I wrote the following letter to family and friends (many of whom are in New England) for Christmas, 2001. The version below is edited slightly. A couple of sentences were added to explain references that would be inexplicable to persons who do not know us. I have masked personal names.
I have tried unsuccessfully to write about 9/11 a number of times in several forms, including turning this letter into an essay. Recently, I have been writing dramatic plays about terrorism and New York, but not 9/11 directly; these efforts, which include verse monologues and soliloquies, seem to be working.
Dear Family and Friends,
9-11 was a horrifying day for New York, for our nation, for families who lost someone they loved; but it was a lucky day for our family. We felt the cross hairs in the sighting scope sweep across our lives. We heard the soft click of the range-finder. But we all lived.
A_ [my daughter] was at work at the Salomon, Smith, Barney offices, eight blocks north of the World Trade Center. She jogged that morning from Brooklyn Heights into Manhattan, around the World Trade Center, about 7 a.m., then back to Brooklyn. After changing into her work clothes at her apartment, she returned to her office on the island. D_ [my son] was dressing for classes at his dormitory a block from the WTC. I was home. I arrived the previous evening on a flight home from Boston.
A_ was in the corporate cafeteria, paying for her morning breakfast, when she heard a thunderous, resonating boom. She walked over to the cafeteria window. A huge, jagged hole had been created by the crash of the first airplane and now exploded into flames in the North Tower. A woman beside her said she had seen a plane hit the tower a moment earlier. A_ could not believe that. She hoped it was not a bomb. She went to the bond trading floor.
Near her station, her colleagues were watching the news on televisions. There had indeed been an airplane. For a minute, A_ was relieved--at least it was not a bomb, it was an accident. With other workers, she left the building to watch the fire from out-of-doors. She witnessed persons jumping from the highest floors. She hoped to herself that this was not an attack on New York.
After a few minutes, the second plane rammed the South Tower. From her perspective north of the Center, A_ could not see plane enter the tower. She heard another deep boom, then the flaming explosion from the north face of the South Tower. A coworker, who was listening to a radio, said that another plane had rammed the tower. There could be no doubt then. New York was under attack.
She knew she should leave the city. She returned to her building to get her purse and Blackberry messenger. She walked out of the building, walked across lower Manhattan, across the Manhattan Bridge. On the bridge, she turned around to view the fires. The South Tower started to fall. All of her senses were abnormally enlivened. Huge plumes of gray smoke were billowing up and over the city. The collapsing tower created winds that sounded like a hurricane. The first acrid odors of burning plastic and cement--an aroma that would haunt lower Manhattan for weeks--were reaching out toward her. She continued across the bridge to her apartment in Brooklyn Heights.
D_ was grooming in the dorm floor bathroom before going to classes. A policeman ran down the hall, knocking on doors, ordering immediate evacuation. D_ left quickly. He took only the clothes he was wearing. He didn't think to take his wallet. His roommate had already fled.
Outside the building, he watched terrified persons throw themselves from the upper floors. A woman threw herself into his arms, sobbing, saying that her husband was in that building. He watched the second plane hit the South Tower. The police told the crowd to leave the area. D_ started walking toward the Pace main campus at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
I was in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that weekend, visiting my college friend, C_. His wife, B_, and his son and daughter had arranged a surprise party for C_'s 60th birthday. I couldn't resist going. I did not want the last occasion we saw each other to be at a funeral. My presence surprised him, indeed. He was delighted by the large party of his friends. And I also had a wonderful visit with my cousin, M_, and his wife, B_, with whom I stayed in Sudbury.
E_ [my wife] made my travel arrangements. Originally, she planned for me to return home by taking a Tuesday morning nonstop flight on American Airlines out of Logan Airport--September 11. But before I left for the trip, she changed that flight to Monday afternoon, September 10. To save money, she booked a flight on American Trans Air that stopped in Chicago Midway. She was going on a trip later that week and wanted me home a day earlier to help her get ready for it. She neglected to tell me of the change in my flight, so until I spoke with her on Sunday, I believed I was flying out of Logan on Tuesday morning. She picked me up at the airport late Monday evening.
I talked continually with A_ and D_ during their evacuations out of Manhattan. A_ sent email messages to me with her Blackberry email pager. She typed and sent messages as she walked. I checked my computer email every few minutes to receive her messages and to respond. She and I exchanged a dozen email over the course of the day. She left her apartment and went to a cafe in Brooklyn Heights to be with other people and to watch the events on television. I asked her to return to her apartment, as I would try to get D_ there to join her.
Out of his dorm, D_ called me at home, collect on our credit card, from a public phone. He knew that I was in Boston over the weekend. He thought I was going home that Tuesday morning. He left a message asking about my safety on our upstairs answering machine, but I did not notice it until late in the day.
He called again, after he was asked to leave the WTC area. At this point, the city was beginning to block off the lower Manhattan, south of Canal Street. I was watching the horrifying events reveal themselves on CNN. I asked D_ to call me at least once an hour. (It was impossible for me to phone into the City.) I would tell him what CNN was reporting about open and closed routes out of Manhattan and guide him to Brooklyn.
He went to a nearby police station and identified himself as a Pace student. The police told him that Pace was arranging to take students from his dorm to a dorm on Staten Island. This never happened; perhaps the ferries to Brooklyn were shut down. Probably the collapse of the Towers interfered with the plan, because the ferries and bridges to Staten Island were reserved for emergency vehicles.
He went to a hotel to get a room to stay in, if he couldn't get out of Manhattan. The hotel lobby was packed with Trade Center refugees. The hotel had already rented out all its rooms. He started to walk toward Brooklyn. At several intersections, streets were cordoned off. After four hours, he made his way to the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a walk he made in half an hour on an ordinary day. At the foot of bridge, a van from a Temple in Brooklyn picked him up (he was wearing a kippa), and dropped him off near his sister's apartment. Shortly thereafter the Brooklyn Bridge was closed.
D_ and A_ were safe and together in Brooklyn in early afternoon. Only then did I cry. I wept all afternoon. And I cried frequently, daily, for the next week.
They reacted courageously in their own ways to the events. Neither has been deterred from choosing their future. A_ worked in the SSB group that finances airplanes. With three colleagues, she closed a $2 billion deal for BAE Systems five months earlier. She flew frequently--often weekly--in the US and to Europe on business.
She became desperately afraid of flying--but fly she did. She came home at the end of September for a visit, loaded with tranquilizers to make the trip. While home, she bought two gas masks (one for work and one for her apartment). New York City stores were sold out of masks.
The murders impassioned D_'s Zionism. He wants to go to Israel and join the Army to serve in the tank corps. E_ spent hours on the phone in November persuading him to stay in school and not go to Israel until he finishes college. He honors her request. He took a class on the Israeli military's art of self-defense and started body-building at the college gym. He is determined. I ask him about the day, but he finds it difficult to talk about it.
As an atheist, secular humanist, and nonspiritual person, which I am, I have difficulty finding an appropriate vocabulary for our experiences on September 11. We were all lucky. E_ was lucky, too, not to be a widow grieving for her two children. To say we were lucky is, however, inadequate. Was it a roll of the dice of destiny? We won three successive rolls. That's true, but meaningless. It does not reach toward the gratitude we feel. Religious vocabulary is about all there is. So here it is.
God did not look away from us on September 11. For whatever purposes the Deity might have for us, which we await, we were destined to wake up on Wednesday morning, praise the sunlight, and write letters to our friends and family to thank them for being part of our lives. To say--we will see you next year when, God willing, we shall visit you and New England.