1st Place Winner in the 2021 LifeWriting Contest.
by Cynthia Davidson
On that deceptively beautiful Tuesday, September 11, 2001, my phone rang, just before nine o’clock in the morning.
“Turn on the TV,” my fiancé urged, “This is not a joke.”
His anxious tone triggered my immediate response. He rarely called during his workday and those were my writing hours. But I could picture him, 150 miles away, at his cluttered office desk on the fifteenth floor of the Sony Music building, on Madison Avenue, in midtown Manhattan.
I hurried to switch on the set in my Rhode Island home. Neither of us watched daytime television so it stayed silent in the living room until the evening news. The CBS news program flickered into view. The set was tuned to that channel out of habit since my days at the network. I had worked at the Foreign Desk of their New York broadcast center, on Manhattan’s West side.
“Nothing unusual,” I told him.
“Switch to CNN.”
The World Trade Center’s massive white twin towers filled the screen. Smoke rose incongruously from the North Tower’s upper floors, at the southern edge of the city. The bright blue sky beyond was utterly cloudless. The live video was coming from an uptown office window.
“An airplane appears to have hit the building, approximately 15 minutes ago,” explained CNN reporter Carol Lin. “Fire crews are on their way to the scene.”
We both presumed this was an accident. My father had flown commercial jets for a living. Many planes had gone down over his four decades in aviation. We often discussed the reasons behind the most spectacular crashes, in the US and overseas. Yet in my family we still believed, ‘the most dangerous portion of an airplane journey is the car ride to the airport,’ statistically speaking. Each time dad returned home safely, he’d ceremoniously drop his flight kit on the hallway floor, and declare, “Another trip without a fatal accident.”
Our fatalistic attitudes were further toughened by my family’s gruesome experiences during the war in Lebanon. And the grisly photographs never shown to the public while I’d been in the news business.
Watching the smoke pour from the World Trade Center, I recalled my last time there, seven years ago. Before I’d left New York City for good, a friend came to visit from out of town. She wanted to see the view from the Windows on the World restaurant. We rode the ‘fastest elevators in the Americas’ up to the 107th floor of the landmark eatery. It had opened in 1976, the year my studies began at New York University. I had lived in Manhattan, on and off since then, in my love-hate relationship with the place. My three children had been born there. Their father Max, my Moroccan born Israeli ex-husband, was probably in New York this morning. His company renovated offices and apartments there.
Less than a minute after switching on the television, at 9:03, I saw a second aircraft hit the WTC South Tower.
“That was no accident,” I blurted to Malcolm, who was still on the phone. We didn’t want to believe our own eyes. But we’d definitely seen the passenger jet slam deliberately into the building’s upper floors. Adrenalin coursed through my bloodstream. Without taking my eyes off the television, I told him, “I have to hang up now. I need to call my children at their school.”
Minutes after speaking to them briefly, my eyes still glued to the TV, I watched aghast as the fires spread through both skyscrapers. The full tanks of flaming jet fuel had combusted, incinerating everything in their path. The intense heat set off a chain reaction and threatened the buildings’ structural integrity.
In the confusion, many called 911 for help. Most were told to shelter in place. Some used their cell phones to call family and friends to say goodbye. Others called the news stations with firsthand reports of conditions inside the buildings. The elevators had ceased to function. Hundreds rushed down the few stairways still passable.
Office workers started jumping from the burning North Tower by now. Two people clasped hands before leaping to their death. Bodies bounced off the dusty parked cars before landing on the concrete streets and sidewalks below.
Less than an hour after I’d turned on the television, the South Tower collapsed. As horrifying as it was unexpected, I saw the space left by the disappearing building fill in for several terrible moments, by a roiling balloon of exploding white dust. It choked the bystanders and covered those fleeing from the scene.
And then, even more unimaginable, down came the North Tower too. The first of the twins to be hit that morning, it disintegrated less than half an hour after the South one crumpled. All the souls inside their walls and stairwells, who had not yet made their way to safety, were taken along. Their remains turned to dust in that grey cloud nightmare.
I spent the rest of the day watching television. We saw those buildings come down at least fifty more times, as news outlets replayed the terrible footage. It seemed as if they had to convince the public these impossible incidents had really happened. Reports came in later that morning about two more hijackings: one plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the other crashed in a Pennsylvania cornfield.
As more details trickled in, we learned this had been the deadliest terrorist attack in human history. 2,977 people perished. And 9/11 was the deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the United States with 343 and 72 killed, respectively. Over 25,00 had been injured and the fallout continues as the toxic dust continues to kill those who worked in the cleanup efforts.
I thought of things that were not being reported. At 9:30 p.m., twelve hours after the attacks, CIA director, George Tenet, informed President Bush and senior US officials that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were responsible. As details emerged, about the 19 dead hijackers, 15 of them were reported to be Saudi citizens. Evidence of the group’s plans, and the list of all their names, were discovered in the lost luggage of the operation’s mastermind, the Egyptian, Mohamed Atta. By sheer chance, his bag had missed its connection in Portland and did not make it onto American Airlines Flight 11.
That week, my dad and I discussed these events on the phone. He emphatically defended his opinion, concerning the improbability of official explanations. “There is no way the Arabs could have pulled this off.”
I did not dismiss his comment. He had earned the right to his conclusions. After all, he’d spent twenty years working in commercial aviation in the Arab world. In a slow motion montage, I replayed forty years worth of intervening scenes, from when I was eight years old and my family moved to Arabia.
Two Boeing jets had taken off from New York, bound for Jeddah, in 1961. He had been in the cockpit of one of those planes. Trans World Airlines had sent my father to Arabia on a mission, “to teach Saudis how to fly Boeings.”
In the interim of those forty years, what went wrong?
A member of SCN for over a decade, Cynthia F. Davidson has never missed a conference since she joined. A long-time expatriate and former CBS News journalist, she spent two decades as a pioneer in the global management field. Since leaving corporate life to write fulltime, she credits SCN membership with the support and skill development required to publish The Importance of Paris, her first memoir. SCN inspired her to start facilitating workshops and writing groups to capture women’s lived wisdom.
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