September 11

As luck would have it, I was starting a new position as the leader of a nonprofit on September 11, 2001. I got up early that morning and was, more or less, absorbed with the triviality of putting together just the right thing to wear.  Nothing too corporate, I remember thinking.

That great task satisfied, I walked the two blocks from my house to the subway station, where I was met with larger-than-usual crowds. Perfect, I thought, first day and I’m going to be late because of San Francisco’s perpetually bad mass transit system. I ran into a neighbor who said, “God, can you believe it?” Thinking she was referring to the mass of humanity waiting on the subway platform for the next train, I simply nodded in agreement.

“I know,” I said, “the city can’t even get a simple train system right.”

“What?” my neighbor replied. “What are you talking about? Haven’t you heard? Don’t you know what’s going on?”

“Uh, no.”

“They’re attacking us. They flew planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.”

I’d always considered my neighbor to be the type with her feet firmly on the ground, but at this moment, I sincerely thought her mad. She talked, manically, at me for the entire ride downtown. And, little by little, I came to realize that she was, more or less, telling me a story that was the truth, as hard as it was to wrap my head around.

When our train arrived downtown, I tried to climb the stairs to street level, but hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people were streaming back into the station from above. It was a completely disorienting moment.

It wasn’t until I reached my new office and turned on the radio that I slowly began to understand what had happened in New York and Washington and in that Pennsylvania field that morning.

My parents’ generation had experienced the feeling before, after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Their calm, quiet world had been shattered, “like a fire bell in the night.” But people my age had never experienced anything remotely like it.

We, of course, were very lucky. We had no collapsing buildings, no debris, no choking dust, no dead where I was, in San Francisco. And despite the endless hours of TV I watched that night and in the weeks that followed, when I think back to that date, it is my own disbelief and disorientation I remember most vividly.

3 thoughts on “September 11

  1. Like you, that Tuesday was my second day at a new job. My television was on that morning, as I was monitoring traffic conditions, since I did not want to be late for work. I could not understand how an airplane could accidentally fly into the tower. I assumed that the pilot must have had a heart attack.

    And then it happened: the second jet flew into the other tower. With much greater purpose, I hurriedly got dressed and moved quickly to get to work. As a government worker, we are all required to report to our worksites in an emergency, and I knew instantly that the nation as a whole might soon be in a state of emergency.

    When I arrived to work, most of the staff were in fear or shock. The City Manager was glued to his television at home. I was told that the Police Chief was patrolling the city streets. The Fire Chief was not on duty that day. No one was in charge, so even though very few people knew who I was, I pulled an Al Haig and stated that I was in charge at that moment.

    I allowed some staff to return home–some to pick up their children from school–but I kept a skeleton crew in the office until the Police Chief returned to take charge of the city.

    In all honesty, I do not remember feelings of vulnerability, nor of fear. I remember feeling a sense of urgency, a sense of duty, and a clear purpose and mission. Perhaps it was my FEMA training and the work I did through both the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 and the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991 that prepared me for that moment. Perhaps I would have felt differently if the airliners had struck the West Coast. Or, maybe I am just built that way.

    1. Thanks for relating your own experience, Brian. Funny, too, I also remember very different feelings during the 1989 earthquake. I was standing in line at the concession stand at Candlestick – being a native, I knew immediately that we were experiencing an earthquake. There were a lot of visitors to the park that game and I tried to keep them calm and prevent a stampede.

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