Michael Howerton: Distance of time and place offers no escape from 9/11
I left New York nine years and four months ago to return to my home state of California. I was saddened and shaken by the previous eight months I spent reporting on the terror attacks and the deaths of so many Fairfield County residents for The Advocate, and, I admit, I felt a sense of relief at the prospect of escape to the opposite coast.
I moved back two weeks ago.
My family and I are getting settled in New Jersey, and it has been strange to take stock of the city's skyline as I now ride in on the train from the west. I haven't been able to view the jumble of buildings shooting over the New Jersey marshes without thinking about the two that are missing. Moving back so close to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has been eerie, memories of the disaster are being brought doubly close.
I don't have to look at the newsstands for reminders of that day. They are everywhere. Late in the day on that Sept. 11, I rode in a subway car full of somber exhausted passengers toward Harlem. We were desperate to get home. A woman sighed and wondered out loud whether there could be a bomb under one of the seats. No one answered her, or, I think, blamed her. It was on all of our minds. The sensation of riding the subway changed on that day. I remember it every time I board.
Who wants to revisit 9/11? Not me. It was a terrible day that has had frightful consequences over the last decade. The newsstands have lately been full of reminders that I don't really wish to see. I understand that 10 years is a natural marker for reflection, for attempting to find some new meaning in the distance. I don't have any fresh insights on this anniversary, only feelings of sadness that so much had been lost.
I began my day on that Tuesday 10 years ago boarding an early morning subway for downtown from my Morningside Heights apartment, not driving out to Stamford as was usual. I had been called for jury duty for Sept. 11 and I did not want to be late. I was on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse on the bright and clear early morning when I heard the first plane fly over me, way too low, and the canyon of skyscrapers echo with the sonic disturbance. Then the sound of contact made everyone on the street freeze. I rushed along with dozens of others a few yards south to see the World Trade Center, a few blocks away, come into view, a gaping smoking hole at the top, surrounded by debris flickering in the sun. It was stunning, and incomprehensible. My senses evaporated, and my first thought, absurdly, was that I hoped no one had been hurt. Then the second plane hit, and everything was clear, and I knew I needed to get home. It would take 12 hours to get back to 125th Street. During those hours, I walked slowly north up the island with a growing crowd of people. I took out my notebook and played reporter to distract myself.
These are the memories that stand out 10 years later: A man, who told me he worked as a stand-up comedian, standing on a street corner in SoHo shouting, over and over, strangely but aptly, "This isn't comedy." Another man in a suit sat on a bench on Kenmare Street. He said he saw, just an hour before, the second plane hit the tower across from his office on the 37th floor of 7 World Trade Center and could see the panic as workers there realized there was no way out. "It's just terrible to see people trapped like that," he said. He said he had to get home to his wife, but he did not move. As I talked with him, we heard the terrifying boom of the first tower collapsing. He buried his head in his hands. When I crossed Houston I was surprised to see a nail salon open with customers. Someone bought a bag of peaches from a street vendor. Repeatedly, I saw people, coming across someone they knew, embrace and burst into tears.
I walked through midtown, to the offices of the Daily News, where they graciously gave me a desk and a computer and I tried to feign normalcy by working, calling my editor at The Advocate and filing a story of what I had seen. My colleague and good friend Matt Strozier was on his way to the city and my editor said he would tell him where to find me. Seeing Matt walk into the newsroom an hour later lifted my heart and I felt a little less scared on that insane day.
Over the next eight months, I spent a lot of time with two Stamford widows in particular, Donna Hughes and Beverly Eckert. I am grateful beyond words to them for sharing so much with me during such a horrible time and for keeping in contact with me for years afterward. I remember talking with Donna on Sept. 13, two days after her husband, Paul, left for work in the World Trade Center. In those early days, many held out hope that their loved ones were lost but not dead. Donna, a fifth-grade teacher at Roxbury Elementary School, did not entertain such thoughts. While we spoke, her daughter Amanda, then 10 years old, played in front yard, trying to walk the length of the curb without falling. It is astounding to think that she is an adult now.
I met Beverly a week later. She also knew her husband, Sean, was dead. She had been on the phone saying goodbye to him as he gasped for breath through his smoke-filled 105th floor office. Then she heard the line go dead when the building collapsed. Listening to her story on her back patio I lost all composure and began to tremble and sob. I put my useless notebook down. She hugged me and told me it was all right. I felt ridiculous, but also maybe for the first time that week I felt human. Beverly became one of the leading advocates for the families of 9/11 as well as for the humane treatment of terror suspects in the years after the attacks. Beverly died in a plane crash near Buffalo in February 2009, traveling home to mark what would have been Sean's 58th birthday and to start a scholarship in his name.
By the time the first anniversary came around, I was in California reporting for the Independent Journal in Marin County, and I found it disconcerting to be so far away. I had gone to California for a new start, but the story was very present there as well. One of the flights, Flight 93, had been bound for San Francisco and in the months leading up to the anniversary I spent time with many families who lost people on that fight. All of the stories were heartbreaking.
Lauren Grandcolas, a passenger of Flight 93, called her husband at their San Rafael home early that morning when she realized the plane wasn't going to make it. She was pregnant with their first child. She was supposed to have been on a later flight, but switched to be home earlier that day. The ringer in the house was turned off while her husband, Jack, slept. After he woke and heard the news reports, he figured Lauren's flight was cancelled. When her sister called to tell him Lauren had caught an earlier plane, Jack noticed he had a new message.
"Jack, can you hear me, sweetie? Pick up. OK. I just wanted to tell you I love you. There is a little problem with the plane. I'm totally fine. I just love you more than anything, know that. I'm fine and comfortable for now. I love you. Please tell my family I love them too. Goodbye Honey." A year later the message was still on his machine, giving him occasional comfort listening to her voice.
"That's death, in whatever form it comes in, and it's painful, especially when it's a young death," Jack told me nine years ago. "It takes all that you have together and all that you're every going to have together away. So you are kind of put on a new path. And you can either sit on that path and look backwards or you can start walking down it and try to focus forwards."
Others around San Francisco had equally wrenching stories of that day. A year had seemed to do little to quell the anger, confusion, quilt, sadness and depression left by the deaths of those dear to them. Has a decade done any better? I hope the last decade has been good and kind to most of them, that they have been able to, as Jack says, focus forward, and that the years have brought the families many new reasons to be glad. This was not the case, I can't help thinking, for Beverly.
Apart from the ugly politics, too many wars, exorbitant spending, economic troubles, increased security and social discord that have all been part of the legacy of 9/11, the human toll, the lives lost that day and the families affected, has been my most immediate connection to what the day has meant. For the dozens of people I spent time with on both coasts who lost loved ones, I wish them all the peace and happiness possible. They were all courageous and kind in the face of horrific personal devastation.
Now, 10 years on, I am left with many of my old feelings about the day. It was a day of sadness and loss, which over the years has led to more sadness and loss, and that's how it remains for me. The hope in commemorating any anniversary is to feel that the distance affords new perspectives, a way to realize that something is in the past, that time has moved on. In this case, for me, the decade hasn't eased the sense of emptiness. I still feel at a loss.