Sunday, September 9, 2018

Revisiting My 9/11 Diary Pages

Last week I mentioned updating a Pinterest site about Verizon's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The site also links to words I originally shared on the company's intranet site on the 2002 anniversary, when employees were encouraged to post memories and tributes.

I had a panoramic view of the 9/11 attacks in New York from Verizon offices on the 32nd Floor of 1095 Avenue of the Americas. My job then, as it is today, was as a media spokesperson. I worked straight through for the next two days, returning home the evening of my 15th wedding anniversary on 9/13.

This week I recalled that in 2001 I was keeping a "Baby Diary" -- so named because I started it when my first daughter was born, a decade earlier.

What follows are edited versions several Baby Diary entries at the time, interspersed with photos I took when assisting the New York Archdiocese with media relations during Pope Francis' visit to the 9/11 Museum in 2015:


10/6/01 - I am still at a loss about what to write. I tried to write that evening (9/11), when I found myself in a small room at the Roosevelt Hotel on Lexington and 45th. I couldn’t; not then.

[My wife] Nancy called to alert me to the disaster. I didn’t think much of it after I spoke to her, figuring that it must have been a tiny, misdirected plane from Teterboro that accidentally hit one of the towers. However, I noticed headlines pop up on the NewsEdge system on my desktop, and I went to the side of my floor that faces the Trade Center to look out the window.

I was taken aback by what I saw. This was no small plane, and I knew from looking at it that this would not be small damage. I thought “hundreds of lost lives; billions in cleanup and reconstruction and lawsuits — this is bad.” It didn’t occur to me at that point that the tower might collapse, or even that it was a terrorist attack.

I watched with a group of co-workers as smoke billowed from the Trade Center. We had a clear, unobstructed view of the scene from a wall of ceiling-high windows. The scene was far enough away that we felt safe, but close enough to be dramatic — as if we were watching a 3-D movie on a huge, clear screen.

The scene especially shook one woman in the group, Kathleen, who normally lives and works in Texas. She witnessed the first plane hit the tower. Her reaction was unnerving, but genuine, emphasizing the gravity of the situation.

Soon Peter, my boss, was hurrying back from a meeting on the 39th Floor executive offices. He pronounced that it was certainly a commercial airliner that had hit the tower. Peter, as always, was wonderful throughout that first day and the days that followed, although he sometimes played the role of a one-man Greek chorus. After the second plane hit, he predicted tens of thousands of deaths and later said we would smell the stench of dead bodies in New York in the days to follow. On those important points, he was wrong.

In those first moments, I tried to read the news accounts of the first plane, but I kept circling back to the scene at the southern window. I was debating to myself whether I should keep a breakfast meeting I had arranged with Greg, a former co-worker at "Catholic New York" who is now an on-air financial newscaster on CNNfn.

Greg had called me recently to set up a breakfast since he does not have to arrive at his studio at the Nasdaq center near my office until late morning. That morning, before work, I had driven Nancy crazy as I searched for a wallet-sized photo of the kids so I could show Greg. We only had 5x7s, the family photo that was my Father’s Day gift, and I had that photo stuffed in my jacket pocket throughout the next three days.

So I wasn’t really paying attention when I heard a collective scream from the group who had gathered at the window following the first attack. Something else had happened. When I focused, I saw a billow of fire coming from the other tower.

Several immediate thoughts leapt to mind. "This is a terrorist attack." Then, "Why wasn’t the second plane shot down before it hit the tower?" Detached and dispassionate, I saw my co-workers involved and shaken. Jane, who works in Employee Communications, came up with tears in her eyes and asked, "What do we do now?" I hesitated, because my first thought was to respond, "We say a prayer." But I self-censored my reply because I thought it would be pompous and over-dramatic, so I simply said, "I don’t know."

Then, I returned to my desk, where headlines confirmed that this was a terrorist attack -- and I left the building.

I wasn’t frightened, but I had promised to meet Greg at the Royalton, 44 W. 44th, at 9:15 -- and since I couldn’t contact him (our cell phones weren’t working) and couldn’t do anything productive at the office, I felt I should at least attempt to meet him there. I also felt relieved to have an excuse to leave the building for a few minutes. When I arrived at the restaurant, which is only a two-minute walk from my office, it surprised me to see a few diners having leisurely breakfasts. I felt uneasy waiting inside among these people, so I waited for Greg outside the front door. I soon saw him hurrying down the sidewalk.

"Did you hear what happened?" he said. "I just dropped off my kid at school and I was on the subway and someone said there was an explosion at the World Trade Center."

"Both towers," I said. "Two planes."

"Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center?" he repeated, in disbelief.

"You have to go to work," I said, and we shook hands and wished each other luck.

Soon back at the office, I kept wandering by the southern window on the 32nd Floor, where the crowd was still gathered. All the TVs on the floor were turned to the news stations. After a while, I heard another collective gasp and cry, but I saw only a cloud of smoke. It was 9:59 a.m. The South Tower had collapsed.

I was not frightened. I knew officials had grounded all planes, and I figured that by now the military would shoot down anything that approached New York. It surprised me to read one news story about a plane possibly hitting the Pentagon. Just hysterical overreaction, I thought. But when I read a headline about another plane crashing in Pennsylvania, I immediately believed the report about the Pentagon, and I immediately assumed that passengers had given up their own lives to crash the other plane in the middle of nowhere.

Around 10:28 a.m., when the North Tower collapsed, our phones were ringing incessantly. A young New York Times reporter wanted to know if Verizon’s calling volumes had increased. My colleague Eric took the call and stared in disbelief at the phone before calmly telling the reporter, whose deadline was not for another 10 hours, "We’ll get back to you."

Everyone in the office knew this story was much, much bigger than anything involving phone service.

Peter then informed us we had to evacuate the upper floors of our building, by order of the police. I felt safe where I was. I had access to phone lines and computer hookups, Internet info, email, printers, news feeds and TV monitors. I didn’t relish the thought of taking my laptop and non-working cell phone and trying to work from another location. I stayed at my post and wrote a quick statement for Peter and Eric, which served as our talk points that day and our news release statement.

Still, Peter insisted we vacate the floor. "Non-essential" staff was sent home. I can only imagine what a nightmare it must have been trying to get home that morning or early afternoon. The media staff reported to the fifth floor, where phones and a temporary "command center" had been set up.

Arriving at the fifth floor, we were told to report to the fourth floor -- and our command center turned out to be simply the cubicles of other people who had been sent home. In a nearby conference room, Operations people huddled around a speakerphone to sort out the impact on phone service. It took hours to get a temporary connection to our LAN to once again have access to email, news reports and a printer. Until early afternoon I had no more information to offer reporters than our initial statement.

That’s pretty much how the first day passed... Confused, sometimes conflicting, snippets of information from the open Operations conference call line. A lot of hurry, followed by a lot of waiting. It often seemed I was helping no one, and I worried about home. Still, my family knew I was safer where I was. By then all bridges and tunnels out of the city had been closed. Airports were closed and would remain so for several days. If you were in New York past 3 p.m. that day, you’d be in New York overnight.

10/7/01 - Also that first day, I recalled two curious incidents I had witnessed just days earlier involving police and firemen.

One morning I saw a Port Authority police officer pass by the fruit stand on the sidewalk near the corner of 8th and 40th. The officer reached down and grabbed a plum as he walked past, with no intention of paying for it. He bit into it and gave me a threatening look. I felt as if I was at fault because I had noticed him swipe the plum.

Then, the morning before the terrorist attacks, I saw a fire truck cause a commotion on 8th Ave., right outside the Port Authority. Traffic was backed up in front of the building, yet the truck flashed its lights and sirens, with one tire on the sidewalk, until it broke through the traffic and made a right on 42nd. The truck had come close to hitting a few pedestrians, eliciting shouts and curses from those on the street.

When the truck completed its turn, it immediately turned off its siren and joined the more free-flowing traffic on 42nd St. Walking, I even caught up with the same truck and watched it make a leisurely right onto Broadway and head downtown. It was full of boisterous white males, lounging and laughing. It was absurd. The only explanation was that they were responding to an alarm that had been lifted as they made their reckless turn.

Since they were heading south that day, on 9/11 I thought of them again. I wondered whether they, or the petty-theft police officer, had been killed, like so many other firefighters and policemen, when the World Trade Center collapsed.

There’s no rhyme or reason; there’s no justice. The heroes are very human -- and the hijackers, also very human, would not have committed suicide without what they thought was a good reason. I remember watching scenes from the Gulf War several years ago. I had commented to Nancy, "Someday someone will blow up the Empire State building, and we won’t know why."

As always, it’s difficult to discern the truth. You read spy novels, or the conspiracy theories that abound about the Kennedy assassination or after any other emotional incident, and you’d think the world is run by smart, powerful people. You’d think the great masses of us are well-protected or easily-manipulated, depending on the situation.

In reality, we proved ourselves to be an uncontrollable rabble of a society to let this happen. Airline security, the CIA, the armed forces, border guards, our political leadership... all were caught napping. The hijackers weren’t sophisticated, moneyed or clever. When President Bush threatened reprisals against "all who harbored or helped" the terrorists, I thought, "What? Bomb the flight academy in Florida where they taught the hijackers how to fly? Burn down Paterson, where several of the hijackers lived? Raid the travel agency in Totowa that sold one-way tickets to a hijacker?"

I’ve also read that on the other side of the globe many people have twisted their own "truths." They believe hijackers didn’t destroy the Trade Center. They insist it’s a CIA conspiracy to make it look like a terrorist attack to elicit public support for further U.S. military action. This proves that people can be foolish all over the world. This should be a commonality that brings people together, but perhaps people are too foolish to realize even this.

After Mass that first Sunday, our church organist played "God Bless America" after the closing hymn. Nancy and I sang along with the congregation. Earlier that week, all our neighbors’ homes displayed American flags, and we put up an American flag too. Meanwhile, a political commentator on a late-night talk show called "Politically Incorrect" made a crude point that it had been "cowardly" for the U.S. to launch cruise missiles on targets thousands of miles away during the Gulf War. The commentator later apologized for his remark, but the White House press secretary commented that Americans, in times like these, "have to watch what they say and watch what they do."

Watch what you say? What is America, if it has turned into a country where you have to watch what you say? What were we in church singing about, exactly?

10/9/01 - People are being nicer to each other in the days since 9/11. People are more polite. When someone asks how you are, both question and answer are no longer automatic.

Just days after the tragedy, while waiting on one of New Jersey Transit’s long lines to catch a late 165 bus home, a young woman wandered to the platform and shouted obscenities to someone on the other end of her cell phone. Others generally tolerate this kind of behavior because confronting the offender only makes the situation worse.

But this woman looked into the sad eyes of everyone else on line and stopped in mid-sentence. She shut off her cell phone and after a moment’s pause simply walked away from the platform.

10/10/01 - As I’ve mentioned, on the evening of 9/11, I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel. By coincidence Verizon had scheduled a senior management meeting for the next day, and the company had reserved a block of hotel rooms for the now-canceled event. It would otherwise have been very difficult for me to stay anywhere but my office that night.

That first night, I couldn’t stop watching the news reports. At a business breakfast the other day, an anthropologist called this typical reaction "a voyeuristic indulgence of the disaster pornography being broadcast."

I went to bed late that night even though I had volunteered to be the first one in the next day at 4:30 a.m.

Walking to work at 4:15 that morning was one of the most memorable several minutes of my life. I walked from Lexington and 45th because there were no taxis; no cars on the street at all. The streets seemed oddly lit, and on every corner stood an armed police or military officer.

I held my Verizon badge aloft to these people as I walked past. In front of the main branch of the Library, 5th Ave. had been blocked off and barricaded. A military officer with a drawn machine gun guarded the barricade. Huddled behind him, in the middle of the avenue, three police officers warmed their hands around a makeshift fire. It was a scene out of Bosnia, but instead I was in Occupied America.

With sunrise, things turned less dramatic. It was another work day, with fewer people on the streets and filled with routine media calls. Reporters would ask if you were all right, and you’d ask the same in return. The Wall Street Journal’s offices had been destroyed, but the Journal managed to publish anyway. The reporters covering us worked from Dow Jones offices in Jersey City.

About mid-afternoon, the wind shifted to the north, and everyone in the office became aware of an acrid smell... a grim and now palpable reminder of the tragedy. Downtown, the site was still burning, and this was the smell of burning jet fuel. In my heart, I kept thinking about what Peter had said about decaying bodies, but in my head I knew that most bodies had been pulverized... simply turned to dust.

Read "9/11 Memories of an Invisible Man"
That night, I was glad to get back to my hotel room, where I turned on the air conditioning, watched the TV news coverage and showered for a long, long time.

The coverage, which had been valuable during the initial days, has now lapsed into feature stories covering every imaginable aspect of the incident. At one point a TV commentator said, "It’s a good thing the terrorists didn’t crash a plane into the Indian Point nuclear plant. That would have caused a much larger loss of life." I wondered why the commentator thought it useful to give people the idea if they haven’t thought of it already.

One of the most touching reports involved a man I knew. He had been a tough executive at a Verizon predecessor company, and his son had been a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower. His son was only 25, and Doug had called in to a live newscast on the subject. He started to cry when he described his son’s life.

After I returned home on 9/13, I moved back to my usual office on 9/14 and handled usual assignments. Peter asked me to help a business journalist for The Independent. He happened to be in town and was now working on a story about the long-term economic impact of the attack.

The reporter had gained a reputation as a futurist because of a book he wrote. “It was pretty much on target," he said, "except that I missed the whole Internet aspect." I took him to interview our vice president of corporate strategy, and I apologized because the elevator guard searched his bag. "Not to worry," he told me, “This kind of thing is the way of life back home in London.”

And now the elevator guards search my own bags every morning when I report to work. It’s as if I’ve been posing as a mild-mannered phone company employee for over 16 years just so I can now sneak a bomb into the building.

Meanwhile, my daughters seem to be handling this as well as expected. Cathy is saving all issues of our local paper, The Record. At first, she didn’t want to be alone in the house, but now she wouldn’t mind it. Younger Maddy’s initial reaction was to get angry because "everyone wants to keep talking and talking about this."

One day, after Cathy was online on AOL, she questioned Nancy about why she wasn’t telling her the things in the special "what to tell kids section" that AOL had posted. Cathy and I also both remember, with much guilt, how when we used to play Microsoft Flight Simulator together on the computer many months ago, we used to deliberately crash our simulated planes into the Trade Center towers.

10/11/01 - It’s now a month since Sept. 11, and I’ve written 10,000 words since – and still nothing makes sense.

Needless to say, our 15th wedding anniversary wasn’t very festive, but our small family was happy to be safe and in one place. Life at work has returned to normal "or whatever nomal is these days," as the latest cliche goes.

Nancy and I are buying new bedroom furniture for Cathy. She picked what she wanted from an Ikea catalog, but Nancy was reluctant to purchase so much furniture sight unseen. She kept promising to drive to the Ikea showroom in Elizabeth to check things out. Nancy finally did so early last week after Cathy kept placing pink "Take Us to Ikea" Post-It notes around the house.

Cathy and Maddy were playing a running game of "Barbie Village" in Maddy’s room about two weeks after the terrorist attacks. It was cute in the beginning, with dolls and houses and streets and Barbie cars in a neat makeshift town on Maddy’s floor. But urban blight soon took its toll, and Maddy’s room once again became a mess. This led to another talk with the kids about the state of their rooms, and this time Maddy has taken the criticism to heart because her room has been clean for days. Our 8-year-old-soon-to-be-30 has even hung a rewriteable poster board, where she now jots "to do" lists for herself.

Meanwhile, Nancy bought frozen margarita mix this past weekend, and Maddy crushed the ice for us. Cathy innocently asked, "Is this a drink kids would like?"

I’m writing this during my morning commute into work. New York City is shrouded in mist, so I can’t see its hollowed skyline from this bus.

Last night, I went to a play, "Contact." It was an outing for about 20 Public Relations colleagues held at Lincoln Center on the night of our previously scheduled annual planning meeting. The play featured marvelous dancers, set in scenes involving swing music. At curtain call, the music switched to Van Morrison’s "Moondance," which the cast danced to with a casual and fluid joy.

This set the stage for a wonderful walk home for me on a clear, cool night, more than 20 blocks down 9th Ave. to the Port Authority. There were many odd and curious sights among the neon lights and the shadows. I couldn’t guess what I might encounter from one street to the next. Near 50th Street, a homeless man began coherently cursing the historical Cleopatra. It made no sense, and yet it made perfect sense. All the people around me were diverse and full of stories. An uneasy excitement filled the air.

I hope, when my daughters get older, that New York will still be like this for them. In the wake of Sept. 11, I pray this special place does not become shallow and predictable and intolerant.

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