There was a statistic in today's paper that said that 90% of the people polled still remember where they were when they heard about the September 11, 2001 attacks. I was living in Illinois and I was in bed. As an incurable insomniac, I had only been in bed a few hours and I recall thinking as I turned over angrily to answer the ringing phone "it's too bloody early for phone calls, someone better be dead". I'd take those words back in a heartbeat now if I could. Even now, 5 years later when I'm awoken by the phone, my heart races and my mouth goes dry. The worst case scenario flashes through my mind.
It was my friend Caryn on the phone, telling me to turn the TV on. As she started to explain what was happening, terrorism was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought it was a fluke plane malfunction or case of pilot disorientation. Then the second plane hit, and I had to face that this was no accident. A third plane hit the Pentagon and you started to wonder what was next. I was working as an event planner for a major university at the time, and eventually I was called into work to start putting together an impromptu memorial service. With my family in New York and not everyone accounted for yet, I asked to be excused from having to attend and oversee the event. I wasn't ready to memorialize anything yet. I needed to focus on the living. I remember rushing home to watch CNN as soon as I could. Over the coming days and months and now years I've watched the same images over and over again. I've never gotten used to them or become immune to them, and I hope I never do.
I visited NY from Illinois in March of 2002, 6 months after the attack. Flying was still difficult then, but I felt it was important I come out here. CDC was with me on that trip and I remember him dragging me to a computer store in lower Manhattan. We were on the 4th or 5th floor of the store and I remember walking past the window that overlooked the site. The view of the debris and massive hole in a city of wall to wall structures was very jarring and it's an image that sticks with me still. Before I returned to Illinois from that trip, I bought a 9/11 photography book. My favorite photographer James Nachtwey has some of the most striking shots from that day and even though I knew it was a book I would rarely look at because of the emotions it evoked, I thought it was important to own. When I was packing the book wouldn't fit in my suitcase, so I stuffed it in the pocket of my carryon. Back then they were screening your bags at the gate again before you boarded the plane. The TSA woman who went through my bag pulled the book out and started flipping through the pages. I stood there waiting to board the plane as she soaked up the images, just as I had done in the bookstore. With a sad sigh, she turned the last page, returned my book to my bag and I got on the plane.
I live in New York City now. The sound and sight of low flying planes still makes everyone stop and look up, just for a second. I think in this city it always will. We've seen the worst case scenario and we know it could happen again.