September 11, 2001

September 10, 2009

I REMEMBER I was sitting at my desk mulling over the barrage of bad economic news that had been building over the past year about the bursting of the dotcom bubble; worried that I was going to have to find a new job because I worked in that crumbling sector. In hindsight, at that particular moment, I still had some breathing room. Pittsburgh is roughly 18 months behind the economic times. Still, I had reason to feel jittery – an eight month old baby boy and my stay at home wife.

I REMEMBER that I was listening to Howard Stern that morning like I did every morning. Gary Dell’Abate came into the studio and told Howard and the rest of the listening audience about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. I went to and there was a breaking news headline scroll but nothing more. My cube was directly opposite my boss, Robin, the Director of Software Quality Assurance.

“I bet its terrorists…” he said in his thick British accent. He spoke from experience having lived through IRA bombings in the UK before moving to Pittsburgh twenty years prior. My wife called to tell me about this ‘accident’ and about the same time a coworker – one of the forgettable woman in sales from that soon to be unforgettable day – came over with a sad worried look on her face.

“Oh my God – did you guys know a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” The tears welled in her eyes and began flowing over her lower eyelids.

“You know – it’s probably terrorists…” Robin said.

She gave him a disapproving look. I got the impression that she seemed to think he was trying to make a joke and so she turned away to find people to wail at. She was definitely the type of tragedy vampire that has emerging starting with Princess Di’s death; the type that needs to feel personally connected and involved with a terrible event by putting flowers and teddy bears at scenes of tragedies.

A complete ass.

I continued to work, writing a test plan for a large software implementation with Stern on in the background. Gary breaks into the show again to say that the second tower had been hit. Stern and company now start talking about this being a premeditated attack and Robin chimed in: “See, I told you it was Goddamned terrorists…”

I REMEMBER my wife calling again, freaked out and confused because the news was talking about America being under attack. I again tried to find pictures and news of what had transpired to make it real. You hear that the WTC towers have been crashed into but what does that mean? I thought back to a middle school field trip were we went to the highest observation floor of the WTC and several of us put the tops of our heads against the glass, staring down to the impossibly small street scene below but I still couldn’t imagine the totality even with this memory of scale.

By this point all work had ceased as people gathered around radios in cubes scattered throughout the office. Some tried to contact relatives and friends that worked in the Towers. Others tried to contact their parents in Europe and India because they had managed to get in touch with siblings who lived in New York and they wanted to pass along the news that everyone was okay. I stuck with Stern as he read all available information and got direct reports from what they could see from his studio. Robin and a few other teammates gathered around my cube and listened to Stern and his crew. I continued trying to get pictures to put it into context but by this time the internet was completely unresponsive having been saturated from the sheer volume of traffic.

I REMEMBER that unremarkable woman coming back around with another unremembered friend.

“We just saw the towers, it’s horrible….”

I spoke up; “I’m going down to see the TVs in the lobby, Robin. Are you coming?”

With mascara starting to run down her face, tragedy vampire said, “No. You Don’t want to see it…” Of course I did. This was so surreal. I needed something to bookmark it; something to make it concrete so that I could wrap my head around it and accept it.

I REMEMBER standing with scores of other PNC employees in the lobby and the near silence, save for the occasional gasps and loud sighs. People stood in the street and watched from the huge window because this building was secured and required IDs to gain access. I stood there for a while and watched the buildings burn and the occasional loop of the second planes impact. I stepped back from the ever increasing crowd and tried to call home. The call immediately failed. As with the internet the cell networks were now saturated and failing.

I REMEMBER going back upstairs to my office and how it had degenerated into omplete chaos. Nobody knew what to do – should we stay or go? Is there something we should be doing? Should we grab files off the network and keep them locally on our laptops? Should we grab servers and jet? Everyone seemed to wander back and forth through the U shape of our office space. At the time it reminded me of the scene in the movie Midnight Express where all of the insane people are circling a huge column walking in a circle. Not going anywhere but not standing still. Stasis.

I REMEMBER a report of a third plane somewhere over Pittsburgh from one of the local radio stations in a cube on the other side of the office; overheard as I followed the mull track with everyone else. I remember asking myself, “Might this really be true, or was the local media just trying to connect Pittsburgh to a national event?” I’m not sure about other areas, but whenever anything big happens our local media always tries to connect Pittsburgh to it – “Princes Diana killed in France, how Pittsburgh has a similar type of tunnel and it has already claimed victims: more at 11”. We were in one of the higher buildings. An actual dialogue broke out with workers and the mid-level management attempting to determine if we were a potential target and what the course of action should be. In retrospect, I say to myself, “Get the fuck out – yeah, we’re a target” and it seems laughable but this was pretty extraordinary as it was happening. Executive management was sequestered behind closed doors immediately after the second plane hit. Someone said, “They’ll go for the Steel Building – it sticks out like a sore thumb, I think we’re safe.” The Steel Building is the tallest skyscraper by several stories in Pittsburgh. But the PNC complex stands out in the skyline and a lot of people felt that we were a possible target. I lead some of the involved management and coworkers to the cafeteria area and they all looked at the huge open sky through the expansive windows opened to the Allegheny and the Ohio. Indeed, a 737 could fly along the river and right into our floor – it was wide open and we were in a spot devoid of any obstacle. We were also in the flight path of Greater Pitt.

I REMEMBER those mid-level managers disappearing and a few of the rank and file gathering up their stuff and leaving. I walked past the networking area to an unused spot of the office, the left tip of the U if one stood in the center, it is where paper and supplies were kept as well as a place for impromptu meetings and gave access to an unused stairwell. There was a loud rushing in the stairwell. I opened the door and it was full of the stereotypical bankers in their three-piece suits along with their support staff in a free fall run to the bottom. I was sort of stunned. One of the suits stopped and looked at me.

“What the hell are you still doing here?”

“We haven’t had any word – we don’t know if we should back things up or,” he cut me off in midsentance, “I’m telling you – get the fuck out!”

I shut the door and went to the CIO’s office. He looked completely confused and waived me in. I got the sense that he wanted to tell everyone to leave but was waiting to hear from the CEO to do so. I told him about the exchange. His eyes widened and he got up and left me in his office. My thought was that he figured it was now time to make a move and get out of the building. I made my way back to my cube and as I was about to sit down, the office manager grabbed my shoulder,”We’re having a meeting right now in the Conference room. Right now.”

I REMEMBER standing in that meeting and thinking, “what the fuck?” We were fed a line about being there for our customers in this tragic time for our nation; about how management would understand if we were not comfortable staying; that it was okay to leave. Everyone looked at each other in disbelief. People filed out of the conference room to their cubes, gathering their stuff and lining up for the elevator. I went back to my desk and tried to call home on my cell. Still no service. I tried to get online. No connection. The office phone system worked after a few attempts. There was no way I was going to wait in line. Robin sat at his desk and kept yelling out phrases like, “This is what the terrorists want!”

“You can’t let the terrorists win!”

To this day, I’m not sure if he was being facetious or serious.

Eventually our office was empty except Robin, me, a few of the senior managers, a couple of other QA people and the BAs. The CIO came over after a while and insisted that we leave, “We’re done, PNC wants all offices evacuated…”

We made our way to the street and missed the crush on the elevator. The lobby was another matter.

I REMEMBER the chaos in the street. Some people at ease but most completely freaked out. People running all over the place and in circles; cops trying to move the stalled traffic, blowing their whistles – even a guy with a sandwich board sign proclaiming “THE END IS NEAR”. He had been a regular downtown for months. He didn’t seem so crazy now. It looked a lot like a bad, made for TV Armageddon movie. I made my way to the Subway station – at the time I took the Grant Street train all the way to the end of the Library line. It was swollen with people. Looking down the steps that led to the train, the people looked like so many carps at the Kinzua Dam when people throw loaves of bread in the water, and the smell of people and humidity. I wasn’t about to jump into that mess and so I made my way back to PNC plaza and stood around with a group of strangers, but all fellow PNC employees. One guy rolls up with a box of Krispy Kreame donuts. I point him out to my impromptu friends, “Look, he saved the donuts from the terrorists.” They all look at me and then each other and uneasily laugh. I think they were trying to see if it was okay to laugh and the consensus was yes. He shares the donuts with this small assembled group. It was the first time that I ever had a Krispy Kreame donut. I stood around for probably an hour and a half and there were less and less people around with every passing minute. and the downtown grew still and devoid of life.

I REMEMBER that the subway was free because they were trying to empty the city. I was crammed on a train and was able to use the WAP internet on my phone. That’s when I found out that the “plane over Pittsburgh” had actually flown over Pittsburgh and crashed about 50 miles away in Somerset, a mountain town in the Laurel Highlands that i had fond memories of growing up. The voice network was still down. There really wasn’t any news on, just more of what was already known. The day was oddly hot and all of the bodies on the train made that very evident. A few minutes outside of the Potomac Avenue stop the train suddenly halted. Dead. No power. There had been a steady murmur from the passengers and it died along with the train, just as suddenly.

The lights and air-conditioning then came back on and forward progress started again. I felt a huge sense of relief.

I REMEMBER finally getting home, at the time a lone duplex that was situated on a very high hill only about 12 miles from downtown Pittsburgh sandwiched between the fields of Trax Farms. It was one of the highest hills on the Allegheny County / Washington County border and walking out, to the other side of the tree line, provided an endless view from west to east that revealed the tops of the buildings downtown and as you looked toward the east you could see clear out toward Pittsburgh International Airport and beyond.

I used to stand out there watching planes take off and land as you’d see these tiny lights that would end up as big planes overhead, passing into the distance, again becoming pin points of light. The hilltop had a wide view of the sky and normally, at any given time, one could see up to fifty planes in the sky, including airliners, military, private and helicopters all stacked in layers in the approach path, eventually spiraling down to land. I knew I was seeing something that probably had not been witnessed for probably 80 years. A clear night with nothing flying through the sky and no contrails.

Complete quiet only occasionally broken by Fighter jets.

I went into the house and looked at my young son crawling on the floor amongst his blocks with CNN blaring in the background. I looked him in the eyes and knew that it would never be the same. And I thought about how odd it was that, for him, this event would just be something that happened and no different from old war footage that seems removed and not quite real. As meaningless to him as Pearl Harbor is for me. How he wouldn’t know any difference about what was and what it would eventually become.

WITH every passing year that 9/10 world seems as abstract to me and as far removed as that grainy footage of the aftermath at Pearl Harbor. But I suppose that is what the weight of life and what living does.

9/11/ 2011
IT’S now ten years later and what we’ve really lost and is never discussed is our collective identity; our freedom. It’s been exchanged for a false sense of security and war after war. Bin Laden has been killed, but we’re now told that it’s an even more dangerous world and whenever poll numbers are low; whenever there is a major issue that the electorate should be enraged about, we get an increase in the threat level.

The loss of life that day and the affect on the survivors lives is incalculable, but the loss of Liberty and is the sad reality of the Post 9/11 world.


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