I was just out the door and headed to work when my father called my cell phone. That’s strange, I thought, it’s early back home. My parents live near Washington, D.C. I lived in Silicon Valley.
“Turn on your TV,” my dad said.
“What’s going on?” I asked, “I’m just leaving for work.”
“Turn it on,” he repeated.
Ten years later, I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember the exact chronology of the day, and I’m deliberately not looking it up for this remembrance. When I turned on the television, the first tower had been hit and was smoldering. It was still unclear what had happened and, at least to the layman like me, the notions that we had been attacked or that the building might topple were equally unthinkable.
The commentators sifted through information as quickly as it came in, but for me, the TV already had gone silent.
My mind returned to the Summer of 1997. I had just finished my second (2L) year of law school and spent the Summer working at a law firm in New York City. I lived in Greenwich Village with two friends and classmates, Jonathan and Josh. I worked as far downtown as one possibly could, right on the water in the Goldman Sachs building. From my office on the 39th floor, I could see both the Statue of Liberty and the helipad where the President lands. President Clinton arrived once that Summer. At the southern tip of the City with that view, Manhattan became special to me. The building directly next door is home to the venerable law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which figures later in this account.
During those hot weeks of Summer, I took the subway to work in the morning and a car service home late at night. I regularly worked on the weekend, but my routine was different. I enjoyed walking home—a decent hike—and always followed the same path for one reason alone – to see the Twin Towers.
They were magical. I would crane my neck to the sky, always trying in vain to judge their height even though I knew how many stories they had. It really didn’t matter. They were inconceivably high. At one point during the Summer, a partner at the firm took me to lunch at Windows On The World, the restaurant at the summit of one tower. I knew I was high up, but it was still hard to tell just how high. But I already had figured out that the real way to appreciate their height was from the ground. I can’t imagine that anyone who enjoyed that vantage point even once didn’t feel like a kid again.
Yet the Towers’ height was never what impressed me the most. That was the width of their bases. They were wider than any building I’d ever seen. Even at that age, I wanted to see how quickly I could run around one. I never did. Their bases left one with the feeling that no matter what Nature might throw at them, they were impregnable. They were fortresses, and thinking of them as such always made me feel safe in their shadows.
I was back now in my living room in San Mateo, CA. I kept watching. Both Towers. The Pentagon. Which building is next? It seems surreal today to think that commentators were making such predictions, but they did. Chicago’s Sears Tower seemed obvious. San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid…? Talk of widespread national attacks—but by whom?—was rampant. I don’t believe anyone was foolish enough to believe that they couldn’t be next.
The Towers were now ablaze. When the first fell, my heart stopped. The bases, I thought, how can this be? I couldn’t process what I’d just seen. And then the second Tower. I don’t remember whether I wanted to cry, but I can tell you ten years later that I wouldn’t have been able to. I was paralyzed.
What can I do? I thought of my parents close to Washington. So many friends in D.C. What’s next? Congress and The White House seemed like obvious, easy targets.
Then New York. Friends there too. Where were they? Were they safe? It would prove impossible to make contact for some time, although one friend found a way to make a call to his parents and give updates on as many people as possible. I would later learn that one law school classmate who was clerking for a federal judge at Foley Square, within blocks of the Towers, had seen people jump to their deaths.
My fears, however, now centered on Sullivan & Cromwell, where my friend and law school apartment mate, Brent, was an associate. How was he going to get out of downtown? Within hours of the attack, downtown Manhattan was covered with ash both in the air and on the ground. I surmised that he was trapped. Maybe that was a good thing, but how could I know?
I went to work later that day. Continuing with life even on that day seemed appropriate, if only to quell the fear that surrounded us all. Everyone at the office was watching large-screen televisions that had been stationed in the cafeteria. Everyone. I stayed just to have friends around me.
By the end of the day and over the coming weeks, we all saw the horrific footage of the Towers falling hundreds of times. None of that footage could show the thousands of Americans (and others) trapped inside, or the heroic firemen who ran inside and up stairwells to help. Some succeeded; too many died. The number of heroes that day cannot be counted. And ten years later, so many stories have yet to be told – and likely never will be.
September 11, 2001 was the second time in my life that I felt both powerless as an American and that America was powerless. The first was on the afternoon of January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy.
It didn’t take long to reach the point where I could no longer watch 9-11 footage. I haven’t seen it in years, but I will watch it today. I owe at least that much.