It was just a little warmer that morning 20 years ago. But the same blue sky. I’m flooded with emotions – remembering the horror and fear, the thunderstorm the next night when I found myself standing by the bed screaming, having been awakened by thunder in the middle of the night.
But I also remember how uncomfortable I felt as everyone trotted out the flag and vowed revenge. I had just interviewed a ton of scientists about climate change. The IPCC had just convened and issued its report; the National Science Foundation had just issued a report on global warming. The first sentence referred to clear, compelling evidence of anthropomorphic climate change. But Bush wasn’t interested. He pushed it aside. Then the US pulled out of talks on racism in Durban, South Africa. Israel objected to Palestinians having been invited. They were boycotting. So we were too. (Sounds an awful lot like cancel culture, btw.) The US seemed tone deaf and utterly out of step with science and the rest of the world.
Then came that day. Max, my nephew wasn’t quite two years old. I was out in the garden, so proud of myself for having earned my first chunk of money as a consultant. I think it was $12,000 for 120 hours of work. I felt rich. I was lazing in the garden, doing the crossword puzzle and listening to NPR. When the alert came about a fire at the World Trade Center, I ran inside and turned on the TV. My (at the time) brother was a report for CBS and lived a block from the World Trade Center, so I figured he’d be covering it.
The picture was crazy – someone running with a camera. Rubble and sky and dust and street. I flipped channels to NBC and saw the picture of the first tower on fire. I called my brother’s apartment. My sister-in-law answered. She was terrified. Come uptown now, I suggested. But she said she needed to wait for my brother to call. I hung up and watched the TV. The fire seemed to jump from one tower to the next. How could that happen? They’re not that close to each other…then Janice Huff, the weather person, called her own station. Her voice sounded sleepy, like this was the first sentence she uttered. She told the anchors to look at the tape. It was a second plane.
I called Elizabeth again. She was understandably panicked. What if the buildings fall down? She asked. That’s not going to happen, I said. But still I told her she needed to get out of there and come uptown. She said she couldn’t leave. I had heard that the C train was still running. I’m coming to get you, I told her. I hung up and debated – I could ride my bike or take the train. Train seemed more plausible. I ran to the 86th Street station. There were several of us waiting. The C train came; we got on. We stopped at 81st Street, 72nd Street and then, as we neared 59th Street, the train stopped. No announcement. Just stopped. Minutes went by, and in the lengthening fluorescence I began to think how stupid I had been getting into a train, underground. Only a few months before there had been a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. And we knew we were in the middle of a terrorist attack.
Seemed that almost everyone in the train car had some moment of wondering if this we were going to die together. We all began to chat, asking questions about each others’ work and families, about what we had seen on television, about the plans for the day that had just been interrupted.
A woman sitting next to me was from Romania and needed directions to someplace. I don’t remember where. I said I would help her when we got off the train.
An hour and a half went by. Finally the train inched into the 59th Street station and an announcer told us that was it. Trains weren’t going further. Above ground, already there was a silent march of white soot covered people with briefcases walking back uptown. Eyes fixed forward. I tried to call Elizabeth, but I couldn’t get a cell signal. I wasn’t going to be able to get her on foot, so I turned and walked back uptown, this time up the West Drive in Central Park.
What a strangely untouched world in the park. Runners, skaters, bikers, sun dappled trees. How could they? Did they know? Were they oblivious? I walked home and tried calling from a landline, but still couldn’t get through.
I called my brother. He had spoken to Elizabeth. She had gotten out and was on her way to a friend’s house on the Upper East Side. They were ok, Max and Elizabeth. The buildings were gone.
I had to do something. Something to combat terrorism. I needed to bridge gaps in understanding. But I had no skills. No economics, no biochemical engineering. I couldn’t build a water system or an electric grid. I looked on the UN website. No jobs I was qualified for. I began looking for not-for-profits where I could volunteer. I entered my criteria: global, dialogue, empowerment. A few options came up. I wrote them all.
One option, the one that would change my life, was American Jewish World Services. I sent them an email then walked down to the Red Cross with my neighbor to donate blood.
The lines were long at the Red Cross. I was right ahead of a woman who was there with a few younger people. Strangely familiar woman. Finally, realizing that I was staring, I apologized and said, it’s just that you look so much like Ruth Messenger. Good thing, she said. Because I am.
We laughed. That was it. Eventually someone sent us away. The blood supply wasn’t an issue. There were too many of us and, well, very few injuries. Just death. We walked home.