As I sit and watch the drizzle on this quiet Friday I am reminded of what a clear, cloudless day September 11, 2001 was. And I can’t help but reflect back on that day eight years ago that changed us forever.
I was working for a large energy company in Houston, and had gone in to work at 7:00 that morning to get some things finished in the peace and quiet of an empty cubicle maze. Working away silently, I suddenly realized it was nearly 9 am and my cube mates hadn’t shown up yet. Then the phone rang, and it was my husband.
“Two airplanes just crashed into the World Trade Center.” His voice was hushed.
“What? They’re not in the flight pattern. Is the weather bad?” I was thinking a couple of small planes, Cessnas or Piper Cubs, flown by amateur sightseers, not huge passenger jets.
“It’s awful. Get to a TV. I’ve got the Today Show on.”
I rushed to the elevator lobby on my floor, where the TV was always on CNN, and saw my colleagues standing there mouths agape. Because I drove to work before the news broke, I hadn’t heard it on the radio. The rest of them had rushed straight from their cars to the nearest television.
Then someone remembered the storm bunker—an internal room wired with four televisions where we could monitor multiple channels during weather emergencies. Soon we were all huddled in there, watching the spectacle play out on the networks and CNN.
We were all together as a group when the first tower fell.
“Where did it go?” someone uttered under their breath as the tower collapsed in a cloud of dust and smoke. Professional communicators all, none of us could find words at that moment.
There was still work to be done during all this. We were like robots, acting automatically and without emotion. We had to issue requests to employees to minimize Internet usage—so many were on the ‘net getting updates that our business systems were in danger of crashing. There was rumor control to be dealt with. Security had to be beefed up at some facilities. And we hadn’t heard from two executives who were supposed to be at meetings in the World Trade Center that morning. Our CEO was safe in Washington D.C., but would be stuck there for days.
Then the prank bomb threats started coming in to the energy companies in the glass towers of downtown Houston, and offices started closing. The decision was made to send the proverbial “nonessential” employees home—somebody had to stay to keep the energy flowing—but most of us in the PR department stayed, partly because we needed to be sure our executives were accounted for, and partly because we didn’t want to be alone with our thoughts in our cars during an urban evacuation.
The rest of the morning was a haze, despite the clear sunny weather. When the traffic cleared out, most of us decided to leave after noon. The CEO and his wife were comfortably ensconced in the Mayflower Hotel, describing the smoke they could see over the Pentagon, and the constant sound of sirens and military jets. The travel department was patiently explaining (again) to the CEO’s wife that the corporate jet could not bring them back, no matter how important he was. The other two executives had made a long, harrowing hike from lower Manhattan to the first hotel they could find with a vacancy—the Plaza, way up by Central Park. They could only get one room, and our first levity of the day was imagining these two sharing a bed.
Downtown Houston was a ghost town. Police cars, lights flashing, parked in front of every major corporate HQ were the only sign of life. Even the homeless had found shelter. Tumbleweed bouncing down Louisiana Street would not have looked out of place.
I arrived home to find my husband and a friend of ours sitting on the sofa staring at the TV. Our friend was single, with no family in the area. He’d come over because he didn’t want to be alone. They had both been crying.
As we watched replays of the events of the day, I was finally overcome with the emotion I had suppressed while maintaining some semblance of professionalism. I flashed back to November 22, 1963 and finally knew what my parents were feeling when President Kennedy was assassinated. As a third grader then, I knew it was bad but didn’t understand the blank stares, the way people embraced casual acquaintances, or why people wanted to call distant friends and relatives just to touch base and hear a warm, loving voice. Like then, we wanted reassurance that we were safe, and that the world would be OK. That life would go on.
Over the next few days our nerves were often shattered by the sound of fighter jets being scrambled from nearby Ellington Field. We were used to aircraft noise—heck, never really noticed it, until the deafening silence of all aircraft being grounded was punctuated by brave pilots seeking out real or imagined threats. A pair of jets hitting their afterburners in the wee hours reminded us that life would go on, but it would never, ever have the same security we felt on November 21, 1963, or on September 10, 2001.
Copyright 9/11/09 by Samra Jones Bufkins.