September 11, 2001: My Story
I had no room mate in college, and people on campus rarely ever called me to do anything. Especially not a few minutes after 9:00 AM on a Tuesday. So there would be only three reasons why I would be woken up by a phone call at that hour. Someone punched in a wrong number, my academic advisor needed to ask me something, or it was my mother, and she would have been the least likely of the three possibilities.
I leaped out of the top bunk and rushed to my desk to answer the land line phone. It’s a reflex action for me to grab the phone as soon as possible whenever a call wakes me up. I don’t know why. The result being that I often answer such calls before my sleepy consciousness has thawed to the world around me. That morning was no different.
“Are you watching the news?”
Mom’s voice. She knew I would be asleep at that time. Yet given that Unglebower family business is not generally covered by television news, I at least knew right away that this unusual call was not about my kin in some fashion.
Yet she had asked the question in such a calm manner, I wouldn’t have guessed the enormity of what she was about to reveal. I may have even been somewhat annoyed for a moment. It was 9:00AM on a Tuesday and I was asleep. She knew damn well I was not watching the news.
“You need to turn on CNN or something. Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York, and it looks like some kind of attack.”
I stopped moving, but not out of shock or even disbelief. I tend to do that when I want to be certain I am processing important information correctly. I also tend to bend forward just a bit at those times, and I remember doing so then. The phone receiver was in my left hand, and my gaze happened upon my as yet unneeded winter coat hanging in my open closet, as though it had delivered this message to me.
“You mean, like terrorists?”
Mom confirmed it. Not that she had a particular authority to do so. But she explained that she had been watching the Today Show as she got ready for work that morning when what was thought to be a small engine plane had slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. She told me that like everyone else, she believed it was a horrible accident. But than the second plane hit the second tower, again as mom was watching, live. That was all she needed to see.
“I debated about calling you earlier,” she told me, “When it was just one plane. But just a few minutes ago a second plane hit the second tower, and there is no way this isn’t some kind of attack. The news people are saying the same thing.”
My mother might have been giving very clear and precise driving directions to a picnic, given her tone. There was no screaming. No crying. This was important I could tell, but hysteria was not her style.
“And they’re sure of it?”
Remember I have been awake for 120 seconds at most by this point. I am not as bad as some people are upon getting out of bed in the morning, but consider trying to process this while still blinking sleep out of your eyes and trying to shake the heaviness of semi-consciousness that still drapes around you like a wool blanket even after you have been awake a few minutes. Sometimes understanding that someone is headed to the store, asking you if you want anything is difficult enough at such times, and here my mother was telling me that New York City, the New York City, was under attack.
“Yes, the people I am listening to say there is no way that this could be an accident, it is a terrorist attack.”
“Does the president know? What is he doing?”
“The president is in Florida at an event.”
It went on like that for maybe ten minutes or so I can’t be sure. Speculations, a few sighs, some comments along the lines of “damn” or something to that effect. How at first it was believed to be a small plane, but now both were thought to be passenger jets. 747s. There was actually footage of the second one hitting the second tower, which I would soon see. Each of us advising the other to stay alert. I had my TV on by then, and told Mom to let me know if she heard anything new, and she told me to do the same. We hung up.
We were not off of the phone very long.
I flipped around to various channels to see how they were covering the event. And of course, they all were. I would flip between about 13 channels without stopping, just to see the universal coverage. Events seem more real and more potent, and in this case, more mind-numbing and tragic, when covered by everyone in all of journalism at the same time.
The result was live footage from various angles and perspectives of black smoke billowing out of sickening gaping holes in two of the largest buildings on the planet. Helicopter shots, shots from the ground, shots from adjacent buildings. Looking straight up. Looking down the block. People shouting. Reporters attempting to assimilate the information but clearly being just as clueless as I and my mother were at that point.
Yet the most memorable angle for me during that early coverage were the shots taken from the harbor, or from neighboring New Jersey. Perhaps the most iconic skyline on Earth set against a perfect cloudless blue sky, marred by a huge black plume of smoke. A slithering endless snake that made its way along the top of a postcard image. A thick, vandalizing streak of permanent marker across a masterpiece. I of course had no idea at the time, nobody did, that this image would pale in comparison to footage from the same vantage point less than an hour later, when the skyline itself was no longer visible for the debris cloud.
I had been watching such coverage for just over half an hour. The whole event was not even an hour old. And yet it already felt like the center of the Universe. That the entire country, if not the eyes of all of humanity were looking at the very things I was observing at the time. That a new focal point of existence had been established in our lives, made up of the shots I mentioned, hysterical interviews, wild speculation, fearful rumors, and overall pandemonium both on the ground in New York and in newsrooms everywhere. Nothing short of the alien invasion could possibly wrench our collective attention from New York City, I thought.
I was wrong.
At about 20 of ten, barely 35 minutes since Mom had woken me up, a new report. An explosion-no, another plane. A third plane had smashed into the Pentagon near D.C. Another plane. Even knowing it could be mere speculation, as there had been much of it that morning already, the possibility was more stunning to me than even the sight of the Twin Towers ablaze. Could there be a bigger, louder, and more frightening “fuck you” to American security than to hit the nerve center of the Armed Forces? A building we all felt, as sure as the sun rises, was untouchable?
It was not untouchable, and the story was not rumor. For the first time since the start of this whole affair, live shots pulled away from the nightmare in Manhattan and up came a new image. Not quite as gruesome yet as the shots from the Towers because the view was more obstructed and the surroundings less recognizable. A more distant shot from an unknown vantage point labeled only as “Arlington, Virginia” revealed a wider, not quite as dark collection of smoke, rising more slowly than the mega-plume in New York. From a journalistic standpoint it was not a great shot, to be frank. You couldn’t even see the actual Pentagon. To that end the frenzied, rattled journalist, ( I don’t recall which one) emphasized that the news of another passenger aircraft flying into the Pentagon was at the moment an unconfirmed report, despite confirmation that several passenger planes had yet to be accounted for by air traffic control.
Yet I knew. And not just on instinct. Living in Central Maryland one gets used to all kinds of live, establishing shots of DC and surrounding areas during local news casts and sporting events and such things. I’m no expert on geography, but I know the area surrounding the Pentagon when I see it. It had been hit. And it felt like a whole new nightmare for any number of reasons.
To begin with, they, whoever the hell they were, had gotten to the headquarters of the most powerful military force the world had ever seen.
Second, it meant that this attack was now on multiple cities. The notion that I would soon be viewing reports of major buildings in dozens of cities across the country being blown up was very real in my mind. The first hint in my mind of a possible guerrilla war on American soil had begun to take root. We still had no clue who these attackers were, but if they could hit New York and D.C. within an hour of each other, who knows what else they could do or would do?
And finally, it was now hitting closer to home for me. My whole life, as I mentioned, I have lived within an hour of D.C., not counting my time at college. The events unfolding in New York were a bit like being knocked in the head. Hitting something as close to DC as nearby Arlington, and the Pentagon no less, was more like a direct hit to the stomach. Or maybe a direct hit to the heart.
Then of course, there was the family angle. My younger sister drove in and around the District for work all the time. Where was she? Her boyfriend of the time did the same. What about him? A brother-in-law of mine, same deal. Were they accounted for?
I picked up the phone and dialed for Mom. Even now I was not in a panic, but the outer reaches of my nervous system and consciousness were starting to initiate crisis management. The department of survival in my mind had not yet been activated, but the lights were on in the building, if you will.
Mom answered. She too was still calm, but I think I could detect a bit more tension in her voice now that the news of the Pentagon had reached her. (She had seen it when I had.) She had not yet heard from my sister, or anyone else, and nobody at that point had cell phones. The consolation was that my sister never had any business in the Pentagon itself, though her boyfriend did. We assumed she was in transit somewhere, and would get to a phone as soon as she could. As would her boyfriend, and my brother-in-law.
Given my propensity for anxiety you would think I would be a wreck at this point, but I wasn’t really. There was an unfolding understanding that there may be a sort of danger coming from the horizon, and that I had to be prepared for it, but nothing that had me screaming, crying, or curled up into a ball on the floor. I can’t swear I could never be that way, but at that time, I wasn’t.
After exchanging notes again, I asked Mom a strange question. I had gotten up to use the bathroom down the hall once during the New York coverage, and everybody’s door was shut. I had in fact heard nothing from anyone all morning. Not outside, and not in the hallway. I figured everyone was still asleep, and I hated waking people up. For the New York thing I wasn’t going to, but once the Pentagon was hit, and fears of a nationwide attack were becoming more real by the moment, I thought I had to share it with someone in person. I was tired of being seemingly the only person in Marietta, Ohio that had any clue about what was happening.
“Do you think I should wake somebody up,” I asked Mom. It was against my nature to intrude on anybody’s sleep even then.
“If there were ever a time to do so,” she said, “This would be it, I’d say.”
After giving Mom firm instructions to call me back as soon as she heard anything from any of our local people, I hung up the phone.
It is so strange to me what I do and do not remember from that day. As I will cover later, there were key moments you would think would be forever branded into my recollection, never to fade for the rest of my life, and yet are fuzzy. Other things about that day that would seem mundane and trivial are in fact the things that might as well have been yesterday, as fresh as they seem. One of those vivid recollections of the mundane was the moment I stepped out into the hallway, intent on waking somebody, anybody up so I didn’t have to watch a war break out on American soil alone.
I swung my room door open and stepped into a hallway that in my years at Marietta College had never seemed so damned quiet. The hallway was like a tomb. Bright sunshine came in through the window at the end of the hallway, creating a morning glow reflecting from the off-white cinder block walls. It was almost 10 in the morning now, on a Tuesday. Yet there was not a sound anywhere. Nobody typing. Nobody showering. Nobody on the phone. No stereos. No custodian cleaning up. Nothing happening out in the lobby. I lived in a place called the Arts and Humanities House, so as you can probably guess, rare was the time that nothing was going on. The average weekday at 1:00AM was livelier than the moment I stepped out to be the messenger.
I wondered if I should just stand in the hallway and wake everyone up. Sound a general alarm, as it were. They all deserved to hear it. Everybody in the world needed to hear it. Yet even then I was reluctant to be that much of a pain in the ass, and besides, it would be more about me if I did that, and it should be about the gravity of the situation. So I walked two doors down and on the opposite side of the hall, where my two friends, Joe and Dave lived. With one more look down the silent hallway, (at what, I don’t know) I remember rubbing my hands together. I was wondering what would become of all of us, and knowing that I would be the first person either of them ever saw in a world that was now vastly different from the one in which they went to bed the night before.
It was Dave that opened the door. A very tall man you do not want to see angry. Nor do I believe he was angry upon looking down to see me there, but he did seem confused as to why I would be there at that time interrupting his sleep.
“Tytus,” he said, half asleep. At least I believe that is what he said. It was his nickname for me.
“I’m sorry to wake you up this early,” I said, my hands rubbing together again, “but I had to let someone know.”
I did pause for a second, and in that second, Dave nodded. I have never asked him, but I have often wondered if he thought I was about to relate some sort of half-assed personal triumph to him.
“They blew up the Pentagon.”
Dave’s brow furrowed and he reached for the remote for his television which sat nearby. I continued talking, something to the effect of:
“They don’t know who they are, but they also attacked New York about an hour ago. The World Trade Center is on fire.”
By this time Joe had sat up in bed in the bottom bunk, but hadn’t said anything. I stepped into their still dark room, (the curtains were drawn or something), and continued to relay all the information I had about the situation to them both, which of course was not much. From what I recall, Dave asked most of the questions I was trying to answer.
At this point what had still felt somewhat like a dream or hallucination began to take on a reality. In sharing it with other people who would now experience their own first impressions of this insanity, the final step towards the reality of the situation was complete. It was happening.
The live coverage on Dave’s TV I remember happened to be back on New York for the moment, so that was his first glimpse of that. I am sure he said something, but I do not recall what it was. He didn’t say much, though. None of the three of us said a whole lot for the next few minutes, other than perhaps a few stray and half-reflexive “shit”s.
My phone rang a few minutes later, and I jogged back to my room to answer it. Mom again. She had somehow hit the jackpot and confirmed that all three of the local people we were concerned about were accounted for. Sis had in fact been driving and heard about the entire thing on the radio. All three were remaining extra vigilant and staying put. Confident in that, but not as relieved as one might expect, I made my way back to Dave’s room. It was now only a few minutes before ten o’clock.
It is at this point, during perhaps the most critical, stunning, and important moment in all of the 9/11 attacks that things in my mind seem odd, looking back. I say that because on the surface it seems impossible. Yet the facts and the timeline bare it out.
I distinctly remember standing in the middle of Dave’s room, still in the dark other than the TV. Joe still sitting up in bed to my right. Dave, remote control in hand to my left, near the door. Why we were in that formation I don’t know, but in either case I was straight in front of the TV. And as we watched, the South Tower crumbled into dust. I am thinking it was CNN’s coverage.
I did nothing. I said nothing. Truth be told I am pretty sure I felt nothing. Nothing. This is what has sometimes over the years made me question if I actually saw the Tower fall on TV. For surely if I had, surrounded by two of my friends, somebody would have reacted. The people on TV were, that’s for sure. Could it be possible that I and two friends of mine could just be standing there, free of hysteria as we watched one of the most recognizable sky scrapers in the world implode in the largest example of carnage ever captured on live video?
Over and over my mind has said no. That I must have not seen it happen live after all. But considering the fact that I had been the one to wake Joe and Dave, and that it was at most 15 minutes later, at 10 o’clock that the first Tower fell and that there was zero chance of my opting to stop watching coverage less than an hour into the event, I have concluded that not only must I have seen the collapse live, but I did in fact see it on Joe and Dave’s television, and not reacted. All I can remember thinking was that in the end, it wasn’t shocking. Stunning, yes, but the idea of someone trying to blow up those towers at once felt inevitable. And when I saw one collapse, it was almost as though there were no other way it could have gone. I just observed that hell on earth as I would a complicated movie scene. My arms folded standing two feet from a television.
Nor did I hear screams from anywhere else in the building, or nearby dorms, or outside. It was as though we three were the only ones watching this act of utter devastation.
“I’d say at least 30,000 people just died.”
Joe. It is the first thing I remember him saying, though he must have been saying something before then. Yet perhaps not. Perhaps he felt a numbness to the moment as I did. I don’t know.
“At least,” I agreed, with clinical distance. We had no clue of course that the death toll, still horrendous, would end up closer to 3,000.
After that, a vague sliver of memory sometime later of New York Governor George Pataki making a live statement, followed not long afterward by an inside joke made by Joe. A joke at which I laughed, despite what was happening. If that makes me heartless, than I suppose I am heartless. But I wasn’t about to ignore one of the few funny things about that day.
Yet would you believe it if I told you that that was the last moment of which I have any clear memory for about an hour? Again, the things you forget vs the things you remember are mind boggling. For example, I remember no reports of United 93 going down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, though obviously I would have heard them. Nor do I recall watching the second tower fall at around 10:30, about half an hour after the first one, according to the official timeline. I can’t remember presidential statements, or the shot of Air Force One leaving Florida, or Gulliani’s press conference. I don’t remember getting dressed, leaving Dave’s room, calling mom again, or much of anything.
The next clear memory I have is a group gathered in the lobby of the dorm. It is a jarring jump cut of a memory review for me. I go from the dark silence of Joe and Dave’s room, to the semi-active brightness of the lobby and its old TV set surrounded by at least ten or twelve people, most of whom I knew, some of them foreign exchange students that lived in the dorm, but didn’t say much to anyone. When all of these people arrived, and how they entered the narrative, I just don’t remember.
There was one girl who lived in the dorm that came in at some point, and I think I remember asking her if she had been watching things. She said she heard something about a plane hitting a skyscraper when she left for morning class, but clearly she had not been aware of what followed. (Was nobody watching, running from class to class talking about this?)
It was CBS news on in the lobby, because I remember it being Dan Rather anchoring the coverage. The more reports of missing planes and burning buildings that came in during the second hour of coverage, the more I thought I should actually plan for escape measures, and self defense. I considered arming myself, though with what I didn’t know. But the sense that at any time any of the major cities within driving distance (Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh), could be hit next was weighing on my mind now. I was not alone in this. I recall a few rushed conversations with a handful of people about what the best course of action would be if we had to evacuate. At no time during that day or any other day did the campus security make any efforts to inform, calm, or serve the student body.
Not that I believed that terrorists would target Marietta, Ohio per se. Again, it was our proximity to major cities that worried some of us. Then there was the possibility of not an attack, but a guerrilla occupation or something. Keep in mind the idea of American soil being attacked was all new to us, and we didn’t know just how many enemies there were, what their plans were and of what they were capable. But they had hit the Pentagon, (now confirmed not to have been destroyed as previously believed), so they seemed capable of anything. Then the possibility that overall pandemonium might overcome ordinary people in town, or even on campus, and spark riots or looting, or who the hell knows what else. So whether it was World War III or civil unrest, I remember calmly packing a bag at one point and having it near the door to my room.
Yet still I felt no panic. Obviously the concern that “this isn’t over” began to permeate throughout the dorm and in my inner circle. There were still planes unaccounted for. But I never felt a sense of urgency until I heard Dan Rather say, “There are unconfirmed reports that another plane may be on the way to Camp David, the presidential retreat.” At that point I was in the lobby with the rest of the gathering group, and I will confess to running back to my room to grab the phone and call mom again. Camp David is in Thurmont, Maryland, the northernmost part of my very own county, Frederick County, Maryland. If a plane was heading for Thurmont, and the controls were jostled or the calculations were off by just a fraction, a plane of that size at that height, going that speed could easily end up in the middle of far more populous Frederick, Maryland where I and family spent much time. Or, the back yards of half my family members.
“I’m keeping my eyes open,” Mom told me, having not heard that particular report. She assured me that everyone else back home was on extra alert, and advised me once again to be on the same. I shared with her about having an escape plan, packing a bag, and maybe arming. Not one to sensationalize anything, Mom confirmed the gravity of the situation again by expressing agreement with my preparations.
The report turned out to be false, and no plane was headed towards Camp David. All other planes were being slowly accounted for, because, the news was reporting, the FAA had shut down all air traffic in the United States. That was one of the most stunning things about the whole day other than the loss of life. Until that point I didn’t know anybody anywhere had the power to ground each and every flight in the entire enormity of this country. Yet they did, and that is what happened. The idea that nothing would be flying anywhere in the country, except military and rescue aircraft as needed, amazed me. (The following night, I did see a single small plane fly across the night sky while I was up on the roof of my dorm. I assume it had clearance, but it was strange to see just the one plane for a week.)
News of the universal grounding of American flights was the last bit of live information I clearly remember seeing on 9/11. I, like most, spent a great deal of time in front of the TV for the rest of the day, and the rest of the week, but I don’t remember much of that. I do remember at last being stunned by footage from ground level later in the evening of the second plane just vanishing into the South Tower. It has just been released to the public, and it did jolt my stomach a bit.
Still on the alert, but feeling more with each passing hour that no further attacks were imminent, I went for a walk on the mall on campus that day. I don’t remember what time of day it was, only that it was mid-afternoon. It was the first time I had left the dorm all day. It is a jarring irony that it was one of the top five most gorgeous days I have ever experienced, before or since. It was about 70 degrees. The sky, without a cloud in sight was a shade of blue I didn’t even know the sky could be, so dazzling and deep was it. A perfect breeze was blowing, rustling the first stirrings of autumn leaves along the ground, as well as the American flag on the pole in the middle of the mall. If we get to pick the weather in our heaven, I’d use that day as one of my reference points.
Marietta College was a bit of a party school when I went there, and was never known for its stoicism. Yet during that walk there was a reserved quality to the campus. There were students out and about, some going to class, (though I didn’t), some on other business. If I had to encapsulate what the feeling of campus was as whole at that point, the best I could come up with would be, “What?”
Not, “What the hell,” or “What’s happening,” or “What are we going to do?” Not even the often used improper punctuation of “What???” covered it. Simply, “What?” A pervasive, collective bewilderment hung in that perfect early autumn air.
Over the next few days and weeks, there were student run charity drives for victims, dedications by the college choir, candlelight vigils, and any manner of early healing and commemoration on campus and around the world. There were presidential addresses, cautious and nervous late night talk show hosts returning for “duty”, and calls for revenge. I participated in some of those things, avoided others. I have positive thoughts about certain aspects of the post attack time frame, and negative thoughts about other aspects, both in the immediate aftermath, and since. Those could fill an entire book. They have filled many books in the last ten years, and will continue to fill books probably as long as this country exists, and even afterwards.
Yet the purpose of this post is not to share my dissatisfaction with the way things were handled by those in authority over this country as well as the way the events described here have been used in foul ways to do foul things. The purpose of this post was to at long last add myself to the national narrative. I have not avoided it until now, but I have not delved into it much either. Not out of shock, and not out of fear. But because it is my nature to move forward when possible.
Remember, but not relive, is my motto. The problem with much of the memorials, and TV shows, and books, and speeches, and expectations of society, and “as it happened” coverage every year on the anniversary is to that it constitutes reliving. And while I don’t believe in making that a habit, this ten year anniversary seemed at last the proper time to, as a writer to set down in words the minuscule dot that I myself posses in the tapestry of stories that was born out of the epic tragedy of September 11, 2001.