The morning of September 11, 2001, I walked into the Huntley Lodge at Big Sky for my shift in the conference center. I had just flown home the night before from visiting with my friends Liz and Joanne in Houston. I was probably a little hung over from our night out a few nights before – we’d gone to an Astros game, then out to the Gallant Knight house party/bar, and then we came home and went swimming and ate macaroni and cheese until 6 am. I was walking into work for my first day back after the trip.
As I walked down the hallway toward the kitchen I noticed a group of probably 15 business-looking people clustered around the 3 TVs that were embedded in the wall. Most of them were anxiously talking on cell phones, while others were just watching. I stopped, just to see what they were looking at. By this time, I believe only one building was hit and was smoking. I didn’t really know what the World Trade Center was – having been to New York only once or twice at that point, I didn’t realize how important they were to the skyline and identity of manhattan. I quickly realized how serious it was. I walked back through the kitchen and into our staff area, where they told us that the conference we were hosting was for FEMA – all of the FEMA heads in the country had gathered for a retreat in Big Sky. The meals and meeting room preparations were cancelled, and instead we worked to turn one of the rooms into a big call center – hooking up as many landlines as we could in the space. I can’t remember now why we needed to do that, but perhaps the cell reception in Big Sky wasn’t very good at the time.
People kept gathering throughout the day at those same TV monitors. We saw the towers fall, and one news network showed footage of people jumping from the buildings. That is the image that stays with me now and embodies the full horror of the day. It’s that image that will make me break into tears 30 years from now.
Eventually, they told us we could go home if we felt we might be a target, although by then we knew there were no planes in the air in the country. I don’t think anyone actually went home though. I can’t quite remember what I was thinking about – were we going to war? Would the attacks continue? But really I was most worried for my friend Mollie. At the time she was living in Manhattan around 26th St, I believe. I called her all day but the lines were overwhelmed and I couldn’t get through. Finally I think she emailed that she was fine. I remember talking to my parents in Chicago and they felt there was no risk for them there, and I wasn’t too worried.
I was only 23, and I didn’t really fully understand what had happened. I was dating an older man at the time and he was glued to the TV – I think now, I wouldn’t be able to turn it off. But it seemed like the next day, life sort of went on in Big Sky and though the attack was still important, it faded from my mind. I didn’t watch TV and didn’t read news online, so I didn’t really feel a big impact.
Fortunately I was able to visit ‘ground zero’ at the end of October of 2001, during a too-long visit to New York. I stayed with a friend for most of the trip, though I only saw him a couple times because he was working so much. I took the train downtown one afternoon and came out of the station, and the first thing that hit me was the smell. The buildings were still smoking, 6 full weeks after the attacks. It was a chemical smell, the smell of things burning that shouldn’t be. I walked a few blocks and went to stand next to a chain link fence that had posters of missing people on it. Posters of dads and moms, letters from kids, and flags. I looked at the wreckage of the buildings, two collapsed, mangled steel structures that were probably only about 8 stories tall. I was struck by the thought of over 100 stories collapsing into 8. The people around me took pictures, looking sort of guilty for being part of this disaster tourism but wanting a record regardless. I saw a man next to me take a picture of his friend, who gave a grim look to the camera. I snapped a few pictures myself and then had to leave. The smell and sadness were overwhelming and I was glad to head back to the subway.
I took a train a few days later to Baltimore to stay with Sarah. Grand Central was full of large boards covered with more missing person posters. It seemed part exhibit, part just providing a place for people to put these flyers, which blanketed the city during that time period.
Overall, I felt very lucky that none of my family or friends were hurt. I had one friend from college who knew people who were killed, but that was as close as it came to me. As the years have gone by I think that day has come to mean more to me, especially now that I am here in new york. My neighbor was a firefighter chief during that time and he has since retired, to become basically a chain-smoking shut-in. The city has recovered in the last 10 years but there are people all around us who were permanently changed, some of them unable to function. Today I walked by a few churches and felt the desire to walk in and attend a service, not out of any need for religion (sorry mom) but to sit in solidarity with my neighbors and feel some sense of togetherness and hope.
To close, a bit of perspective – what has 9/11 cost the US? From the NY times:
“Al Qaeda spent roughly half a million dollars to destroy the World Trade Center and cripple the Pentagon. What has been the cost to the United States? In a survey of estimates by The New York Times, the answer is $3.3 trillion, or about $7 million for every dollar Al Qaeda spent planning and executing the attacks. While not all of the costs have been borne by the government — and some are still to come — this total equals one-fifth of the current national debt.”