Monday, September 11, 2006

DAY 128

Five years ago today my clock radio went off and NPR told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. "Wow, what are the odds of that?" I thought. I hit "SNOOZE" and rolled back over. The radio came on again seven minutes later and I hit "OFF" so fast I didn't hear a thing the announcer was saying. Shower. Dress. Car. NPR back on.

As I got onto the 163 South from Hillcrest to downtown San Diego, I heard the announcer say that the building was totally collapsing. Collapsing? How could a building that BIG be collapsing? From a plane? As I pulled up to work my confusion grew.

There were about a dozen big black SUV's with tinted windows lined up ass-to-nose in front of the building. There were soldiers in front of the door. Soldiers? What the hell could that mean? It was only my second month on the job at the United States District Court in the Southern District of California but I knew this wasn't routine. I wondered if there was a bomb threat or something. I made no connection whatsoever to the news story.
I just didn't get that there was a connection between a building in New York collapsing and my office. I couldn't even fathom the concept of being a target.

I showed my ID, I went through security and when I got to my desk I started to realize I was one of maybe three federal employees in the building. And that's when I really started to get scared. Pretty soon the chief judge closed the court and I was released for the day, possibly the week.

I didn't know where to go. It was a beautiful sunny day. On a whim, I drove over the Pacific on a bridge to Coronado Island. Which is when I realized I was driving towards a Navy base and probably the hottest target on the West Coast. And I panicked for a minute. I was sitting on a bridge over the Pacific Ocean headed toward a military target and I can't turn around for a mile and... Are we at war? Finally realizing how clueless I was, I went straight back home and like everybody else glued myself to the television and called everyone I know and love as the rest of the day's horror unfolded.

I called my parents first. My mother told me that my brother was scheduled for a Boston to Los Angeles flight that morning. He had just cancelled at the last minute; some change at work. I was stunned and deeply wounded and relieved and grateful all at once. The news coverage seemed endlessly the same but I didn't dare watch anything else. The images grew more and more brutal, more and more intimate, and I kept searching for faces of people I might know. I remembered a recent meet-and-greet event the bar held where I met some attorneys from Sidley Austin. Wasn't Sidley Austin in the World Trade Center? Oh God. It's definitely in the World Trade Center. The list of people I knew grew and grew.

In the following months I would be trained to identify "suspicious packages" in the judge's mail. I was issued a face mask and a box of rubber gloves for handling such packages and underwent training for opening and disposing of packages which may or may not contain anthrax. The bomb sniffing dogs actually started coming into chambers for pass throughs.

The news started featuring lessons on sealing off your windows and doors with duct tape and plastic. There was a run on duct tape at the local markets. People lined up for blocks to buy bottled water. Everybody chatted over lunch about their emergency kits that they were keeping in their cars, in their homes. And then, we were told: Don't be afraid. Keep on living, keep the economy strong, keep being American. And so I did what I was told. And each passing day put more distance between tragedy and my current reality.

And, before I knew it, five years had passed in what feels like the blink of an eye. And isn't that how all tragedy is? If you can just find the strength to keep on keeping on, you will surpass it. It's inevitable. You won't forget it, and you won't be exactly the same, but you will surpass it.

No comments: