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Thursday, September 11, 2003

The Day.

[Language alert]

I didn't write anything about last year's anniversary. I didn't know what to say. I don't know that I will ever fully be able to grasp it. I only write now so that my children will have their father's thoughts on why, in a corner of his mind and soul, it's still and always Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

I may be the only person in America not to see either Tower fall "live." The Day had begun very, very early. My daughter, Madeleine, was beginning her fifth day on this earth, having been born on September 6. The evening of September 10 through the wee hours of September 11 had been an angry, angry time for her. She refused to sleep or otherwise be consoled. As new, first time parents, Heather and I began to wonder why competent hospital neonatal caregivers had entrusted a beautiful infant like Maddie to knuckledragging incompetents like ourselves. The long and short of it was that, after a trip to the 7-11 for batteries, I managed to get all of about 2 and a half hours of nonconsecutive sleep. Still, I woke to an otherwise beautiful day, even though I thought there was exactly zero chance I'd appreciate it.

I hobbled into work at 8:30am, riding the elevator up to the 8th floor. As is usually the case, arriving at my cubicle, I called up the news pages to get updated and plotted my trip to the basement cafeteria for a cup of coffee. About 20 minutes later, the Drudge Report ran an alert about a plane crashing into one of the WTC towers. With no other details, I shrugged it off, thinking it comparable to the tragedy involving the B-25 that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1947--bad weather, or engine trouble on a smaller plane. Sad, but I was not thinking epochal.

I went down to get the coffee. People were staring at the monitors. There was a lot of smoke, but no one knew what to make of it yet. The second plane had not arrived.

I grabbed my coffee and returned to work. I spoke to a local HR guy with whom I was trying to negotiate a settlement (it later worked out). I offhand mentioned the WTC crash, and he then told me that they were not little planes, they were airliners.


A second one? My stomach sank, and I quickly excused myself from the conversation, which he understood. He was contemplating leaving work himself. I then called Heather, who was mercifully asleep. I told her that two planes had hit the towers, which made it almost certainly terrorism, but nobody at the office had said anything about closing down the building (which houses several federal agencies). I might be coming home early.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than my boss walked up to me, saying he was leaving and it was a good idea that I do the same. You have to understand that this man is virtually unflappable. The only reason I use "virtually" is that I saw his face that day. Heather still on the line, I told her plans had changed and that I was on my way home.

Others were leaving too, circulating wild rumors that someone had heard planes were heading to Chicago. At that moment, everything was plausible. I rode the elevator down in silence. I almost certainly wasn't alone, but I don't recall anyone else being in the elevator with me. As I walked out, I passed Customs agents and Federal Protective Services officers deployed in full armor with weapons at the ready, patrolling in deadly earnest. Not much use against the horrors that struck that day, but I still envied them. At least they were able to respond somehow.

I made for my car in a daze, again in silence. I drove off from the garage and listen to the all-news station. By the time I was on the Interstate, it was 10:30. The shaken CBS announcer then recapped the events by saying "The Towers are gone. ..."

Gone. He then said they'd collapsed one after the other this morning following the airplane strikes. Casualties were unknown, but could be upwards of 10,000, including several hundred firefighters who rushed into the buildings to help....

Oh, shit. Son of a bitch. 10,000 dead. I could grasp that vaguely, but the hundreds of firemen--that figure I felt in my gut. I began to twist my steering wheel in helpless fury, the tears starting. My dad is a fireman, retired in October 2001 (it had been in the works long before 9/11) after a 32-year career which saw him rise to Chief. He's run into more burning buildings than he'll ever tell Mom, me or my brother Doug. We were raised by one, and around his fireman brothers. I am proud to know them by their first names.

He's seen more charred bodies and destroyed lives, grief, greed and stupidity than I can imagine. He's had people vomit as he gave them CPR, he's been forced to work his way through the wreckage of a destroyed illegal fireworks factory (which took its proprietors with it)--and that's just two that I know of. This is just from working as a volunteer for a small rural department. But they're cut from the same cloth as their urban brothers--self-sacrificing, rough around the edges, rowdy, big-hearted guys who don't get paid enough, in respect or money, for what they have to see and do.

It was very easy to believe that hundreds of his brothers were killed that day. And they were.

I got home. Heather had seen the towers fall, and met me on our deck. I went inside, and held my daughter, blissfully, mercifully unaware of the carnage replaying on the screen. She had been born in one world, but like the rest of us now lives in another.

The rest of the day passed in a numb haze, made more surreal by the perfect summer quality of the weather. I reassured my parents that I was OK, holding Maddie as I did so (our one picture of 9/11 shows her yawning at me as I talk on the phone). The only other news event I recall clearly was the announcement by one of the newsmen that a couple of aircraft carriers and their escorts were leaving Norfolk to, as it turned out, provide air cover for Washington and New York.

But, I remember it because, at the time, I thought: "Yes--go kill them." I had to wait four weeks for that to come true, but the sentiment hasn't really wavered in the past two years. As has been ably stated, they came here to kill us. That they didn't kill my wife and newborn daughter was simply a function of location, location, location. After all, they gleefully murdered two-year-old Christine Hanson and her parents on the way to DisneyWorld. They just haven't quite figured out the jihad potential of Detroit and its landmarks yet. But they might.

Which is why it's always September 11 in part of my mind and soul, and I've had no day since where I haven't thought about it.

May God forbid that 9/11 ever be replaced by another date. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm out of bounds to worry that it could.

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