11 September 2015

Remembering/Forgetting: Reflections on 9/11

*Note: Fourteen years ago I was a junior in college. I was working full time at a television station in Greensboro, North Carolina on the night shift and taking a full load of college classes during the day.

Fourteen years ago, life was different.
This is only the fourth time in fourteen years that I've allowed myself to look at pictures from that September, the fourth time in ten years of teaching that I will talk about, or teach about, what happened on that day. Even now, I can't watch news on 9/11--the video of the plane hitting the second tower? Not a chance. Normally I mention the day in passing to my classes and then move on quickly, the ghosts of 3,000 dead people squeezed tightly into the room with us, making it hard to breathe.

What I remember most is the sound of sirens wailing the whole day. Mechanical shrieks piercing the streets of New York and D.C. when we were too shocked to even think about crying. I wasn't there--not anywhere close. In North Carolina, I went to school full time and also worked at a TV station. As a college student, the low man on the totem pole, I saw a lot more video than the average American will see on television, at least after we realized what was happening and started censoring what we showed on air.  

It was my job to edit the video--to sift through and watch hundreds of people jump and fall to their deaths over and over from different angles. It was my job to make sure the video of the second tower crumbling, New Yorkers running away, wasn’t too graphic. It was my job to dig through the aftermath footage and make sure we didn't show dead bodies on the news. Just the bucket brigade: people in masks who passed containers full of body parts day after day to wherever they went for identification.  

I remember the smoke, huge billowing towers of gray dust that covered the city like a burial shroud. Firemen coughing, running while covered in inches of not-snow. The big wall of black debris that tore through the streets and knocked people over as they tried to escape when Tower Two fell, blasting out windows. A sick whiteness silenced everyone and everything in the city--like some surreal snow-day.  

I remember the pictures. For months after the attacks, the streets of New York City were lined with Missing Persons photographs—details of names, body size, which building they were in, what floor they were on. The faces were everywhere. Walls of faces no one would ever see again. Family members crying, holding images, asking for days and days if anyone had seen their father, their husband, their son or daughter.

I remember, even though I want to forget.

I remember it was chilly that morning. Steam from my coffee fogged up my glasses as I crossed my college campus to go to an early-morning class. It was quiet, like the world was taking just a few extra minutes to wake up. It felt like I was the only one alive. The only sign when I left class an hour and a half later that something was wrong was when I checked my phone: five voice mails. No one I knew called me that early except my parents. Something must be wrong.

The messages were garbled, impossible to sort through.

1. A plane crash in New York.
2. Another one.
3. A third plane crash at the Pentagon.
4. Turn on the TV.
5. Go into the station. They're going to need you.

I remember I ran to my car and headed to a coffee shop. I hadn't slept since yesterday, thanks to my overnight shift at the TV station--I would need the caffeine.

There was a television on at the shop next door and I watched with the owners as the first tower fell. Something hard and cold settled in my stomach. I almost puked.

All those people. No one could have survived.

The TV station was a bee hive, everyone zooming here and there, buzzing with news as more became available. All the reporters, producers, tech people, photographers, and grunts like me—we’d all been called in. No one would go home tonight.

I remember when the second tower fell, cots were set up in every little bit of free space, pizza and donuts were ordered in.

It would be days before any of us went home.

Rumors and fear of when the next plane would crash turned into whispers in the corners.

We can't say that on air.
Will they strike the pipeline? If they did, it would wipe out the entire east coast.

I don't remember how long I worked before I got to go home and take a shower. It felt like eons but was probably only two or three days.

It was after the walls of the surrounding buildings were plastered with faces, statistics, floor numbers, height, weight, and anything that might help identify a missing father, son, wife, daughter, girlfriend...a missing person.

 I didn't sleep for weeks, though. Every time I closed my eyes fire, smoke was all I saw. People jumping, dying, buildings collapsing. Paper after paper of missing and presumed dead family members. The scenes played on a constant nightmarish loop I couldn’t escape. My neighbor cooked for me, took care of my dog. I pulled eighteen hour days at the television station for a week or two.

I dropped out of college.

I remember not hearing planes. I lived in the flight path of an international airport. Normally I'd hear 100+ planes a day. Sometimes they were so loud they woke me up at night. They grounded the planes after 9/11-no one was allowed to fly because they didn’t know when the next attack would come. For days, the lack of jet noise was the scariest part.

It wasn't normal.

But I had to wonder if anything would ever be normal again.

This past fall I was in New York City walking to dinner with some friends and colleagues. We rounded a corner  and without fanfare or a banner warning of what was coming, I stumbled onto Ground Zero. I stood frozen, looking at the inverted towers. I stood frozen, seeing the videos of plane crashes of buildings collapsing, of Missing Person flyers, of firemen crying.

I stood frozen, and cried myself.

Fourteen years to the day later, I'm still scared to fly. I do it, but every second I'm in the air my eyes dart around. My muscles tense. I stereotype everyone I'm flying with and watch everyone's movements. 9/11 did that. I was never scared before. It's like I'm just waiting for something to happen. Just waiting.


And I think that's the hardest part of the whole thing. The Waiting.

Waiting for the planes to stop crashing.

Waiting for the second tower to collapse.

Waiting for the bodies to be found.

For the next bad thing to happen.

For the next terrorist attack.

Because that's the thing: It's happened once. It could totally happen again. Anyone who remembers that day and what it felt like will always be waiting.

I remember, even though I don't want to.

I remember, even when I wish I could forget.