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September 11 - One Personal Memory


This was the story of two planes that came out of the clear blue skies that sunny September morning and crashed into the Twin Towers, those pillars of American achievement.This was as real as TV could get.I wanted all three of us to be home. Right away.

There was a deep sense of foreboding. Something was not right. I could not explain what I was seeing on TV. The people that were supposed to be able to explain could not, did not, explain what I was seeing on TV.

I wanted V to turn around wherever he was and come right back. I wanted to get N back from the baby sitter.

I could not. I was stuck at home. One of the cars was in the garage for maintenance. V had taken the other. He told me not to worry, that he would be back home as soon as he could and pick up N on the way back.

I'd been standing all this time. As I sat down on the sofa, remote in hand, I heard a loud thud. The windows rattled, the house trembled. Blasting at a construction site, I thought.

Without warning, the the television screens switched to Washington, DC. Claire Shipman was on TV, mike in hand, her back to the Vice-President's office, plumes of smoke rising from a building behind her.

From one angle, the building behind the Vice-President's office is the White House. No one was certain what this meant. May be a fire in one of the buildings? At this point, no one, least of all me, was connecting the loud thud with the smoke.

A few minutes later, the connection was clear. A plane's tail was sticking out of the side of the Pentagon that faces Arlington.

I called V. The cell phone circuits were jammed. I called all of my family that's in the US, made sure everyone was fine. I called India, told my parents and in-laws we were all fine. Everyone was trying to call everyone else. It took us all a few minutes to reach each other.

I still could not reach V. He managed to call me.

Washington, D.C. was being evacuated. He was turning back. But there was no place to turn. By this time, the morning rush hour had mushroomed into a monster. Two-way roads were switched to one ways, vehicles were going around in circles. Rush hour that was usually uni-directional was becoming bi-directional. All the bridges coming out of Washington, DC into Virginia were choking with the overload.

As V would say later, the evacuees were sitting ducks for anyone wanting to target huge numbers of people with nowhere to go. That evacuation was anything but orderly. It was an unmitigated disaster. It took V three hours to cover the distance that would normally take 30 minutes, to get home.

Still no information on what was happening. I don't know, may be because of the movies, or may be it is what I was getting used to, may be getting spoiled even - what with all the news channels, all that information, the idea that the nation should know what is going on, the images of Presidents addressing the nation - but I kept thinking, ok, the President will be on any minute. There will be something someone at the White House will say that I want to listen to.

Everyone had their two cents in. Everyone except the people I wanted to hear from. I was waiting for an answer to a simple question, "What is going on?"

The thing is these thoughts rolled through my mind right then. They were not the result of some post-mortem of the events that transpired that day. That day, I realized for the first time that I was looking for something from the government, something other than services or social security programs or budgets, or low interest rates.

The image of David Bloom - with ash, debris on his hair, his voice hoarse, his face gaunt, his eyes red from the dust, from hours of standing on his feet, his back to the falling towers - is the strongest in my mind from all the hours of TV coverage we watched, compulsively.

Then news of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. By this time, the shock was gone. There was the dull realization that whatever this thing was, it was relentless.

Hours, days, later, the stories.

Of bodies flying out of the windows of the towers, a desperate attempt to escape the fire and heat inside. Of policemen and firemen and dogs risking their lives to save others'. Of Todd Beamer and Lisa, the telephone operator who connected him to his pregnant wife, also Lisa, for a final few words before going to meet his death.

Of people trudging home on foot for hours. Of firms losing all their employees in a span of minutes. Of a six-month old baby waiting for her mother to come home and wailing every time the door opened but the mother did not come. Of rows and rows of cars waiting in vain at metro stations in New Jersey for their owners to come drive them home. Of my own neighbors who work at the Pentagon (two of whom died in that attack), coming home shaken, unable to eat for days.

Of depression among the people living around the World Trade Center because they are no longer in the shadow of the Twin Towers.

Their view outside their windows and our view of the world inexorably altered.
 

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