September 19, 2006

Five Years After 9/11

By Gene Bromberg © 2006

I worked the early shift on September 11, 2001, arriving at my desk a little before 7AM. My friend Scott was there already, listening to something New Wavy on his CD player. I've mentioned several times that I don't like heights, but having worked on the 38th floor of the US Steel Building for over a year I didn't get spooked looking out the windows at the city spread out below me. I don't remember if I looked out the windows that day--probably I did. It was a beautiful day, practically no one else was on the floor. I probably looked out the window.

I really disliked the job I had at the time, but mornings weren't too bad, not too many calls, and Scott and I talked across the lane separating our cubes. There were two extremely pretty girls who worked in the department next to us, and when the drop-dead gorgeous one walked past he spun around and made a point of saying good morning to her. I vividly remember him looked back at me, closing his eyes, and making an "ooooh" face.

The office filled up, I started getting more calls. Closing in on 9AM, Scott turned to me, his hand pressing the earpiece of his headset, and he said, "My brother said a plane just hit the World Trade Center." I said something along the lines of "Holy Shit". His brother worked in New York City, and in fact had been able to see the first tower burning. But he didn't know what sort of plane had hit it, and I figured, as lots of people did, that it had been a small commuter plane or something along those lines that somehow blundered into the building.

I checked It wouldn't load. And then I noticed something else strange. We weren't getting any calls. Nine in the morning was usually our busiest time of the day, but the phones were silent. I stood up in my cube, and there were several other people prairiedogging, talking about the news that was slowly spreading through the office.

I tried CNN again, and this time the front page loaded. But instead of a graphic-filled page of pictures and headlines, it was blank, except for one picture--a blurry image of a streaking jet about to slam into one of the Twin Towers. It wasn't a commuter plane. It was a passenger plane, a jet. There was a plain headline above it, I don't recall exactly what it said, but it stated the obvious, that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

The word "terrorism" still didn't enter my mind. I thought it might've been some dreadful accident. My wife was home that day, and I tried calling her, but I couldn't get through. We weren't getting any calls either. It was strange, everyone standing in their cubes, not sure what was going on, the phones eerily silent.

I tried Jody again, and this time I got through. I woke her up, told her what was going on in New York and asked for info. She switched on the TV, and I remember how shocked she sounded. The towers were both burning. I think this was the first that I heard that BOTH buildings had been hit. I was one of the few people who could get a call out, and I relayed the news as Jody told me what she saw on TV.

I hung up, and walked a few rows over to make sure someone else knew what was going on. My mother worked on the same floor as me (she worked with the two gorgeous girls) and told her what I knew. People were milling around now, not interested in work anymore. Of course we knew now that this hadn't been an accident. Mom and I talked a few seconds, and then I went back to my desk. Her boss told her to go down to the cafeteria and see what was happening on TV.

Small bits of information started filtering in, and that's when I started to get nervous--really nervous. There was a report that a plane had crashed along the Mall in Washington DC. Then we heard that a plane had struck the Sears Tower in Chicago. Then that a plane had hit the Pentagon. It turned out that only the last of those was true--the Sears Tower had actually ordered a total evacuation. But standing in the tallest building in Pittsburgh, with the World Trade Center hit and the Sears Tower also possibly struck, it didn't take too much imagination to conjure up a terrorist plot to hit the tallest buildings in the United States.

We weren't getting calls. I tried calling Jody a few more times, and eventually I got through again. When she told me that one of the towers had collapsed, I told her she was wrong, there was NO WAY a building that size could just collapse. In a voice almost impossibly calm, she told me that the one tower had collapsed, nothing was left. There was only one tower standing there. The other one was gone.

I relayed the news to everyone around me. Most people reacted the way I did--they didn't believe it. I tried to get my mind around what she'd told me. A building that size...I tried to calculate how many people might've died. It seemed possible that tens of thousands might've lost their lives. At the time I thought the building might've toppled over and flattened other buildings, and getting all my information second hand I couldn't comprehend what was happening.

What happened next pushed the day's events into the surreal. We'd heard reports of other suspicious aircraft across the country (someone said that a plane was ominously orbiting Reagan Airport) and a guy I knew heard that there was a suspicious aircraft in Somerset County. Somerset County? That's where the lake house I write about all the time is. That's an hour or so drive away. An airliner could travel that distance in ten minutes.

In fact, United 93 had already crashed in Shanksville, the message got garbled on its way up to us on the 38th floor. But this is when I got scared. I knew the World Trade Center had been hit, and we'd heard reports of the Sears Tower and Pentagon being hit. If this was a far-ranging plan, it was entirely possible that our building could be a target. And here we were, standing around and looking at each other, not sure what to do.

(In truth, Flight 93 flew directly over Pittsburgh. Had al Qaeda decided to go after tall buildings to maximize the death toll, I might be dead right now. But they wanted to hit symbolic targets, and the Capitol Building and/or the White House have a bit more symbolism than a big office building. Another advantage to living in an underappreciated city like Pittsburgh).

I wanted to get out of there. We weren't working, we were just standing around talking about what bits of news we were getting, and I started to get edgy as I realized that this was a really, really bad day to be standing around in a very tall building.

The decision to evacuate the building came about like most decisions in a big corporation--slowly. We asked our supervisors if we should leave. That was a mistake--we should've said, "Considering the circumstances, we're leaving. Bye." Instead we waited for the go-ahead to leave. The bosses were gathered in one of the glass-walled offices, talking to the folks who operated the building. My mind started playing tricks on me. The air conditioning kicked on, there was this noisy rush of air, and I felt a wave of panic as I imagined that oncoming roar of jet engines. Around 10:45 the meeting broke up, the bigwigs started talking to the supervisors, and my boss walked over and said we could leave. I was all packed up and ready to go. But when I walked over to get my mom and leave with her, she was standing in her cube and said her boss hadn't given them the OK yet.

"We're leaving, NOW." I said. Everyone else was heading for the stairs and the elevators and I helped her gather up her stuff and we headed for the stairs. Let me tell you, that was a long, LONG walk down. The US Steel Building is shaped like a triangle, not a square or rectangle, and each floor required us going down three flights of stairs, turning, turning, turning. The stairwell walls are concrete, so the sound of so many voice and footsteps became so loud we couldn't if there were any instructions being broadcast on the loudspeakers. And as we marched down, it was hard not to imagine that there had been probably been people trying to evacuate from the World Trade Center the same way we were.

I always liked leaving that building, because I hated the job and leaving meant a brief bit of freedom. But leaving that day brought me another sort of relief. I wanted to get as far away as possible from the building as soon as possible. Mom called my Dad to say that we'd been evacuated and that'd I'd give her a ride home. The streets were filled with people who had been sent home. There were lots of cops around, directing traffic and I guess looking for anything suspicious. We walked to the Strip District and the lot where I parked my car. God, it was a gorgeous day.

Cars were leaving the lot by the dozen. I turned on NPR to hear the news, and I think that's when we learned that both towers of the World Trade Center had been destroyed. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that these two massive building were gone. We drove home and I tried to imagine how many people had died. It seems a miracle now that only 3,000 died, as if that number could ever be preceeded with the word "only".

On the 31st Street Bridge we hit the light, and I looked out the window and saw my building standing out of the Pittsburgh skyline. On that day, it wasn't hard to imagine a jetliner appearing out of that clear blue sky and slamming into it.

The local news did a brief report, and there was a bit saying that local blood banks would be open late to take donations, and my Mom said she'd be going to donate that night. Later that night she called me and said not to bother donating myself--when she went they turned her away because there were too many volunteers. And, sadly, much of that blood went to waste, because there weren't many survivors of the attacks.

Driving up Mt. Royal Boulevard to my parents house we heard about the plane that crashed in Someset County. You can't believe how bizarre it was to hear that the plane went down just short of Indian Lake, PA. Indian Lake is the lake my friend's house is on. New York City. Washington DC. Indian Lake. It was like something out of the Twilight Zone.

Dropped Mom off and headed home. And there I saw the film of the planes hitting the towers, and then the towers collapsing. We sat there all day, watching the coverage, which didn't do much to make what happened seem real instead of a nightmare. A few times we went outside and looked up, and we didn't see any planes or contrails. Except for one time, we heard (but didn't see) the roar of a jet flying way overhead.

I didn't know anyone who died on 9/11. A long time later Jody found out that a girl she'd briefly shared a suite with in college had worked on one of the top floors of one of the Towers and died. It is too horrible to contemplate what those people endured before the end. Equally horrible is how many firefighters and police died trying to save the lives of others.

In the days and weeks that followed, our nation exhibited so much compassion and determination that even now I find myself moved by some of the memories that keep bubbling up as I watch CNN's coverage this morning. I watched 9/11 on CBS last night, which is one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made. I remembered members of Congress gathering on the steps of the Capitol and then bursting into God Bless America. We went to church that Sunday (it was packed, of course) and we sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Not a dry eye in the house. Not mine, anyway.

Nations around the world rallied to our side. "Nous sommes tous Américains" read the headline of Le Monde. We are all Americans. The international community condemned the attack for what it was, an act of unspeakable barbarism. 9/11 looked like it would be a strategic miscalculation on the scale of Pearl Harbor. The sleeping giant had awoken, and a cruel reckoning would be had.

It's five years later. Osama bin Laden is still out there, scrabbling around in a cave somewhere, living in the darkness and depravity he thinks is all this world has to offer. Five years later and the United States is hated throughout the Middle East, in large part because of our invasion and occupation of Iraq, which is...a strategic miscalculation that rivals any in our nation's history. Thousands of our soldiers killed, tens of thousands wounded, hundreds of billions spent...and Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Nothing. We spent all that blood and treasure going after Iraq, while the people who attacked us on 9/11 still walk the earth.

We invaded Afghanistan, deposed the Taliban, helped set up a new government...and then we all pretty much forgot about Afghanistan. Five years later the Taliban are making inroads again, poppy cultivation is the basis of the economy, and there doesn't seem to be too much fuss made about it.

Iraq is a catastrophe with no end in sight. Iran has learned that if you're a member of the Axis of Evil, and you have nukes (North Korea), you'll be left alone. But if you DON'T have nukes, you'll get invaded (Iraq). Any wonder why the mullahs are so keen to ramp up their nuclear program?

We have captured a number of high-ranking al Qaeda operatives. And then taken them to secret prisons to be tortured. Or delivered them into the hands of vicious regimes to be tortured at arm's length. Or to Guantanamo Bay to be held without charge for year after year in an unconstitutional legal limbo. In order to keep us "safe" our government has decided that our calls should be open to wiretapping without warrants, even though there is already a law in place for these warrants to be quickly obtained. That the President should have the right to arrest and hold American citizens without charge or access to counsel. And our disgrace of a Congress just goes along with whatever the President says, ignoring it's responsibity to act as a check on unbridled executive power.

What's more, exercising our rights to free speech and a free press are now considered aiding and abetting the terrorists who hit us on 9/11 and would like to again. Pointing out the disastrous handling of the Iraq war and the lies that led up to it is encouraging the terrorists. Demanding that we come up with a plan to resolve the situation in Iraq, or that we not rush headlong into a war with Iran, is "appeasement", the crime committed by Chamberlain when he met with Hitler in Munich.

The fact that so many Americans think we should meekly surrender so many of our rights in the name of "security" is a absolute disgrace, and when this chapter in our nation's history is written we will have much to be ashamed of. The fact that the Bush Administration chose again and again to ignore the Constitution and go with with the lazy, easy, and venal path is to be expected, given their track record. But the fact that so many Americans think that the best way to be "safe" is to hand over power to the government and hope they'll take care of us is profoundly disturbing.

Last night ABC ran Part I of a show called Path to 9/11, which purports to tell of the actions that led up to the attacks of five years ago. If you follow the news you know that there is considerable controversy about this show, because the producers of it decided to "dramatize" the events. As if 9/11 wasn't dramatic enough. Their "dramatization" included things like making up conversations and events that didn't happen--like former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger refusing to give the CIA the go-ahead to kill bin Laden long before 9/11. One problem. This never happened. The producers at first said that their work was a documentary based on the 9/11 Commission Report. As people started seeing advance copies and finding egregious errors they frantically started backtracking, saying that the movie wasn't a documentary at all, that it was based on sources other than the Commission's report, and that it's made-up portions slam President Bush as well as former President Clinton. That's the stage we've gotten to in this country, that so long as you make up lies about one side, it's OK to lie about the other side too. "Truthiness" trumps the truth. It's difficult to conceive of the arrogance you'd have to have to make up stuff about 9/11, which is one of the most extensively examined and documented events in human history, and present it to the world as what "really happened". ABC should be ashamed of themselves. I hope most people had enough sense not to bother watching it, or to see it for the garbage it is, but I'm not optimistic.

The strength of our nation comes from our freedom, our liberty. Our rights as citizens are what our soldiers over the centuries have died to protect. It is an abomination that we should surrender them without a fight. And doubly so when it is our freedom to live as we choose that makes these terrorists want to attack us in the first place. They fear a nation of citizens free to speak freely, think freely, worship freely. They want a nation of slaves, who live with heads bowed, who want nothing out of life except to remain invisible, who tremble at the sound of a knock at the door. This is what we're at war with. We cannot allow fear to triumph over liberty. We cannot allow cowardice to be an excuse to surrender our rights. Maybe today's anniversary to provide a reminder to us all what courage really is, and what America really stands for.

Gene Bromberg is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA.

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