Last night I read in Facebook that Osama bin Laden was dead. My immediate reaction was that the news was too good to be true, but when I saw the confirmation from NPR, I realized that it must be true.
After belief came memory. My perspective of 9/11 is not just of a day, but of a week. I was one of many, many people trapped away from home that day. Anything to do with the event brings the name and face of the colleague I was traveling with instantly to mind, and probably will for the rest of my life.
I was in Wilmington, Delaware, and we were just starting a kickoff meeting/training class for a FPOW, and we were the trainers. The people in the class had come in to the training center from various parts of one company, and one person was still in the air, flying in from Montreal. We were from Chicago. My co-worker had boarded the plane at the literal last minute–I thought he would miss the flight.
Someone came in a little late, saying something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City. And then people went online to check, and saw the second plane hit not long after.
Wilmington is only 128 miles from the WTC. We could make outgoing calls but not get calls in for a while. The person from Montreal landed and arrived, but security had already started to lock down. She couldn’t tell what was going on, but even while she was flying in, she knew something was seriously, seriously wrong. And started worrying about how to get home.
And someone in the class misremembered something. He thought his brother-in-law had an office in the World Trade Center. He spent most of the day afraid that his sister was a widow. At about 2 pm, he reached his family in New York. You could see the weight lift from his shoulders. His brother-in-law had moved his office a couple of months previously, and he had totally forgotten.
We taught the class, because that’s what the group decided to do. Everything had been arranged for the two days, and they collectively didn’t know when it would be possible to get the group together again. It gave us all something else to focus on, although everyone kept checking the news online to see what was going on.
At lunch we all made a flurry of phone calls. I called my mother in Cincinnati, who knew I was out of town, but didn’t know where. I called Galen, since he was home in Chicago at that point. I was originally supposed to fly on to another city that night, and leave my co-worker with the rental car in Wilmington, but flights were already cancelled. My next destination was close enough that I could have taken the car, but I decided to stay put. And my next destination turned out to be closed for a couple of days.
That night I think I called everyone I knew who might remotely care. I have a childhood friend who lives in New Jersey, within commuting distance of New York City. Reaching her was extremely difficult, and all the more nerve-wracking because she lived so close. It was barely possibly that she was in the city that day, and not knowing drove me mad. Everyone tried to reconnect with people they hadn’t heard from in years. I even called one of my exes to let him know I was all right. We had a good talk and mended some fences that needed mending. I think a lot of people may have done some of that.
I also started trying to get home. The uncertainty was unnerving. Everyone was lost and scared, and we were all trying to hide it from one another. The airlines didn’t know anything either, but they tried their best. Between my co-worker and I, one night I’d have flight arrangements and he wouldn’t, and the next night, he would and I wouldn’t. That went on all week. The person from Montreal wasn’t sure how she would get home, since she hadn’t brought a passport. When she flew down, she didn’t need one. The world changed during her flight.
Looking back, it was less than a week of uncertainty. But at the time, it seemed like eternity. The world had been split open. I was away from home, and didn’t know when I would be able to get back. By Friday, we gave up, told the rental car agency they’d be getting their car back at O’Hare airport instead of Philadelphia, and started the 15 hour drive back. My colleague had to stop for a smoke about as often as I needed a “human break”, so we made good time until we hit Chicago construction traffic. For us, it was over.
But it’s not really over, is it? Bin Laden’s death doesn’t undo the changes that 9/11 brought. We can’t unknow what we know. 9/11 was a milepost in memory, a day when everyone remembers where they were, a day the universe changed. 9/11 is like the day President Kennedy was assassinated, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Challenger disaster, Pearl Harbor.