Homage to the Twin Towers, 2002
There’s been a lot of conversation this past week about “where you were” on September 11, 2001. I suppose this is replacing “Where you were when JFK was shot?” as a focal point of shared national experience.
I was in the shower when the first airplane flew into the World Trade Center. My wife called me out to watch the news on television. I could not believe what I was seeing and tried to make it conform to some scenario involving pilot error, mechanical failure or some other, all things considered, innocent explanation.
The second jet flying into the second tower nixed those theories and threw us all into a new, unimaginable landscape. It would be a few minutes yet before we heard about the third plane crashing into the Pentagon in Washington and a forth crashing into a field in rural Pennsylvania.
I’d been scheduled to introduce a speaker later that morning at a meeting of some of our region’s most influential people. They’d been closed up in a meeting room since breakfast. By the time I arrived, the first World Trade Center tower had collapsed. The fall of the second was expected momentarily.
I realized quickly that the group I was to speak to had no idea what had occurred on outside their doors, I called the meeting host out into the hall and brought her up to date. She then asked me to go into the meeting room and repeat what I’d said for the audience there.
As a researcher, I sometimes have to deliver bad news. My approach is to do this as factually as possible so that there is no confusion or hyperbole. As I began to describe the morning’s events, I could see my audience reacting with absolutely amazement as I described the first plane hitting the first building. Like me, their first impulse was to find some rationale explanation. When I got to the second jet and the second tower, their initial expressions of sadness and amazement were replaced by a steely look of horror.
When I continued by telling them about the third and fourth planes, the fire at the Pentagon, the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower and the imminent collapse of the second, they were dumbstruck. This was simply too much to digest at one time. As they caught their breath, some ran out to the phones to check on family members, friends and associates working at the World Trade Center. Others bowed their heads in prayer.
Curiously, given all that was going on, the event host felt it would help people if we maintained some sense of order. The person I was to introduce was asked to make his presentation. I feel confident, though, that no one who was present in that room, including the speaker, can remember a thing that was said.
My story ends ten months later in Paris, of all places. My wife and I were standing at the hilltop overlook in front of the Sacré Coeur basilica when we noticed an American fighter jet flying overhead accompanied by two French Mirage fighter jets. Because France had denied the United States air space for military aircraft, we knew the presence of an American fighter jet in the sky over Paris was not routine. We stood puzzled and more than a little shocked as the three fighter jets crossed the horizon. No one else seemed to take notice of it, and as we walked the mile or so back to our hotel we could find no news or other explanation for this unprecedented flyover.
That evening at dinner we met a couple from Texas who’d been out at Versailles when the jets passed over. In the days that followed it seemed that whenever we came across other Americans the first question they’d ask was, “Did you see those jets the other day?” Like the afternoon JFK died and the morning in 2001 when terrorists turned airplanes into weapons, we all knew about it and remembered exactly where we were when it happened.
The View from Sacré Coeur, 2002