We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/09/11/art.911nj.jpg caption="2006 Memorial in Jersey City, NJ for victims of the September 11 attacks, looking out at the NYC skyline."]
Seven years ago this morning a ringing phone woke me. I glanced at the clock; it was sometime after 9 a.m. I picked up and heard my friend Catherine asking with urgency, "Are you watching this? Is your television on?" It wasn't. A storm the previous night had knocked out the satellite dish at the cabin north of Manhattan where I'd been spending weekends.
Sept. 11, 2001 fell on a weekend for me. At the time I was a news writer at a weekend broadcast at another network and Monday and Tuesday were my days off.
"Two planes crashed into the twin towers," Catherine continued. It took a moment for her words to sink in. After shaking the sleep from my brain, I thanked her for the heads up and flipped on the radio in time to hear that a plane had hit the Pentagon. I began tossing my clothes into my duffle bag. Before I'd finished packing up, the World Trade Center’s south tower fell. I wouldn't see the images until much later that day. The radio channel with the best reception at the cabin was broadcasting Dan Rather's reporting. Listening to him describe the tower as it crumbled, my mind's eye filled in the horrifying blanks.
I jumped into my car and began the drive home, which normally took 90 minutes. This day it would take almost five hours. The closer I got the slower my progress. Manhattan was sealed off by this point and I knew there was no chance of reaching the newsroom. I was aiming for Hoboken, just across the Hudson River, where I lived at the time. I remember talking to my sister on my cell phone as I drove. She said something along the lines of, "Are you nuts? Why are you going back to a city under attack?" She'd been watching the horror unfold all day on television. It's an old but true saw: Journalists run toward disasters when everyone else is fleeing. But it wasn't just a professional reflex. I literally felt an urgency to be at home, with loved ones, in my city under attack.
As I drove I couldn't shake the thought that the death toll would be enormous, perhaps in the tens of thousands. (Mercifully, far fewer would perish, but at the time no one knew how many had escaped the towers before they fell.)
As I got close to the city, on the New Jersey side of the river, the smell hit me. A thick odor announced the clouds of smoke that soon loomed in the distance. This is as close as I would get to Ground Zero that day. Manned roadblocks prevented access into Hoboken from the highways. Police were directing cars west. Having a driver's license with a Hoboken address didn't make a difference. Hoboken and Jersey City, both with ferry landings, were still considered evacuation points for the injured if needed.
Heading west, I stopped at the first hotel I saw. The lobby was packed; I wasn't the only one stranded so close to home. There were no rooms available so I squeezed into the crowd gathered around the lobby’s enormous television. Finally, I saw the towers falling.
I called a friend in a nearby suburb and made my way to his house, where I huddled on the sofa-bed deep into the night, with the television turned down low, unable to sleep. I couldn't shake the thought that all the men and women who had perished in the attacks had been safe in their beds 24 hours earlier, many curled next to wives and husbands, their lives ahead of them.
The next morning, Hoboken was unsealed and so was Manhattan. I drove home, changed my clothes and walked to the ferry landing a few blocks from my house. What I remember best is the smell and smoke and quiet. As I walked from the subway stop at 66th street to my newsroom, the streets were oddly and unnervingly empty.
This morning, in my apartment that faces south toward where the WTC once loomed, I watched the 9-11 coverage on TV. When the bells clanged to mark the minute when each tower fell, my mind's eye, once again, filled in the blanks.
Filed under: September 11th Anniversary
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