The Days of the Empty Skies

News of the attack hit me hard enough to knock me down, but somehow I remained standing for a while. Like the Twin Towers, I didn’t collapse until later.
In the days after the attack, I listened to a thousand stories from people who could not scare away their fright. Some people I know had dined at Windows on the World, and a cousin had recently trained with a financial firm in the south tower. A couple from my home town lost a daughter in the attack.
My Tuesday began quietly at the catalog company where I worked as a copywriter, with a meeting between Creative and Marketing. The catalog, Marketing said, will be 180 pages. Give the price charts a white background. Some prices will increase.
A man from Purchasing stuck his head in the door. “Have you heard the news?”
I heard the words “terrorists” and “World Trade Center” and “eighteen minutes later” and “hijacked planes” and “Pentagon” and “still burning,” but I can’t remember how he constructed his sentence.
The five of us at the meeting all said “Oh my God” at the same time. We inhaled all the air in the room at once, and kept it in. One of the women from Marketing finally said, “I have a son in the military.”
For the rest of us, it wasn’t real yet. The meeting went on another twenty minutes.
In the corridors, knots of three and five people stood gazing at the ceiling. They were listening to radio news from speakers recessed into drop ceiling panels. A report said that a third of one tower had collapsed. People were jumping out of windows a quarter mile up. Another report said the whole building had fallen. The Pentagon was on fire. A plane had crashed in Pennsylvania.
Then the other tower fell down.
I called my wife. Everyone we knew was all right. She described the smoke she was seeing on the television, and the cloud of dust when each building collapsed. “I tried to call you,” she said.
“I was stuck in a meeting. I have another one at one o’clock.”
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah. It’s busy here. And I’m supposed to pick up my new car tonight, after I pick up the check from the credit union.”
I stayed on the job, writing sell copy for Post-it Notes and Peel ‘N Seal Kraft Envelopes. I took papers from my In box, did things to them, and then put them in other people’s In boxes.
I ate lunch alone, a cup of soup and a salad under a ceiling speaker in the cafeteria. President Bush was zigzagging across the country, the radio said. The World Trade Center could hold 50,000 workers. No commercial planes were allowed to fly until further notice.
Management allowed workers to leave at 1 p.m., but I stayed for the second meeting anyway. It broke up around 2 p.m., when I called my wife again.
“I tried to call you,” she said. “The credit union is closed. You’ll have to get the check and the car tomorrow.”
At 2:15 p.m. the sky was bright blue, with no vapor trails. The road home had light traffic, but each car I met I felt a sort of kinship with, as though I knew each driver’s thoughts and he or she knew mine.
As my little blue Tercel pulled into the driveway, I noticed the American flag I had forgotten to take down after Labor Day. I looked at it for a few extra seconds and decided it should stay. The pumpkin flag could wait.
At 3:45 p.m. I saw my first television image of the south tower crumbling to powder. I couldn’t look, and I couldn’t stop looking. It was dust and blood.
Wednesday, September 12, 2001, I drove to my usual place of work, but I saw it differently. All the plant and office operations could have fit onto one floor of one of the two 110-story World Trade Center buildings. This big operation where I work was less than one half of one percent the size of what was lost in that single calamity.
And the day before, in each cubicle and meeting room of each World Trade Center building, business had been going on as usual on one of the ten most beautiful mornings of the year. Sales and Marketing may have been meeting. Stockbrokers were preparing to phone Wall Street a few blocks away. Men and women may have been betting on the Yankees in the office pool. A high-pitched whine may have been heard over the air conditioning, then a loud roar, and the sound of voices from people by the north windows who were screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my —”
There were still no vapor trails overhead when I left work on Wednesday. My check was waiting for me at the credit union, and my new car was waiting for me at the dealership. Both transactions went smoothly but without the excitement that usually accompanies a new car purchase. It was simply one more thing I had to get done this day.
I have no story to tell about September 11, 2001. I went to work and did what people do who go to work. But, unlike thousands of victims, I drove home after work. And on the third day, I drove a new car home from work.
The first plane I saw since September 10 was on Saturday the 15th. It was majestic, climbing into the morning, and I watched it all the way to the horizon. When I brought my eyes back to earth I noticed that people were standing in their yards gazing at the plane, as though it were some terrible but beautiful new god we should revere — and fear.


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