Ten years on from September 11 and we still can’t stop thinking about it. The imagery doesn’t degrade with repeated viewings, and neither does that feeling of disconnectedness to the real world, that we’d now entered a new science fictional age where these kinds of things could actually happen and not just be a made-up story on tv.
I can remember feeling that way for months after the attacks, it was a couple of years before the date could come around again and people could feel like treating it somewhat normally. Unlike any previous act of war, we were all able to witness it in real time, no matter where we were, and through tv and the internet we could relive it over and over. The death toll was bad, not nearly as bad as first feared, but unless you were there in lower Manhattan or unless you knew or were related to someone who was, it was the imagery I think that made it so indelible for so long, rather than the loss of life. After all, since then we’ve seen much more massive destruction and greater casualties due to tsunamis and earthquakes, but there wasn’t as much video of those things happening. And of course they didn’t happen to us.
Ten years ago September 11 was on a Tuesday and I took the commuter bus in as I was doing every day. There was expectedly a lot of traffic since it was shortly after the end of summer and everyone was back to work and back to school. But I was in the office shortly before 9, probably right around the time the first plane was hitting its target in New York. We had a standing 9am meeting every Tuesday with our lead business contact, who was late coming over to our building because she’d been watching the tv reports on the trading floor that were talking about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Of course your first thought is a small plane, and from the conference room at 2 International Place you could see Boston’s version of the World Trade Center, which is a smallish convention center across the bridge in the Seaport area. But we went on with our business, until shortly before 10 when one of the managers stuck her head in and said there had been an attack in New York City and that Boston was going to be evacuated as a precaution.
Back at my desk, the internet was jammed, you couldn’t get to any news page, and we didn’t have tvs at IP. The management told everybody to go home and wait for further instructions. The commuter bus only ran during rush hour, so there was no option to take it home, so the only reasonable option was commuter rail. I was able to get a hold of Beth easily enough, she was coming from the mall where Justin was having his picture taken, and she had to pick up Chloe at kindergarten, but then she would drive over to the Framingham train station to meet me (there was no Southborough station until a few years later).
Of course the train station was mobbed, but the T did a good job of just bringing up trains and loading people on and sending them on their way without any conern for a schedule, and the train wasn’t especially crowded, I was probably on it by 11 or so. It took a long time to get to Framingham because they wouldn’t let the train go more then 40 mph or so, there were a couple of guys from New York on the car who were on their cell phones, getting updates from family but also trying to figure out how to get back to New York, their plan was to take the train all the way to Worcester and then rent a car. I had stuff in my briefcase to read, but it didn’t seem like it would be possible to concentrate.
Beth picked me up, the gas gauge was close to empty and I wondered if gas would suddenly be hard to come by, so we got gas in Framingham before heading for home, we might have stopped to grab a sandwich or something along the way too, since it would have been past lunch time by then. I turned on the tv as soon as I was in the house and immediately saw the images of the towers falling, it wasn’t anything like I had visualized, collapsing like a controlled demolition rather than falling over, the whiteout on the ground from the dust. We watched the news for a long time. Later in the afternoon I got a call from one of my co-workers, our senior manager at the time whom none of us particularly liked was worried about whether we could fail over our systems if there was a problem with the servers downtown, but by that point everything had stablizied so it just seemed annoying to even be thinking about work. Some of the traders had headed out to the business continuity site in Westborough, but there weren’t many people to trade with.
The next day it was back to work, back on the bus. The bus driver played the radio news over the speakers on the way in, as new information would still come in occasionally over the constant repetition of the known facts. I even went to the gym at lunch, running on the treadmill while watching the towers collapse over and over on CNN, which seemed inappropriate although I did it anyway. Someone had a Wall Street Journal with the headline “World Trade Center Destroyed”.
Ten years later, much is back to normal, although things are definitely different. We were fortunate that we weren’t directly affected, but you couldn’t help but be emotionally affected. I wasn’t singing in the chorus that year but I did do the pitch at the Messiah Sing that December, and even then, three months later, even that little community event felt different. It was a taste, certainly as much of a taste as you would want, of what it must have been like to live during a war when the war was happening right outside, like London during the Blitz, because we all saw it happen, and could relive it at will through the media. I had been to New York several times but never walked past or set foot inside the WTC. Since then we go down to lower Manhattan pretty much every time we’re in New York, just to see how it’s coming along. The first time was just two years later, in the fall of 2003, when there was a pro bike race held nearby, and we stayed at the Marriott that was just down the street from the towers and had sustained considerable damage of its own. There was still one big office building at that time that was being repaired, with large parts of one side still open to the outside, draped in tarps and scaffolding.
I’m all for commemorating anniversaries, so by all means let’s not let this one pass unremarked. I’d still like to go to Shanksville some time when we’re passing through southern PA. I’d like to see the new memorial park, and check out the new trade center when it’s done. But I for one will be glad when this weekend is over and I can turn on the tv or the radio and not be reminded.