The sound of a ringing phone gradually began to sink into my consciousness as I slowly aroused from a deep sleep that early September 11th morning ten years ago. Wiping the sleep from my eyes with one hand, I reached for the phone with the other. "Hello" I answered, glancing at the clock which showed it wasn't even 6 a.m. yet. My daughter's familiar voice responded with a noticeable tinge of anxiousness asking, "Have you been listening to any news?" "No," I said, "I was asleep." Immediately, I knew something was amiss for her to phone me so early though it was three hours later at her east coast home. "Turn on your TV......" then she paused.
I arose from bed, moving a couple feet across the small spare bedroom floor to turn on my mother’s old TV with manual push buttons that especially aided her use since she had limited vision – a set with rabbit ears antenna, dating even from before remote controls. The picture emerging on the screen was a startling view of smoke pouring from what newsmen were identifying as one of New York City's Twin Towers. My daughter’s tension-edged voice on the phone recounted how a commercial airline’s passenger-filled plane had flown into the World Trade Center North Tower. Looking at that burning tower of black smoke I thought what I was seeing was the aftermath of a singular horrendous event.
We were trying to make sense of this scene while simultaneously integrating news reports. Suddenly another commercial airliner came into view -- flying through a lovely blue sky background on what appeared to be a peaceful day. I was momentarily reminded of a cross country 1960's flight in a 2-seater Cessna my husband piloted taking us over NYC with the Hudson River leading us north -- long before the Twin Towers existed. I quickly re-focused on the current day’s televised scene showing billowing mushroom-like clouds still erupting from the North Tower. Then, 17 minutes after that first 8:46 a.m. plane disaster, we watched with unbelieving eyes the second passenger-carrying aircraft flying directly into the WTC South Tower.
We each stared in disbelief at our TV screens, asking one another if this could actually be happening? Surely this was like special effects for a Hollywood action disaster movie -- but we knew the scene we were seeing was reality. For the next 35 minutes we alternated between listening to news commentators providing whatever information they could obtain about the situation, and watching incredulously the sight of both heavily damaged Tower buildings pouring clouds of smoke obliterating that blue sky. Our eyes centered on those Towers as we heard experts and laymen alike speculating about whether or not those tall steel structures would withstand the assault to remain standing.
I thought of family in NYC living not too far from the WTC, but hopefully trusted they were unlikely to be affected. Suddenly the news became even more personal when we were stunned to see the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia had been victimized by a third plane. My daughter’s voice quality became tight with tension as she realized she lived only an hour’s drive away from that site. The distance was an uncomfortably close proximity to her home in my mind, too.
I’m sure my daughter's thoughts were beginning to focus more on her own family’s security and whether or not there was action she needed to take. If so – what should she do? Instantly, I wanted to be with her or have her and family here with me. My mind was coming to grips with the fact I was feeling profoundly helpless to assist her in any concrete way from my California location on the opposite coast. The most I could do at that moment was to offer a calming voice. Much later when relatives of doomed plane passengers and those trapped in the Towers described the anguish they felt receiving final phone calls from loved ones and friends, I could empathize in some small limited degree. But I knew my loved ones weren’t so immediately threatened as they knew theirs were.
Television news coverage 21 minutes after the Pentagon was struck covered the collapse of the WTC South Tower. At 9:59 a.m., less than an hour after the first plane slammed into the tower it collapsed on those who had not yet been able to descend from offices on the over 100 floors, taking the lives of some rescuers, too. In addition to structure pieces, grimy dust, debris and sheets of confetti-like paper rained down on those below who were racing away from the site as fast as they were able
Only 4 minutes later, when we could but wonder what might happen next, we were told there was a fourth plane of concern, but this one had earlier been lost from radar after turning back east from Cleveland, Ohio. This airliner we eventually learned failed to reach its unknown east coast destination when passengers able to resist their plane’s hijackers caused the craft to crash in Pennsylvania fields below. Had Washington D. C.'s White House been the target many wondered?
Then, 25 minutes later the WTC North Tower collapsed as we were still reeling from the onslaught of these horrific never-ending events. We watched more people covered with gray or blackened dust, dirt and debris fleeing to safety from the roiling rubbish. Television spared us most coverage of those who had actually chosen jumping to certain death, singly and in pairs, from many high floors, knowing they could not escape the smoke, fire and falling building. Through all this firefighters, police had been streaming into the Towers to rescue others, but all too many were unable to save their own lives with both Towers collapse.
Incredibly all these events transpired in one hour and forty-two minutes – less than two hours. The morning seemed much like an eternity with uncertainty as to whether there was still more to come before my daughter and I finally ended our phone connection with each other expressing our mutual love.
This time sequence of events coupled with added official actions during this timeline can be referenced at this USA Today site.
Long after these events, word was received that my NYC family with young children was fine. Fortunately, they had all been away from their apartment that was situated close enough they had had a window view of the Twin Towers. They lived within an area that became designated inaccessible so they were unable to return home and had to stay with friends for a few nights.
Across the country we were all asked to refrain from excessive use of the phone system in the beginning to keep lines open for emergency use. I knew life was harried under ordinary circumstances for these dear family members, so knowing they were safe made it easier to resist my desire to phone them during these difficult times.
I recalled knowing that following the couples wedding years earlier they had celebrated with dinner on the WTC North Tower’s 107th floor’s elegant Windows on the World restaurant.
“Weather-permitting, visitors could take two short escalator rides up from the 107th floor and visit what was the world's highest outdoor viewing platform. At a height of 1,377 feet (420 m), visitors were able to take in a view of the North Tower and New York City unlike any other. On a clear day, it was claimed that visitors could see up to 45 miles (72 km) in any given direction.”
Days, maybe even a week or so after 9/11, I could not erase my NYC family members from my mind. I’d had a very strong bond with the father throughout his life. But we had both become quite caught up in our individual lives after he eventually started a family of his own in NYC on the opposite east coast from my own west coast Southern California home. So, I made that call.
When he answered the phone, I caught my breath upon hearing his voice. I immediately identified myself, adding “I know you’re safe and okay…,” fully expecting to calmly engage in a rational conversation, but I don’t know what happened. Hearing his familiar voice, I could feel emotion uncontrollably welling up from depths deep inside me. Suddenly, I was gasping sobs, tears were overflowing from my eyes onto my cheeks and my speech was disintegrating. I was trying desperately, but unsuccessfully, to intelligibly verbalize some meaningful words. He quickly repeatedly reassured me, “We’re okay, Aunt Jo! … We’re alright!” as I tried to say, “I know! I know! I just needed to hear the sound of your voice.”
Today, 9/11 and always, I still think of those who are no longer able to hear the familiar voice sounds of those for whom they care so much.