Tuesday, September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001

(Extra)ordinary

September 11, 2001
7:00am
I boarded the plane at O’Hare. The plane was empty – no more than 1/3 full. I was on a flight to Dallas, with a connection to San Francisco. The direct flight to San Francisco was another $2,000, so I had opted for the less convenient (but less expensive) flight with a connection.

7:48am
I’m asleep through the beverage service, since I bought my breakfast at the McDonald’s in the airport. 7:48am is when the first attack on the World Trade Center occurred. Though not obvious at the time, it later occurs to me that the flight attendants were nowhere to be found after the beverage service. The pilot makes no announcements.

8:45am
We’re not scheduled to land for another 45 minutes, but we’re in our initial descent. By now, the World Trade Center has been hit twice, and the Pentagon is about to be struck. Rather than raise alarm, the pilot and flight crew remain silent. Connecting flight information is announced as we prepare to land, as if everything is normal on the ground below.

9:00am
We land early – which could be a good thing, since there’s an earlier flight to San Francisco that means I won’t have to wait in Dallas for two hours. I check the flight board, and flights are showing on time departures – still no indication that there’s anything wrong. The first sign that something’s not normal is that there are groups of people huddled around televisions in the TGI Friday’s bar near the gate. That’s normal when there’s a big football or baseball game, but this was early in the morning. Must be a big news story.

I hear Tom Brokaw’s voice, but not the words. I see smoke coming from the top of the World Trade Center – it’s bad, but I have no clue how bad. I try to call Robin to tell her I’ve landed. My cell phone takes forever to connect – ordinarily a sign of congestion in the cell network. What could possibly be tying up the cellular network on a Tuesday morning? I finally get through, and that’s when she tells me about multiple hijackings and crashes. It’s hard to fathom – surely this is just rampant speculation, rumors passed on by the press? I tell her I’ll call back once I find out what the situation is in Dallas.

9:30am
I’ve called Hilton and reserved a room. I swing by the Admirals Club and catch the first gruesome video of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. It’s hard to process, but the building’s still standing – at this point, it seems possible that the worst is over. An announcement is made over the flight club intercom that all flights are cancelled for the day. None of us know that this is the first time in U.S. aviation history that all airports are shut down. At the desk, I’m told I’ll be put on an 8am flight to San Francisco departing tomorrow morning.

10:00am
Waiting for the courtesy shuttle to get me to the hotel, I try to get a rental car. Hertz has no cars available – anywhere in the Dallas area – for the next several days. American’s Executive Platinum desk tells me that they’ve been asked by the government to shut down for 72 hours. This is interesting, mainly because this isn’t being reported by any of the news organizations.

Calls made from my cell phone get through about one in ten attempts. One of these attempts reaches Mom – I’m able to tell her that I’m OK and on my way away from the airport. Through tears, Mom tells me that Tower 1 of the World Trade Center has collapsed. Standing on a curb of a mostly deserted airport, this is hard to internalize.

Gone? How could it be gone?

The shuttle finally shows up, and I’m glad to be going to the Hilton. It’s a good 4 miles away from the airport – far enough that if anything were to happen at the airport I should be safe.

I check in, and I have to beg for a room with a high speed Internet connection. It’s just becoming obvious that I could be stuck for days in Dallas – the least I can do is stay connected.

10:30am
I finally get to watch the news channels. Of the 30 channels in the hotel, 20 or more are tuned to one of four broadcasts: ABC News, Fox News, CNN, or NBC News. (ESPN and its affiliates are all pointing to ABC; TBS, TNN, CNN, CNN Headline News, etc. are all on CNN; NBC, MSNBC, CNBC are all pointing to the Brokaw/Williams broadcast.)

This is when it starts to sink in. We’ve been attacked. Not by thugs, or by simple terrorists. This is a more vicious attack than Pearl Harbor. The coordination becomes clear – they needed to know how to fly the planes to specific targets. There had to be multiple people to commandeer the planes and keep people subdued until impact.

None of the news outlets are speculating on fatalities, but it’s likely that it will be over 10,000. Considering that we lost just 2,000 at Pearl Harbor, and 50,000 soldiers in all of Vietnam, this will be devastating. The World Trade Center is gone – vanished into a pile of rubble. I’m still numb – the awesome power of the attack is lost on me, the loss of lives hard to wrap my arms around. We’re a country that reacts violently to an attack on dozens or hundreds of our citizens – and that pales in comparison to what we’re witnessing.

11:30am
The web sites of the major news organizations can’t handle the traffic. Foxnews.com, ABCNews.com, MSNBC.com – they’re all unreachable. CNN.com – who’s been online the longest, and learned lessons from JFK Jr.‘s flight, the British Nanny case, the Cole bombing – manages to stay up by putting up a stripped down home page with a link to just one page. It’s just one photo – of the impact of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. By later in the day, they manage to get more information up and online.

I get the most current information online by going overseas – the BBC’s web site had excellent information, including more information about the reaction abroad.

At this point, I start thinking about getting out of Dallas. I would prefer to drive, but it’s 1,000 miles and it later becomes obvious that there are simply no cars to be had. American is still staying that it will be at least two days before they can confirm flights out of Dallas, and at this point I’m not even sure I want to be on a plane at all. Amtrak becomes a surprising alternative – there’s a train leaving Dallas at 3:30pm that arrives in Chicago at noon tomorrow. I call Amtrak and make the reservation. I have two hours to get to the train station.

12:00pm
There’s a mall across the street from the hotel. I check out, leave my bags at the desk and go to the mall. I want lunch, but I also want supplies for the long trip home. At the very least, I want a Walkman and some books.

Walking in the mall is eerie. Traffic isn’t light – it’s nonexistent. Most of the stores are locked up, closed completely. I get some food, and sit in the mostly empty food court and watch the large screen TV tuned to CNN. No new news is reported in the twenty minutes I take to eat lunch, but the scope of the attack, and its effect on the country, is starting to become clear. For the first time I see photos of the Pentagon – and shudder to think about the loss of life.

12:30pm
The Virgin Megastore is closed, as are a number of other stores that might have a Walkman. I walk the whole circle of the mall, and there is fortunately a Radio Shack open. They have a portable stereo, with a digital tuner that has a nice feature – it’ll automatically tune in the stronger signals in the area. That’ll be nice for the train travel.

My luck continues – the Books a Million store around the corner from Radio Shack is also open. The mall – which has more than 100 stores – can’t have more than 50 people walking around. I’m one of just two people in the bookstore, yet they say they’re staying open the rest of the day.

As it turns out, the rest of the mall closed shortly after I left, along with most commercial establishments around the country. About the only thing people are shopping for, I hear, is gas. In less than six hours, the price of gas at some pumps has risen from $1.60 to more than $4 per gallon. Lines are more than a half mile long in some places.

1:30pm
With my two books and stereo, I walk back to the hotel. I catch a cab. The cabdriver is Arabic, though I don’t know from where. He says he heard that the Japanese are responsible for the attack. Wishful thinking? It’s hard to say, but all I’ve heard on the news so far is that the only real suspect is Osama bin Laden. That’s based on nothing more than wild supposition, but it’s still something for us to believe.

2:15pm
I arrive at the train station, and it now dawns on me that the train could be late. Why did I check out of the hotel? Sure enough, Amtrak shut down all trains for nearly two hours for security inspections. The train would be delayed another six times before we finally leave Dallas. No sleeper cars are available, so I’ll be in a coach seat for the 24 hours that we’ll be en route.

3:00pm
I talk to Jim McNeal; he was working across the street from the World Trade Center until 7am this morning, and turned down an overtime opportunity. Three of his co-workers are unaccounted for. He’s taken this hard, nearly breaks down on the phone.

7:00pm
The Dallas Hyatt is connected to Union Station by the tunnel underneath Reunion Tower in Dallas. The Reunion Tower is closed (“In light of today’s tragedy…” but it must be because the tower is the most visible and unique symbol in the Dallas skyline), but you can still walk to the hotel. I’ve been back and forth several times, parking myself at the hotel café in order watch the video coming in from CNN. I get dinner at the hotel restaurant, and I listen to the addresses on my radio: Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, President Bush. The tone is belligerent. People are angry, but that’s to be expected. It’s the mention of phrases like “act of war” that suggest that we may not be reacting to this act in the measured tones of the past.

9:30pm
The train finally arrives from Fort Worth, and we finally start our journey. We leave over six hours late, but at least we’re moving.

September 12, 2001

6:45am
I slept fitfully, but got enough sleep that I’m not exhausted. Breakfast in the café car is decent. I sit with a man from Albany and woman from Ohio. Her son is an FBI agent, and she’s worried he’ll get called to NY to investigate. She got on the train at 7am yesterday, so she hasn’t seen the pictures, hasn’t heard the reactions. She’s getting all of her news secondhand.

There’s a woman on the train whose boyfriend was at the Pentagon, and he was badly injured in the attack. She turned her cell phone off because she says she doesn’t want to know until she’s off the train.

9:00am
We’ve just pulled into Little Rock, Arkansas. Because of frequent extended stops last night due to freight train schedules and track repairs, we’re now about twelve hours behind schedule. We’ll probably be pulling into Chicago around midnight.

11:30am
President Bush pointedly didn’t answer a question during the press conference that just concluded. “Will you ask Congress for a declaration of war?” He didn’t say no. I’m encouraged by this – but also curious. How do you declare war on an enemy who has no address? If it is bin Laden, he has no permanent address. His followers are scattered throughout the globe. Some news reports have bin Laden supporters in Florida who are connected to the attacks. If they’re here, and in Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, and surely elsewhere, how can we possibly fight them in a conventional sense?

As the train continues through the heartland, I wonder what about us has changed. We’re still a country of values, but this attack strikes at our core. Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers suggests that World War II was a time when ordinary men did extraordinary things. Those men weren’t born heroes; they were made heroes.

And what’s ultimately troubling about the attack is that, while we may never know enough about the men who carried the attack out, we know that they were born no different from us. But they were made into what they were. Ordinary men can do extraordinary things. The problem is that the extraordinary things can just as easily be evil, unexplainable. Do we do good because we don’t have sufficient opportunities to be evil? Or is evil our baseline, a failure to do good just evidence that there were simply not sufficient opportunities to do good?

What makes us different? In the end, very little. Oklahoma City was the product of an individual, turned against his homeland by the belief that his government no longer represented him. McVeigh was evil, but he had also been an excellent soldier, one who could just as easily been one of the Easy Company fifty years prior.

The same virus that infected McVeigh infects the others who attacked us. They have not chosen the easy way – far from it. bin Laden is a billionaire, yet he’s one who changes his residence three times a week to avoid capture or assassination. His followers died in pursuit of their cause. McVeigh died believing that he’d acted justly. McVeigh murdered hundreds. The perpetrators yesterday murdered thousands, possibly tens of thousands. No doubt they’d been conditioned to see their acts as just, as serving a higher purpose.

What separates their higher purpose from ours – the justification of our own actions in WWII from their actions today – is a very fine line. While we ascribe a higher purpose to our own society, it is hard to separate us from them. We kill innocents with every air strike in Iraq. We killed countless civilians with our involvement in Yugoslavia. We felt justified in our actions, and we decorated our soldiers.

Separating ourselves from bin Laden and his ilk requires us to remain convinced that we’re right, they’re not. Is there a moral high ground here? Are there any absolutes?

Whatever we do, it must be rooted in our founding document – the Constitution. We accept legal, moral and practical limitations on our actions because of this document. It is this document – and the hundreds of thousands of lives, hundreds of years, and millennia of human history that led to it – that ultimately separates us from them. Rather than base our society on limitations based on restrictions stemming from a religious text, we base our society on an acceptance of basic freedoms stemming from a secular belief. The religious view of government assumes we’re sinners and must be saved from ourselves. The secular view of government assumes we’re basically good and must be given the choice to act as we want. Religion has a place – but its role in government can be extraordinarily destructive.


I’ve periodically caught a radio station with clear reception. A few songs have stood out and brought me close to tears. As I passed through Arkansas and Missouri, these songs really caught me:
“Only in America, where we dream in red white and blue.
Only in America, where we dream as big as we want to.
We all get a chance. Everybody gets to dance. Only in America.”
—Brooks and Dunn, “Only in America”

“Sometimes, I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear.
And I can’t help but ask myself
how much I’ll let the fear take the wheel and steer.
It’s driven me before,
and it seems to have a vague,
haunting mass appeal.
But lately I am beginning to find
that I should be the one behind the wheel.
Whatever tomorrow brings,
I’ll be there with open arms and open eyes.”
—Incubus, “Drive”

“If tomorrow all the things were gone I worked for all my life
and I had to start again with just my children and my wife.
I thank my lucky stars to be living here today
cause the flag still stands for freedom
and they can’t take that away.
From the lakes of Minnesota,
to the hills of Tennessee,
across the plains of Texas,
from sea to shining sea
from Detroit down to Houston
and New York to LA
well there’s pride in every American heart
and it’s time that we stand and say that
I’m proud to be an American
where at least I know I’m free
and I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me
and I gladly stand up next to you
and defend her still today
cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God Bless the U.S.A.”
—Lee Greenwood, “God bless the U.S.A.”
There is a lot we don’t yet know about what happened. But the lyrics in these songs seem to add gravity to what I can only hope is real: that we are a brave nation. My generation has not yet been tested like my parents’ generation and my grandparents’. Will we earn our place? Will we honor the memory of those who are almost certainly dead? Will we accept that more will die to ensure that this does not happen again?

6:00pm
Traveling by train today has been a surreal experience. I’ve been in the train close to 24 hours. I’m one of the few on the train who’s kept on top of any news, so many people are simply unaware of today’s developments. That said, I’m hardly “connected.” As we pass through one unpopulated area after another, I’m lucky to get 10 minutes of clear radio signal for every hour or two we travel. I mostly stay in the low frequencies, hoping to catch a local news channel or NPR.


I get lucky and catch NPR’s hourly update. They piece together what they know to have happened today:
  • An FBI swat team swarmed the Back Bay Westin, where two individuals were rumored to be staying. Whether it was the rooms of the hijackers, or of their conspirators, isn’t clear. They apparently left with at least one person in custody, but no arrests were made.
  • Surveillance intercepted at least two cell phone calls made by bin Laden supporters, who told unknown callers that “the targets had been hit.” This led the FBI to pursue at least one individual in Broward County.
  • In an interview, Secretary of State Powell describes the attacks as “acts of war.” He’s quite clear about the implications of this.
  • NATO allies are agreeing that this attack constitutes an attack on a NATO member, which means that they’ll lend their military support to any reprisals.
  • Secretary Powell has spent most of the day building a coalition of countries who are supporting our plans. It’s not clear whether this is a Gulf War style coalition where each contributes to the action (though this seems unlikely) or whether he’s simply eliminating any possible contrarian voices before we strike.
  • Cuba, Libya and China all denounced the attack.
  • The airports, despite earlier public statements from Secretary of Transportation Mineta, are still closed. Except for the flights that had been rerouted to Canada (which are being allowed to fly into the U.S. sometime tonight pending security clearance), no flights are allowed. There’s no word whether they’ll open the airports tomorrow. American’s 72 hours claim from yesterday starts to look about right, though some are guessing it will be weeks before things are back to any semblance of normal.
I sit at dinner with three others, one a 25 year-old who’s finding himself en route to Seattle (on of only two people I’ve met on the train who had planned to be on the train) and two executives. They’re starving for information, so I fill them in on what I know.

We all agree that we hope President Bush responds well, but that he doesn’t so far seem to be projecting the steely confidence that we need. He speaks haltingly, as if he’s searching for some combination of words that will strike the right balance between anger and resolve. The good news is that he seems to be saying the right things – perhaps this is exactly the kind of situation where Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld will be most valuable.

8:15pm
I called Jim McNeal again. He’s still a mess, though his co-workers have been accounted for. The city is shut down, he has nothing to do, and he’s devastated by the attack. He cries for a while as it sinks in; the winds have shifted to the north and he’s now smelling and seeing the ash. The blanket of destruction has now settled in his neighborhood.

9:45pm
The human interest stories are starting to show up. It appears that the crash outside of Pittsburgh – the only hijacked plane that didn’t hit a target – was the result of a few brave passengers. One passenger called his wife from his cell phone, told her that they knew they were going to die but that three of them were going to do something about it. While it’s only supposition, it appears that they may have wrestled control of the plane and forced it to the ground in a remote area of Pennsylvania.

Two flight attendants who tried to prevent the hijackers from entering the cockpit had their throats slit.

I’ve flown more than 70 flights this year, and I can only begin to imagine the fear and paralysis that would consume you in a situation like that. How did these three people resolve to do this? Did they know that they were saving hundreds, maybe thousands of lives?

Or how about the manager on the 80th floor who ordered his people out of the building. On his way down the stairs, he heard a commotion. A woman in a wheelchair was unable to get down the stairs. He and a co-worker strapped her into an emergency wheelchair (from the stairwell apparently) and proceeded to carry her down 65 flights of stairs. It took them an hour. They escaped with just minutes to spare. Extraordinary.

Jim’s tears shook me. I’ve been near tears a few times today. They haven’t yet come, though I’m certain they will. I keep telling myself that they haven’t come because I am so removed, disconnected, on the train. I’m not sure. I remain awed by the attack, saddened that so many have lost their lives so senselessly. But the full impact of the day’s events have not yet really struck me.

10:00pm
Already they’re talking on the news about changes that are coming. E-tickets are being eliminated, at least for a time. Curbside check-in is gone. Only ticketed passengers can go to the gates. Random ID checks. Spot check of luggage. Some are calling for the resumption of the “Sky Marshalls” program, which I’m apparently too young to even know about.

I can’t but help to think about this war. If it truly is a war, then this was simply the enemy’s first salvo. If I’m bin Laden, and I know that the U.S. is going to come at me, hard, then I would want a second act. The first act was spectacular, designed to shatter our belief that we’re untouchable on our own soil.

What next? If I were calling the shots (a gruesome hypothetical), I’d explode a car on a bridge. Not necessarily a big bridge, but the Golden Gate would be a great start. I’d hit in multiple cities again, coordinate the attacks so that they’re obviously part of a larger plan. They could be smaller attacks – suicide bombers in cafés, car bombs on bridges, etc. What people don’t seem to be talking about is whether there is anything that’s coming next. This worries me. A lot.

I should be arriving in Joliet in the next half hour. Robin’s picking me up in Joliet and we’re driving home together. The last 36 hours have been long and draining, but it will be nice to be home in my bed. With Robin. Ricky will be down the hall.

I can only hope that the world I bring his sibling into will not be fundamentally changed for the worse. As a father, I want my children to know good, to know peace, and to strive for an enriching life. There is another part of me that hopes that if it comes to it, that they’re capable of becoming the extraordinary people they can be, that their country would need them to be.

But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Ricky has a habit – and has had it since he was about 10 months old – of pointing excitedly in the sky when he hears an airplane. Though he doesn’t yet know the word for airplane, he invariably looks up, points, and smiles. Though there’s a risk in imbuing too much significance in his action, the fact is that their mere existence brings him happiness. Certainly the next few days will continue without a plane to point at. And when they start filling the air again, how will we ever look at them the same way again?

It’s not overstating the point to say that yesterday changed everything. It changes our perception of ourselves, of our enemies, and even of our friends. Our President has had a tragedy – the scope of which will take some time to establish – delivered to him. He has a massive task ahead of him, and our country will be led. We will prevail.

I’ll close this mini-journal with a quote that started out the second novel I started reading today:
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events.
To some generations much is given.
Of other generations much is expected.
This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
September 22, 2001
In an effort to get back to normal, the Klau family – Molly & Rick; Kevin, Erin & Maggie; Rick, Robin & Ricky – all traveled to South Bend for a Notre Dame weekend. It was, in many ways, a wonderful way for us to reconnect after the attacks. We’d all lived through it, we’d heard more stories about the victims, and we’d started to address the grief and commit to moving forward.

I mentioned earlier that the tears had not yet come. On this day, in the presence of 80,000 Americans, they came.

Prior to the start of the game, 4 ROTC students presented the colors and the band played the Star Spangled Banner. More than 50,000 flags appeared – printed by the South Bend Tribune – and were waived high over everyone’s heads. The P.A. announcer defiantly – almost angrily – read the Declaration of Independence. Notre Dame president Monk Molloy read a moving prayer dedicated to the memory of the many whose lives were lost. After the first quarter, Notre Dame students circulated through the stadium taking a collection for the families of the firefighters and policemen who were lost in the Trade Center collapse. As powerful as all of this was, the tears came at halftime.

Michigan State’s band took the field and played two songs, one of which was America the Beautiful. It was solemn, respectful, and moving. As they finished and walked off the field, the Notre Dame band took the field. They played Fanfare for the Common Man, and then led into Lee Greenwood’s song God Bless the U.S.A. It was sung by a student, who was slowly encircled by the rest of the band who formed the perimeter of the U.S. Inside, several of the bandmembers unfurled a large American flag.

It was at this point – a combination of powerful lyrics about the strength of our resolve, the solidarity presented by 80,000 football fans who just forgot their allegiance and became one stadium of Americans – that my tears started. The evil, thoughtless, callous acts of hundreds of men have threatened our existence. They struck at us, took advantage of the very thing that makes us who we are – our freedom, our openness – and will no doubt do so again. Families have been shattered, lives lost. For what?

The fear, of course, is that the country would react to this external threat by dividing itself: casting blame, pointing fingers. What happened next, in a small way, showed that this is unlikely to happen. As N.D.‘s band finished up, Michigan State’s band again lined up in the end zones. N.D. began playing Amazing Grace, and Michigan State’s students slowly walked towards midfield, until the field alternated between lines of N.D. students and lines of Michigan State students. The volume swelled as their ranks merged, and then Michigan State’s students walked forward. Now the lines were one – N.D., Michigan State, N.D., Michigan State. The song concluded, and many of the band members shook hands or embraced. It was simple, elegant, and poignant. What unites us must carry us through. And more than ever, it is critical that we lock arms, stand firm, and hold our heads high. Anything less is a victory for the fear that our enemy so desperately wants us to feel.

Update, 9/11/12: I found a video of the Michigan State and Notre Dame bands performing Amazing Grace from September 22, 2001 on YouTube. It's here:  


3 comments:

  1. I've read this post in the past and still wonderful and (extra)ordinary. It amazes me however the "0 comments".

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Leo. This particular post was written on Blogger in 2001; then I moved the blog to Radio Userland, then to Movable Type, then to WordPress, and ~2 years ago back to Blogger. Somewhere in there a number of comments were lost.

    Really appreciate your comment!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dad, this is incredible - I didn't know that so much had happened. All I knew, until a couple of minutes ago, was that two towers were attacked. How is it that we emphasize the trauma and death of a few loved ones, when there can be millions struck into fear? This really made me think about it.

    ReplyDelete