That morning twenty years ago began like so many others had for me. I rose early, conducted my morning ablutions, walked the dog and was in a cab heading to my office at the Sporting News before 7AM.
You could not help but notice that it was an extraordinarily beautiful day. The heat and humidity of summer had been replaced by clear blue skies and crisp fall like weather. The type of day my mother used to describe as being “positively Swiss.” It was so beautiful that I hesitated for a moment entering my building so I could enjoy it before putting my nose to the grindstone.
At 8:15 I was convinced that the most exceptional thing that was going to happen to me that day was that my assistant had actually arrived at the office on time and had kindly brought me my second cup of coffee. I thought it was going to be a good day even when I heard an airplane flying low and fast over our heads and casually remarked to her that the FAA didn’t take kindly to aircraft flying so low over the city.
That plane turned out to be the first plane which had lined itself up with the neighboring Empire State building and was flying down 5th Avenue at five hundred miles per hour. We found that out when someone came running in to my office to let us know that the Towers were on fire. We ran to the southern windows of our 27th floor office tower. It was from those windows that we watched in horror the moments that changed us forever.
We saw the second plane hit with a burst of orange flame. We watched first tower crumble and fall. And the second. We had no way of knowing or comprehending what we had just happened:
- 246 people who had bordered their flights minutes before had cruelly died when their planes had been converted to missiles.
- 2,606 innocently working at their desks had lost their lives in cloud of flame and dust.
- 343 firefighters ran into the Towers and never emerged.
- 60 police officers disappeared into the buildings never to be seen again.
- 8 paramedics went to save lives and lost theirs instead.
I had no way of knowing that my childhood friend and neighbor Todd Rancke , the first boy I had met when I moved to Summit was among the victims.
After making sure that my staff had a plan to get home, and my address in case they couldn’t I began my walk home. I remember seeing dust covered people, heads down, no doubt in shock, mechanically walking up town.
On Madison Avenue cars were lined up bumper to bumper but there were no horns indicating impatience of perceived slights, just the tramp of feet as pedestrians made their way home.
Cutting across the park, I saw groups of people huddled around boom boxes listening to broadcasts of the grim news of the day. Overhead, unbelievably, I heard the buzz of fighter jets patrolling the skies of my city. At the Imagine mosaic someone had already laid flowers. I remember thinking that the world of Lennon’s lyrics
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Never seemed so far away.
I got money from an ATM because cash comes in handy in a disaster. I shopped at an empty Fairway knowing the city could be cut off from food for days as they shut down all access to the city. I went home and turned-on CNN and waited for the waylaid and the dispossessed to arrive. They came. They went. And we watched endless loops of the Towers crumbling.
I remember the frustration trying to reach my parents on the phone. The collapse of the towers had knocked out a major switching station for AT&T and the cell phone lines were jammed. Only my Blackberry worked.
I will never forget how good it felt when I finally got hold of them hours later and tell them I loved them.
The next morning, I rose early and went for a long run as I was training for the Chicago Marathon which was only weeks away. I ran south along the West Side Greenway. As I approached the Chelsea Piers, I could see the smoke rising from the pile and seeing the nearly mile long line up of Ambulances waiting to assist those who were beyond assistance. I felt I had to do something.
After my run was complete, I went to the American Red Cross HQ near my home and waited for 16 hours to give blood that we hoped would be needed. When I emerged, the wind had shifted and the smell from ground zero now engulfed the city. It was like no other odor I had ever encountered. It was of death, fire and concrete dust and I wondered if this is the smell of hell.
I won’t lie. I didn’t go to bed that night thinking about the lessons we had learned in the last couple of days. At that point I was just grateful for the fact that most of those I loved and cared for were safe and sound. However, in the twenty years that have passed I have thought a lot about that day and what it has taught me.
- Be grateful for everything. Every day is a precious day and that I need to do all I can do to savor it.
- You don’t own a day you only rent it so you need to do your best and accept the stuff you cannot change.
- I have learned to open my heart bigger, to love all, and to accept all for their gifts.
- I have learned not to denigrate when I don’t understand someone or how they manifest themselves but instead to try to understand their journey.
- Hold all those that I love close to me. They are hot house flowers and could disappear in a moment…love now.
- Opportunities come in all forms. Be ready when the butterfly lands on your shoulder.
- Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And if the worst happens to look for the best in people even if they have not earned that trust.
- My family, my wife, my sister, brother, brother-in-law nieces and nephews are my most precious gift. I do what I can everyday to make sure they know they are cherished.
- Learn to love better every day. It is a skill that will never let you down.
I know we have not learned enough. This has been especially true in these days of Covid.
I think about how together we felt as a country in the days that followed 9/11 and how it good felt when everyone had each other’s back. Covid has separated us. Not brought us together. I lay much of the blame for that on our former President and his political allies who rallied to divide not to include. And to be blunt, I have grown intolerant of their bullshit.
To them I say September 11th should have taught you that we are all in this together. That you need to look out for your family, friends, and neighbors. That facts are facts. Cut the crap. Masks and vaccines save lives. Get vaccinated. Wear your masks. Do your part and get over yourself. Every person who died on that horrible day twenty years ago would do anything to be in your shoes.
Don’t besmirch their memory by being so wrapped up in your own nonsense that you don’t do whatever is necessary to save as many lives as you can.
Thank you Paul for writing this and sharing.