|Photo: Magnus Manske|
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On September 11, I had been working in Manhattan for several months, staying at the Palace Hotel during the week and flying to Cayman to visit D most weekends. We had been seeing each other, in a long distance relationship, for just under a year and he was taking me home to England to meet his family that coming weekend. On Wednesday, I was due to fly to a conference in Vancouver before taking a flight to meet D in London on Saturday.
I was working in midtown that bright Tuesday morning. Around 9 a.m., I received a call from D in Cayman to check I was okay after he heard the news a plane had crashed into an office building in Manhattan. It was the first anyone in our office knew of it and the last time I was able to speak to D, or anyone, on a phone for a while. I flashed up CNN live video online as co-workers gathered around my desk. We watched in disbelief at the smoke pouring out of the north tower a mere 4 miles away and wondered how it was possible that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
9:03 am: Overwhelmed by site traffic, the CNN video weblink crashed, leaving us with the audio broadcast only, while the video remained frozen on the haunting image of Flight 175, a split second before it crashed into the second tower. The image remained on my computer and is still burned into my mind. Everyone on board that flight in that moment knew their fate but were powerless to stop it. I wished the power of video technology worked in real life to freeze a moment in time and forestall the inevitable. CNN reporters were discussing "some sort of explosion" in the south tower. I stared at that frozen image, thinking, "It's another plane. How can they not know it's another plane?"
Riveted by the reports of disaster in downtown, we start to hear about the plane hitting the Pentagon, and rumors about other flights that are MIA. The stricken looks on the faces of my coworkers mirror my own emotions. How far would this disaster, this attack, extend? It feels like the end of the world and for the first time in my life I feel hate in my heart - for those that could do this terrible thing to so many innocent people. I'm not proud of it, but that is truth.
By 9:45, we have lost the audio link to CNN and I decide to cross the street to bring back the clock radio from my hotel room. I get back to the office and have barely plugged it in and found a news broadcast when the reporter starts saying "Oh my God, oh my God, the tower is collapsing!"
The view of downtown from our office is blocked by the MetLife building straddling Park Avenue, but the group of us rush to the conference room on the southwest corner to see what we can. There is a growing cloud of dust emanating from the area, enveloping the city like some kind of evil creature. A few people begin to cry - I don't remember if I'm one of them. It's barely been an hour since I received the phone call from D. The world is already forever changed.
I had been introduced to a friend of one of my coworkers at a happy hour the week before, and she is panicking now because he works at the WTC and she hadn't been able to reach him. I did some quick mental math based on news reports of the 50,000 people usually in the complex at that time of day and came up with an eerily accurate estimate of the lives lost - about 3,000. I told her to keep up hope, the chances were very good that he was okay. Thousands of people may die, but tens of thousands more were likely to survive.
He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, and we didn't know it then, but that firm was in the direct line of fire when the first plane crashed. They never found her friend. I still don't know whether to feel bad about my platitudes to her at the time, or to be relieved that I gave her some hope, however futile, to calm her in the moment.
I don't remember many clear moments for the rest of that day. Most of the local employees began their hours-long trudge home, lacking any other mode of transport but their own two feet to make it back to their loved ones. The out-of-town travelers like me milled around the office, unsure of what to do.
I do remember, vividly, crossing Park Avenue to go back to my hotel in the afternoon. The city streets were empty and deathly quiet. I started to cross, against the light. US airspace had been shut down for hours, but I heard the roar of an aircraft and felt a flash of panic, stopping in the middle of the street to scan the sky for a threat. It was a fighter jet, on patrol. The strangest thing about that moment was the quiet on the street. If I had stopped in the middle of Park Avenue while jaywalking on any other day, I would have been mowed down by a cab. But there was nobody out there now, only a few lonely souls such as me.
The rest of the week is a blur of isolation and frustration. For two days, my flight out of the city was cancelled and rebooked waiting for the airports to open again. By Thursday morning, the airline just told me they couldn't rebook and would contact me when a flight became available. I fell apart. I was alone in New York and I couldn't escape. I couldn't book a flight to London from another city because I couldn't get transport out of New York. The rental cars were all gone - in fact, some of my coworkers had left for a two-day drive home to Dallas the day before. Eventually I booked a train ticket to Washington DC for Friday morning and then checked all the airlines for a flight from a city anywhere between New York and DC that could eventually bring me to London.
When I got to the Philadelphia airport to check in for a flight I booked to Miami, the line stretched for a quarter mile outside of the airport. I was never going to make it, but saw no other course of action. I had struck up a conversation with a teenager, traveling on his own, who left the line to make a phone call and asked me to hold his place. An airport worker, for some reason, came down the line calling that young man's name and I directed him to the phone bank. Miraculously, that same airport worker, after getting the young man settled, came back and personally escorted me through security and to my gate. If I hadn't made that flight, who knows how long I might have been stuck in Philly. It was like an angel had been sent to rescue me.
Arriving in Miami, I had time to meet D briefly at the airport before his originally-scheduled British Airlines flight to Heathrow. His plane was full, and I got the last available seat on my American Airlines flight so we couldn't travel together. The BA employee at the front of the blocked-off check-in lines impatiently asked for him to just wait for his name to be called when he inquired on how to check in. How would they know to call his name when they hadn't let him register his presence at the airport? Never mind, I was already checked in and had to leave for my own departure - an hour before his - so I'd see him the next morning at the customs exit in Heathrow.
Saturday morning, I waited at customs for two hours after his flight landed, impatiently scanning the crowd. Eventually I checked my voicemail to find a harried message. BA had given away his seat "because he hadn't checked in." He was now stuck in Miami for another day.
I know that I did cry then. I was alone, more alone that I had already felt during the week, now in a foreign country, with nothing to do but find a hotel, wait for D, and contemplate the horror of the tragedy back in New York. I remember little of that time, which felt like purgatory, but I do remember that people were so kind to me when they detected my American accent.
The next morning, I was back at the customs exit anxiously awaiting D's arrival. In more than 10 years together - that includes nearly three years of commuting in a long distance relationship - I was never, ever happier or more relieved to see him at an airport. He enveloped me in a great big hug, and in his arms, although I was thousands of miles from where I lived, I was finally home.
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