The morning started early, as it always did with Isaac. He was scampering around while I was in the back room of my father-in-laws house ironing a shirt to wear for a round of golf we had scheduled for later that morning. My wife was in the family room drinking her morning coffee while watching TV with her step mother. Bagels were warm, and orange juice was flowing. The rhythm of the morning skipped when my wife and her step-mother simultaneously said, “Whoa! It looks like a plan hit one of the towers.” Nobody was particularly alarmed. It was tragic, but probably just a prop plane that crashed. I didn’t stop ironing, or even leave the back room to see the TV. That changed a few minutes later when the gasps I heard from the other room signaled more than just a news story, “Oh my god! Another one! Brian, another plane just hit one of the towers!!”
My first thought was, “We’re on an island. How do I get my family out of here?” I rushed into the family room to see for myself what was going on. Everyone was standing, silent, staring. The towers were smoking. It looked like the attack was successful, but largely contained. We settled in to watch what happened. CNN, and others, were already broadcasting video of the towers after the first plane hit, so they had footage of the second plane that they replayed repeatedly, trying to judge what size plane it had been. Nobody could believe it was a full-size passenger plane. My thoughts wandered as I saw the smoke wafting from the buildings. What if those planes hitting was just the first stage? What if they were carrying chemical weapons? What direction is the wind blowing? Twenty minutes in, and I was thinking about where we might be able to buy gas masks for a five-month-old.
My father-in-law climbed on his roof, and could see the smoke rising well off in the distance. The rest of us stayed glued to the TV. People were jumping out of the towers at a sickeningly steady pace. An hour or two went by before the first tower collapsed. Ash and debris careened through the city in a display reserved for blockbuster movies. My wife got a call from one of her friends in the city. She had been on the subway when the second plane hit, and the operator had gotten the call to stop the train and empty out the passengers. She climbed up to the streets to find a chaotic scene. The street and people were gray with ash, and were running away. She instinctively joined them, and started an urban pilgrimage out of the city. Another friend met up with her, and they were calling my wife hoping to come out our way.
My father-in-law and I had started talking about finding a blood bank where we could donate. Was it irresponsible to leave my son and wife, even for a few hours? We decided to take the chance and drove around to various clinics, only to find evidence of America’s greatness. Hundreds of people had beaten us to the punch. We were turned away from every location because there were too many volunteers already waiting, lines wrapping repeatedly around each building.
We returned home, and settled in. The second tower collapsed. The pentagon was hit. Nobody knew what would happen next. Helpless, all we could do was watch.
Our return flight had been scheduled for September 12th out of JFK. That clearly wasn’t going to happen. We started looking into trains (sold out), and even considered renting a car to drive back to Seattle. My wife had a broken ankle, and was on crutches. My son was colicky, and the thought of a cross-country drive was terrifying in its own way. We decided to wait it out. JFK was re-opened on September 13th, and we made our way there. Security was like nothing we had ever seen. Police roamed the halls in force, carrying shotguns. They made us remove Isaac from his Baby Bjorn so he could be patted down. As we waited for our flight, multiple false alarms caused police to rush onto planes that had already started boarding. Eventually, they shut down the airport again before our flight could take off. A day later, we returned, and were allowed to take off this time. It was a JetBlue flight that was equipped with TVs at every seat. I sat with my son asleep in my arms as I watched footage on CNN of a plane flying into the tower, and then I looked out the window to see the smoldering remains below as we flew over them. The area was lit, even at night, as rescue workers were still attempting to save people trapped in the wreckage.
Every single time I go to a sporting event and it is time for the national anthem, I sing it, and think about that day. I think about how lucky we are to have luxuries like professional sports. I think about the people that no longer get to revel in the fun and excess. For a long time, when I’d see a plane flying over the stadium, I’d watch for a few seconds to see where it was headed. We are blessed to live in a country that provides us so much that we can afford to spend this much time and energy on something as unnecessary as football. I will never take that for granted. Isaac is now 10, and he just got his first dog yesterday, September 10th, 2011. The family named him Lucky this morning. One can only hope.