“Center seat on 9/11”

Nine years ago, after I had recovered from the initial shock of the nine-eleven attack, I sent an email to a New Yorker friend, to see that he was OK. Below is his reply.

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Risto:

Good to hear from you – and thanks for the concern. However, we had an unfortunate center seat for all of this. It was one of those first cool fall days here, and a first-rate dawn as rated by someone who’s seen a few. I’ve been experiencing some neck disc problems – I wish I had some great sports stories to go with it, but they’re football-related, the injuries of a mediocre player on a bad team. Yale versus U.Conn, 1972, doesn’t quite make it.

So anyway, sleep’s been a bit difficult. I got up at about five o’clock in the morning on Tuesday. Took Nellie, our old half-deaf, half-blind Lab/Huskie/Shepherd dog out, and just sat on the Promenade. I hope you’ll come visit, Risto, the next time you are here; we live on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which overlooks the East River and the Manhattan skyline.

Nell and me just sat there watching the amazing grace of it all, everything lit up (why would we conserve?), the twin towers behind the Woolworth Building, one of the city’s other landmarks. The sun’s behind you as you sit on those benches looking over the water – you look west on the Promenade over to Manhattan – so the light catches the windows of the buildings, and the Trade Center last because it’s highest, mightiest.

When this happens, it appears as if the buildings are on fire. Really pretty.

So I come in after a couple of hours, a couple of cups of coffee, and lie down in the back room to rest the neck and hear a low-flying plane. Shake my head about the strange flight paths around LaGuardia and JFK airports, to our north and further east, and wonder how I didn’t feel the wind out there this morning. The commercial carriers don’t come this way unless a pretty decent wind is coming in from the south, which doesn’t happen much, and I didn’t feel that wind. So loud, though, the noise, I couldn’t hear the radio for a few seconds. God damn planes.

Then they start talking about reports of an explosion and fire at the World Trade Center (first reports did not identify a plane crash). I walk to our back windows, right above the Promenade, and my wife, Sharon and I stand looking at a bad Towering Inferno remake. The radio begins talking about a plane crashing in to the building, and I remember the noise and the dread begins. They start talking about an American Airlines jet from Boston. Sharon and I met and married in Boston, when she worked for American Airlines, so we look at each other, and hope that people we have not seen or known in a long time were not on that plane.

Then a single airliner – it’s such a bright, clear morning, you can see the United colors and insignia – comes out of the southeast. As long as I live, Risto, I will not forget the sense of foreboding, quick rationalization… it’s doing reconnaissance… what’s a commercial airliner doing reconnaissance for… ? No. No. This can’t be happening. It can … not … be … happening. It leveled off at what looked like about 2,500 feet. A bit of a bank – you could see the underside a bit. You yell through the picture window of an apartment you bought for this very view. You just … watch.

We saw people fall out of the building like confetti. No…debris, but with a soul and fear. I have always wondered what could be behind a man, to make him jump into the void in front of him. One less rhetorical question to consider. They just flew away. Just flew away.

The first tower we saw fall. By the time the second went, the smoke and ash were traveling south and east, and the East River was fog and the smell of fire. For the next eight hours, pieces of paper came out of the sky. There was until last night, when the rain came, a page from a 10-Q SEC report lying in the honey locust tree outside our window, too melocinematic to be real, a little singed, face up so we could read it.

Sam, the little guy who runs the pet shop on Montague Street two blocks down, is from “Egypt,” which is what Palestinians or Iranians or Iraqis or Syrians have to say in this great, free country of ours anyway. He had the windows in his car shot out last night, and there was glass all over the bags of dog food he was trying to get to the K-9 dog teams across the river.

Sharon – you’ll love Sharon when you meet her – said she wanted to do something nice for Sam and bake him some cookies. I said do something nicer, and buy him cookies. Under the new security measures, in fact, Sharon’s baked goods will no longer be allowed on commercial airliners.

So we’ve tried to keep our small Middle Eastern neighbor smiling. Talked to the firemen around the corner. Man. Living where we live, Engine 205 is right beside the Brooklyn Bridge, two minutes from the action. They lost eight of the eighteen stationed, figured they’d probably gotten most of the way up Tower One, and maybe about a third of the way back down, when it shrugged, and sagged, and died. I played hockey with these guys.

They cried like children, because children are smarter than us.

We only know a couple of people directly so far who are missing-and-presumed-dead from the towers (that’s the way they are officially saying it, this morning, and that breaks your heart), though half this neighborhood walks to work over the Brooklyn Bridge to the financial center, and is filled with hopeful, hopeless photographs of the missing and mourned, candles, vigils, ribbons.

Ironically, savagely, though, we knew five people between us on the plane, coming two hundred miles and twenty years to within a mile of us to die.

Ace Bailey from the Kings. You probably met Ace. The only bar I’ve ever been thrown out in was with Ace – actually they were closing because, unbeknown to us in the basement there, buying beers for beautiful girls and half-dead drunks, it was 9:00 in the morning. You know you’ve been partying too hard when you’re going home on a Stockholm streetcar smelling like beer with Ace Bailey, next to people going to work.

And the co-pilot. Two flight attendants. A lawyer from Rochester. We knew them.

We cleaned up the fine dust that covered our furniture last night, Sharon and I – the rain had taken care of the rest – and she cried because she said these were the ashes of people and dreams. I thought that was beautiful, so we buried a box full of, well, dirt just now, in a shabby little park where people take their dogs after they’ve sat and watched the sun come up on the Brooklyn Promenade. Janitors and file clerks and full-of-shit young impresarios, and firemen and pieces of paper.

Strange skyline, this morning. And you keep looking to the southeast, for planes, just in case. Damn. Damn.

I hope all is well there, and look forward to seeing you next time through.

Best,
Skip

Peace. Love.

2 thoughts on ““Center seat on 9/11”

  1. I cry again today as I read this touching heartbreaking story you posted a few years ago. It captures so much of the fear, despair, and emotion of someone who witnessed this tragedy first hand.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

    Terry

How does that make you feel?