It was a September morning like any other. The air was still summer warm. The sky was a brilliant robin’s egg blue. I stepped onto the 8:25 a.m. Metro North commuter train, headed toward my office at Guideposts magazine on 34th Street in New York City.
“Excuse me.” I squeezed between a young woman wearing earphones who was thumbing through the color photo-filled pages of Star Magazine, and a middle-aged gray-bearded man reading The New York Times.
Drat. The dreaded middle seat. Oh, well, at least I don’t have to stand.
I put on my sunglasses and folded my arms tightly across my chest, as though doing so might somehow make me not only smaller, but invisible. Before closing my eyes I sneaked glances at the headlines in my seatmates’ reading material – a microcosm of everyday life in twenty-first century America. On my left, in Star, there was the insatiable culture of celebrity (“Look Who’s Got Cellulite!”). On my right, in the New York Times, bitter partisan politics (“Campaigning for Mayor: City Voters Have Heard It All”). Oozing from the pages of both – as well as from the jokes told the night before on the late night TV talk shows – was the prevailing tone of world-weary, been there-done that, above-it-all irony.
I’d just dozed off, when someone’s cell phone chirped. Followed by another, and then another. Passengers began speaking in hushed, urgent tones, something about one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers being hit by a plane. Not a small private plane. A big commercial airliner.
How awful, I thought. What a terrible accident.
Several minutes passed, and a second shrill chorus of cell phones announced a second strike.
This was no accident. We were being attacked.
The bearded man next to me became agitated as he punched the buttons on his cell phone to no avail. “My staff is on the 86th floor of Tower One,” he said. “My God, I hope they’re all right.”
As the train rounded the bend north of 125th Street, passengers across the aisle left their seats to peer out the train’s west windows at the terrifying spectacle of the towers burning.
At Grand Central Station, I wedged myself into the crowd at the Hudson News kiosk, transfixed by the horrifying images on the elevated Fox News TV monitors. Fiery orange explosions. People jumping from the towers. Skirts billowing. A man and woman holding hands as they plummeted.
This can’t be happening.
Walking south on Fifth avenue, I watched aghast as the blue sky filled with black smoke hemorrhaging from ugly gashes in both towers. At street level there was the surreal sensation of being in a 1950s Japanese horror movie. People with radios and cell phones pressed to their ears shouted breaking news.
“They’ve hit the Pentagon!”
“There’s a plane headed for the White House!”
At the office, I frantically tried to phone my husband Tom, who had driven into Manhattan earlier in the morning for a breakfast meeting with a client somewhere in the city… But where exactly? Downtown? Uptown? If only I had asked! I tried to call our daughter Katy at her New York University dorm downtown, on Greenwich Street. I tried to call my sister in her classroom at Middle School 131 in downtown Chinatown, where she taught sixth grade science. But none of their cell phones were working.
“Did you hear?” A young ashen-faced staffer cried out from her office across the hall. “The south tower has fallen!”
I phoned my mother back at our house in New Canaan, Connecticut, and told her not to worry. I phoned my friend Alison, and told her I couldn’t get in touch with Tom, Katy, or my sister, that they were all downtown, and would she please pray?
“Of course,” she replied. “Oh, my God, Kitty. Are you near a television? The north tower is falling…”
My desk phone rang. It was Tom. He was safe. I sobbed with relief. His breakfast meeting had not been downtown, but just five blocks away on 39th Street at the Williams Club where Tom, an alumnus of Williams College, was a member. We agreed to meet there, where the staff was busy setting up phone banks, and tables with bottled water and emergency provisions.
As the morning dragged on, men and women covered in white dust, looking like ghosts, staggered up the steps and through the door. Survivors from the horror downtown, they had walked the four miles to the Williams Club in shock.
Once we had finally gotten through to Katy and my sister, and made sure they were safe, and called my mother, and our son Brinck at his high school to reassure them that we were all okay, Tom and I headed for home via the West Side Highway. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Across from us on the southbound lane, an endless convoy of ambulances and emergency vehicles from the northern suburbs, including New Canaan, moved toward what the newscaster on the radio was calling “Ground Zero.” I turned around in my seat and looked south where a dismal dirty gray cloud filled the empty space where the twin towers had stood. It seemed impossible that they were gone. National Guardsmen, armed with rifles and wearing camouflage uniforms and black boots, stood at the Henry Hudson Bridge toll gates, and inspected our car before letting us pass.
When we finally made it home, Tom and I pulled my father’s flag – the flag that had covered Dad’s casket when he died – out from the darkness of the closet and hung it over the front door. Across the street and next-door, our neighbors had put out their flags, too.
As I stood looking at the flag, I remembered how as a teenager, my father’s patriotism had embarrassed me. At high school football games I wanted to hide when he placed his right hand over his heart and lustily bellowed every word to the Star Spangled Banner. Back then, my father’s old-fashioned, unapologetic patriotism seemed not only corny, but irrelevant. Forged by the fires of adversity and sacrifice, his patriotism was the birthright of a different generation – the Greatest Generation – surely something that could never burn in my privileged baby boomer’s heart.
The two towers were not all that fell on that awful day. If only for a moment, all that was trivial about everyday American life fell away, too. The culture of celebrity. Partisan politics. Irony. All were unmasked as the cheap, shallow, frivolous imposters that they were.
Rising out of the ruins, all that remained standing were the Important Things: Faith. Family. Friends. Freedom. Essential and enduring, they offered meaning and hope to a nation and people suffering incalculable heartache and loss.
Now, I thought, is the time to say, “I love you.” Now is the time to say, “I’m sorry.” Now is the time to say, “Thank you.” Now is the time to make peace with God. Now is the time. Tomorrow may be too late.
On September 11, 2001, it was all so clear.
Kathryn Slattery is a long-time Contributing Editor for Guideposts magazine, and the author of several books.