My earliest memory of the World Trade Center was as a small child. My family enjoyed a meal on the 106th floor of the North Tower at the Windows on the World restaurant. I got a bloody nose. We had a great time.
My last memory, at least in-person of the towers was from my 8th grade field trip to the city. It was 1998, I was 13. We made our way through the lobby, I remember how I just kept looking around. It was so grand and enormously powerful to a 13 year old. Up to the observation deck we went. It was a cold and windy day, everyone was talking about how the towers would sway back and forth. While most of my class stayed inside, I went out. I remember just standing there, alone, on top of the world, looking out on to a city I hadn’t yet fallen in love with. I felt the towers gently sway back and forth, back and forth. A very spiritual experience.
Having had a decade to collect my thoughts, you might assume I’d know where to begin. I don’t.
I grew up in Potomac, an affluent Maryland suburb about 20 miles outside of Washington DC. In 1999, my high school Winston Churchill was set to replace our outdated building with a new one. Parents were offered two choices; either spilt up their kids between four other high schools or build the new building around us. They choose to build around us.
Fast forward to September 2001. I was 16 and starting my senior year Churchill. For numerous reasons I wasn’t the best student I could have been. I got by, but by no means did I apply myself as well as I should have. In a moment of educational ambition, I had signed up for Human Geography, a new college level class offering. Being a new course, they decided that we should have two teachers; Mr. Kraut and Ms. Asquith. Being the more senior teacher Mr. Kraut did most of the lectures and Ms. Asquith provided student support and documented the course for their own review process.
The morning of September 11th, we came into class expecting this to be an easy day. We had a planned activity to go outside with compasses and map things. We’re sitting there waiting to head out and Ms. Asquith, at the computer announces
“A plane hit the World Trade Center…”
Mr. Kraut stops talking to us, prods for information. Of course, there was none. Everyone assumes it was an accident and we proceed with our plans. Outside, we’re all milling around like idiots with our compasses and maps until we gather over by the still under construction stadium entrance. One of the workers has a radio on and I hear him mutter to Mr. Kraut
“They hit the Pentagon.”
I didn’t know who “they” was, it didn’t matter. I sprinted to find a phone. My Dad works in the Pentagon, I had to get a hold of my Dad. I had to make sure he was alive.
I found myself in the math and social studies office where many of the teachers knew me well and knew where my parents worked. They provided me comfort and gave me access to a phone.
I dialed my Dad’s office line…silence.
I dialed his secondary line…silence.
This doesn’t happen, someone always answers the phone over there…
I called Tricia (my mom) at her office in Virginia, she wasn’t there. Her secretary tells me Tricia was “off-site” and that neither of them had heard from my Dad. She gave me a few more numbers and suggested I try them.
In what felt like hours but was more likely minutes I get a hold of Tricia. I remember very little about our conversation. She was ok. She hadn’t heard from Dad, hadn’t heard from any of the other wives of the office. We were in the dark together, we had to hope for the best. There is a pause on the line.
Tricia says to me, “How did you get this number?”
Apparently I had managed to get a hold of her in her own Top Secret location. I still don’t know where she was.
Tricia tells me that two co-workers are going to drive her home, they would pick me up along the way. I wait.
In the office, we stare relentlessly at this 9 inch black and white portable tv. Each teacher takes their therapeutic turn trying at adjust the bunny ears for a better picture.
Through the grain and static, I see the towers fall. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it.
News programs show images of the Pentagon, and you don’t want to think about it…what might be. I managed to convince myself that my Dad was fine. He is my superhero, and superheros can’t get hurt.
Each new classroom had been outfitted with a flat screen TV but the Principal had decided not to let the students watch, not even to tell them that something happened. They were to be shut out from the rest of the world, classrooms were on lock down, students could only go home if someone picked them up. To this day, I think about what if I had not have been in that specific class, had I not have been outside where the construction worker had his radio — so much would have been different or maybe felt different today.
The rest of my time at school is mostly a blur. Like everyone else I watched the news in disbelief. A few students popped in and out of the office. They were like me, with parents in harms way. Some handled it better than others.
Tricia and her coworkers pick me up and we head home. There wasn’t much we could do. All roads to the Pentagon were shut down, land lines around the Pentagon were mostly down, cell phones didn’t work, all we could do is wait.
At around 3pm we got a call from one of the other wives. Everyone in my Dad’s office was safe, my Dad included. It was the best news one could hope for on such a horrible day.
Dad got home around 6. Kinda like he always did, except this day was different — for all us.