It was the end of summer in 2001, and I was living in Portland, Maine. I had left Colorado to be with a boyfriend who traveled around the country working as an x-ray technologist, changing hospitals every few months. At the time it seemed like it might be an adventure, but not surprisingly it didn’t work out. Moving so often was too much for me, and the relationship, which lasted a year, was soon a drain on both of us.
Before we ended things, however, we lived in an apartment next to the Portland airport. On the morning of September 11, my boyfriend had left for work, and I had started my freelance day. I was on the phone with the head of a PR agency in New York who had given me some writing assignments. In the middle of the conversation she suddenly said, “Faye, I have to get off the phone. Richard [her husband] just called. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” She hung up.
I stood for a moment with the phone in my hand, and then turned on the television set. There was a lot of confusion about what was going on. A plane had hit one of the towers, but no one was sure what kind of plane. Was it a small plane? An accident? What was happening? Visuals showed smoke billowing out of the tower.
It was only when the second plane hit, a short time later, that it sunk in that this was a terrorist attack. Then events began to unfold like scenes in a nightmare. A plane hit the Pentagon. Another went down in a field in Pennsylvania. Life in the U.S., at least on the East Coast, ground to a halt as shock, and the realization of what was happening, took hold.
The phone rang in the apartment. I grabbed the receiver, and heard the voice of a close friend named Tom who lived in Rockland County, just a half hour north of Manhattan, across the Hudson River. Rockland is the suburban home of many New York City police and firefighters. “They took out the tower,” Tom said, sounding strangled. I looked back at the TV and saw the first tower implode and crash to the ground.
Somehow Tom made his way to Ground Zero either that day or the next. He told me that when he passed through security, he was asked for his credentials. He had heard people say things like, “FDNY” and “FBI.” When they asked Tom who he was with, he said, “USA.” They looked at him and then at the firefighters who had brought him, and waved him through.
Tom called me again from a pay phone on a street corner, after spending hours on the digging line. He told me everything was covered in dust. He said, “We have to pull someone out of there. We have to.” They didn’t.
I remember the eerie silence in the sky that lasted for days above the apartment. Before, the sound of planes taking off and landing had been a distraction and an annoyance. Now the silence made my heart ache.
It took days for things to feel anything like normal. To be honest, I’m not sure if things feel “normal” even now, nine years later.
When U.S. airspace reopened a few days after the attack, I heard the roar of a jet engine as the first plane took off from the airport in Portland. I looked out the window and watched it rise from the runway and soar over the building. Never had an airplane looked so beautiful to me, or so vulnerable.
I said a silent prayer for everyone on that plane, and watched it disappear into the sky.