becoming bi-directional. All the bridges coming out of Washington, DC into Virginia were choking with the overload.
As V would say later, the evacuees were sitting ducks for anyone wanting to target huge numbers of people with nowhere to go. That evacucation was anything but orderly. It was an unmitigated disaster. It took V three hours to cover the distance that would normally take 30 minutes, to get home.
Still no information on what was happening. I don’t know, may be because of the movies, or may be it is what I was getting used to, may be getting spoiled even – what with all the news channels, all that information, the idea that the nation should know what is going on, the images of Presidents addressing the nation – but I kept thinking, ok, the President will be on any minute. There will be something someone at the White House will say that I want to listen to.
Everyone had their two cents in. Everyone except the people I wanted to hear from. I was waiting for an answer to a simple question, “What is going on?”
The thing is these thoughts rolled through my mind right then. They were not the result of some post-mortem of the events that transpired that day. That day, I realized for the first time that I was looking for something from the government, something other than services or social security programs or budgets, or low interest rates.
The image of David Bloom – with ash, debris on his hair, his voice hoarse, his face gaunt, his eyes red from the dust, from hours of standing on his feet, his back to the falling towers – is the strongest in my mind from all the hours of TV coverage we watched, compulsively.
Then news of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. By this time, the shock was gone. There was the dull realization that whatever this thing was, it was relentless.
Hours, days, later, the stories.
Of bodies flying out of the windows of the towers, a desperate attempt to escape the fire and heat inside. Of policemen and firemen and dogs risking their lives to save others’. Of Todd Beamer and Lisa, the telephone operator who connected him to his pregnant wife, also Lisa, for a final few words before going to meet his death.
Of people trudging home on foot for hours. Of firms losing all their employees in a span of minutes. Of a six-month old baby waiting for her mother to come home and wailing every time the door opened but the mother did not come. Of rows and rows of cars waiting in vain at metro stations in New Jersey for their owners to come drive them home. Of my own neighbors who work at the Pentagon (two of whom died in that attack), coming home shaken, unable to eat for days.
Of depression among the people living around the World Trade Center because they are no longer in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
Their view outside their windows and our view of the world inexorably altered.