Tuesday Morning Coming Down
A screaming came across the sky. I heard it, too. I was in my dorm room on 10th and Broadway, up early for a college student. A fire alarm went off earlier in the morning and I didn’t go back to sleep. The windows in my room faced due south. I could see both of the Towers from them. It was a perk of living as sophomores in a freshman dorm—my roommates and I had the fourth or fifth pick of rooms in the whole building. According to my journal, I was “listening to my MP3s and reading the newspaper online” when I heard a plane fly loud and low over us. I leaned back in my chair at my desk and looked to my left. An airliner skimmed the rooftops, banking to the right, and then back to the left. It exploded against the North Tower.
There was no sound for a moment as the fireball mushroomed up. Then, more of a dull thud than a kaboom. I yelled and woke up my roommates. I called home before there was coverage of what had happened on television.
I have so, so, so many pictures from the moments after the first plane hit and before the second one did. What else could happen? I used up my film and went to get more from the bodega on the corner. It sounds analog now: We gathered around a CRT screen watching an event unfold on TV. I refreshed the Times homepage, which seemed to have some basic updates. Half the cell phones didn’t work.
What surfaces the most in my mind when I think of that day is my inability to comprehend the scope of it. I had delusions of being a sophisticate. My parents took me on weekend trips we took into the city. I got to travel internationally. But I was just 19, from a town in the Hudson Valley that had two general stores and a post office.
It was not the mindset that could grasp things like what kind of plane hit. It had to be a 737 because bigger things didn’t fly much domestically. If it was an accident, wouldn’t it be a common model like that one? It looked like the plane was banking to avoid the tower, until it banked right back. They must have not had control. How odd it will be to see that gash in the side of the tower every day; a memory of a terrible accident.
It was barely a ninety-minute window of time, but I was wrong, so wrong, repeatedly wrong. How could I understand what was happening?
The Towers themselves were enormous; the plume of smoke that loomed after they fell was even bigger. In the afternoon, when there was some mention that the trains were running, I walked up Fifth Avenue to Grand Central Terminal. I stopped after I passed the Flatiron Building to look back. The plume continued to drift. I kept walking. At Grand Central, I saw a man in a hospital gown looking up at the Departures board. His head was wrapped in gauze around his temples. On the packed Metro-North train out of the city, the man sitting next to me showed me the keycard from his hotel, the World Trade Center Marriott.
It felt so huge at the time. In the context of 2020, it sounds small. We’re fast approaching what, our 65th 9/11 in terms of deaths, just this year? There’s no escaping the smoke here in the West now. Trucks with giant American flags still patrol our streets, just as they did then, with drivers angry at an undefined other by transitive property. Antifa didn’t set fires any more than the Iraqis or the Afghans were the ones who attacked us. It was our own laziness and inability to face the possibility of bad outcomes beyond our control that got us here. We have met the enemy and he is us.
We never got over what followed from 9/11. Our now is simply the logical conclusion. When something horrific happens—even when it’s self-inflicted—the rules are suspended, the government is free to lie, the laws become pliant, and on and on and on. Trump is the conclusion of this philosophy, not the beginning. The Bushies were better at faking that they cared for those first couple of years, and they had the first mover advantage of twisting the rank and file of the government, what is now called the “Deep State,” to their whims. A crony is a crony, whether he’s steering money to private military contractors or just faking the number of “terrorists” coming over the border from Mexico to support the Wall.
What I saw that day anchors me. I don’t believe conspiracies about the Towers or the Pentagon or Antifa or Q. I saw the Towers fall while looking out of my window. I lived through it and what unfolded after. I remember, damn it. We all wanted it to make sense, but it didn’t happen for a profound reason, it just happened. It won’t ever make sense—but it’s still too real.
TW: 9/11 Photos Below