I was still living in New York City on that perfectly sunny Tuesday morning. I was working at the time for a company in Queens that evaluates employment and academic credentials of foreigners interested in working or studying in the United States. I didn't have to be at work until 10 a.m. My alarm went off at 8:30, and as usual, I continued to lie in bed, listening to Don Imus' morning talk show, planning to get out of bed and grab some breakfast at 9. At about 10 to nine, a reporter who lived in the Tribeca neighborhood of downtown Manhattan reported that there was some sort of fire in one of the Twin Towers, possibly caused by a small plane crashing into the building and that there was a hole in the building itself. Not even thinking at the time of the dead and wounded who could have resulted from the crash, I got out of bed early and turned on the TV.
There was truly a large hole in one of the buildings. Large amounts of smoke were rising from the hole. CNN was reporting that some sort of plane (at the time, it was thought to have been a small, private, or cargo plane) had crashed into the building and that firemen were at the scene trying to put out the flames. I called my father, who works in midtown Manhattan on 43rd Street, about 60 blocks from where the Twin Towers stood. I asked him, still watching the images on TV with some sort of childish curiosity, as opposed to any sort of fear or sadness, "Did you hear that some plane crashed into the building? There's a huge hole in it?" He responded that he had heard something on the radio playing in his eyeglasses store, and that he could clearly see the smoke rising over the New York skyline as he looked down 5th Avenue.
What we all found out later was that "small plane" was actually a hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, that had crashed into the North Tower. Minutes later, as I was watching it live on television, a second hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 175, also from Boston, crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center and exploded. Both buildings were now burning, and suddenly the feeling had dramatically changed from "Holy crap, there's a hole in one of the twin towers!" to "Oh my God, someone is purposefully flying airplanes into the Twin Towers... we are under some sort of attack!"
I called my father once again and told him what had happened, and of course, he had heard about it already. I pleaded with him to close the store for the day, and to try to come home. He was still unsure at the time, but he called back a few minutes later, telling me that he was going to leave then. This was after the mayor Rudolph Giuliani had ordered all subways, buses, bridges and tunnels in New York City closed, leaving my father with the only option of walking home.
It was then time for me to somehow focus on getting ready for work, and to take on the task of leaving my TV for my car. I was listening to the radio on the way to work when at at 9:43 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. I really can't describe what I was feeling then, except that somehow I had a need to get inside somewhere (as if that was really actually safe). I was speeding in my car to get to work, and finally arrived at about 10, just in time to turn on the television and watch the south tower of the World Trade Center collapse, plummeting into the streets below.
At this point I had lost contact with my father, because cell phones in the city at that time were completely out of service. My father, who was on his way walking home back into Queens across the 59th Street bridge, along with tens of thousands of others, later described the scene as how he imagined the Ancient Hebrews exiting from Egypt.
The next few hours remain a blur. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in Western Pennsylvania. The North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. No more Twin Towers. Now the tallest building in the city is the Empire State Building. Is my father okay? I called up my friends at the Wetlands Preserve, where I had worked that preceding summer, who were in Tribeca, a mere 11 blocks from the towers. The mayor was speaking about an unimaginable number of deaths from the attacks. President Bush was promising to punish those responsible (who apparently, he had already made up his mind, had a close connection to Saddam Hussein). I remember driving later in the day on the Long Island Expressway to pick up my brother at work (He usually took the Long Island Railroad, which of course was by then closed.), and everyone was driving in the right lane so the two left lanes could be for emergency vehicles. What's this? New Yorkers driving with a human soul?
Finally my father arriving after a four-hour walk home. My other brother and I talking about possibly enlisting in the army to defend "the greatest country in the world," my sister and brother-in-law showing up at my house with an umbrella with a picture of the Twin Towers, joking about whether it was appropriate... seeing Palestinians dancing in the streets, watching television stations show the video of the plane crashing into the Towers over and over and over...
It was a horrible experience. I knew that for at least a few hours, we were not in control. I felt so angry at the time at Muslims, at the fact that the country was attacked, at the fact that people were making jokes about it (in a way I guess to retain some bit of sanity), at the way the media infantalized the story, at everything about that day. I even felt angry at the fact that it was so sunny. Maybe if it was cloudy the attack would somehow not have taken place. I felt anxious. For weeks and months afterwards, I found it almost impossible to pull myself away from the TV, internet, and radio and to actually concentrate on school papers, and the simple act of having something to eat. But most of all, I felt deeply sad.
Now, four year later, I just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, in which nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father was killed in the World Trade Center restaurant Windows on the World, refers to that terrible Tuesday simply as "the worst day." I guess that label fits. Although to be accurate, there have been far worse catastrophes in American and world history in terms of number of dead and total destruction the current situation in New Orleans seems to exceed the 9/11 attacks on both those counts. Earthquakes in Iran, nuclear bombs in Japan, plagues in Europe they all seemed to eclipse the World Trade Center attacks in numerous ways. But there was something about those attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland that seemed like, at least for some people, it truly couldn't get any worse - some sort of total horror, helplessness, anger, but most of all, utter and complete sadness.
Hearing the individual stories come out in the days and months after the attack; of the people who were killed, of the firefighters and police, of the acts of kindness, of the joyful claims of responsibility by a group named Al-Qaida; it was in the end far less maddening than horribly sad. What had happened? I still don't know. I still feel pain and sadness, and anger and fear, four years later and on the other side of the world here in Jerusalem. I fell asleep that night, afraid of the dark. It was, in all ways possible, the worst day.
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