Saturday, September 17, 2011

BOUCHERCON HIATUS: My September 11, 2001

We’re still at Bouchercon, doing all the things that make hanging out with friends and fans worthwhile, but I’ll leave the telling of those tales to others.  After all, “What happens in St. Louis stays in St. Louis.”  Though I must admit, Dan, I'm having a really hard time not saying at least something about Ysra bringing that sheep's head into the hotel bar.

Today’s post was written at the request of a New York City-based newspaper to be part of its 9/11 10th year commemorative issue.  I was asked to talk about where I was that Tuesday morning.  Here is what I wrote. 

I like it over here by the United Nations.  Beekman Place is different from other New York City streets; it’s more like a quiet, residential private road in an elegant European city.  My walk to my office is down First Avenue overlooking the East River and alongside the gardens and flags of the UN.  It gives me a few daily moments of serenity and escape from the often out of control state of my life as a lawyer here.

I need this walk today.  The sky is so blue and clear, except for the few smoke-like clouds on the downtown horizon.  I’m up by the UN General Assembly Building when I call my friend Panos to find out how his date went last night.  He’s frantic and says he can’t talk.  He’s waiting for his mother to call him from Greece.  I ask if everything is OK.  He says she’ll be worried when she hears that his office was struck by a plane.  I must have misunderstood him.  He works in the World Trade Center.  He says his office building is burning and he has to get off the phone.

Those are not clouds on the horizon, it’s smoke.

I tell him to get out of the building.  He says it’s not necessary.  He’s okay.  His date kept him out late and he’s still at home.  He’ll go to work in the afternoon, after the fire is out.  He hangs up.

How could a plane have hit the World Trade Center on a day as clear as this one?  Something must have happened to the pilot.  I hear sirens everywhere and move a little faster toward my office.  By the time I get upstairs everyone is looking out the windows on the south side of our building.  It has an unobstructed view of the Towers.  Now they’re both burning.  I’m told a second plane hit the second Tower.  We all know what that means—even before learning about the Pentagon.  Someone tells me a plane hit Pittsburgh, my hometown.  I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  I call my daughter, she lives in Greenwich Village.  She’s frightened.  We all are.  I tell her to keep calm. My son is in Cincinnati, I’m sure he’s safe but I can’t reach him.

We’re all glued to the big screen TV in my law firm’s main conference room.  The first tower begins to fall and we turn en masse from the television to look out our windows as it crumbles to the ground before our eyes.  It’s surreal, it can’t be happening.  But it happens again.  Not a word is said while we watch the second tower fall.   We are at war.  But with whom?

My mind can’t fix on what all this means.  I focus on a rumor that there’s an imminent biological anthrax attack and race to the pharmacy for enough antibiotic for my daughter.  That’s something I can do.  Again, I think, my son is in Cincinnati.  He’s safe there.

When I moved to NYC in 1969 my first job was blocks away from the Trade Center site.  The Towers were in the midst of construction and I saw them every morning across the Brooklyn Bridge as I’d head to work.  In August 1974 I watched Philippe Petit do his high wire walk between them, and three years later glimpsed at mountain climber George Willig scale one in the wind.  Even after moving my office uptown they were always in view from my window.  They spanned my career as a lawyer in NYC.  I can’t believe they’re gone.
The City is in shock.  Lines of thousands of refugees from downtown are trekking up Third Avenue toward home or simply to somewhere other than where they were.  No one is talking.  The smell is everywhere, acrid and bitter.  There seems to be grey dust on the shoes of every cop and will be for days.

I stop at a restaurant halfway between my office and home.  It’s Greek and run by a friend.   It’s the only place I can think of to go.  There is no one at home and I can’t get downtown to my daughter.  She’s fine.  Panos comes in.   I try making a joke about his date from last night.  I say he should marry her, she saved his life.  It’s not that funny.

A half dozen or so young men and women of about the age I was when I started working in NYC are sitting quietly at a table along the front windows.  A cell phone rings—one of the few that must be working—and one of the women answers.  She’s a dark haired girl.  She listens, shuts her phone and starts sobbing.  She says something to the others; they hug each other and cry.


It’s after midnight by the time I head home.  My cell phone rings on the way.  It’s a friend from Capri in Italy.  He’s been trying to reach me all day to see if I’m okay.  I hang up and continue home.  I’m tearing.  Friendship like his is what life’s all about.  Family and friends are what matter.

A week later I drive to my farm, get in my pickup and head to Pittsburgh to visit my brother and sister-in-law.  I decide not to go back to NYC but drive south, toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I’ve never been there before, but it just seems the place to be.  I have to drive by Washington, DC to get there.  It’s only when I see the first sign for DC that I realize I’ve made an unconscious pilgrimage past the three sites of the 9/11 massacre—NYC, Western PA, DC.
Duck, NC is chilly in the off-season and the ocean is wild.  I lock myself in a hotel room overlooking the sea and complete my first novel.  I’m driven to make something good come out of all of this bad.  A week later I drive back to NYC.  I’m on the Jersey Turnpike heading north and close to the City, but I can’t tell where it begins.  Its southern landmark is gone.  This world is insane.

A few years later I give up my life in NYC and move to the Aegean island of Mykonos to pursue my dream of writing mysteries exploring the heart and soul of Greece.   There is no reason to wait any longer.  Is there?



  1. My daughter was at William & Mary then. There were a lot of military personnel in the law school. One of the women was married to an officer assigned to the Pentagon. He wasn't in the damaged wing but, of course, things were chaotic.

    He asked his wife to call the parents of the military assigned to his department. Since everyone was safe, it seemed a pleasant duty for that day. When the phone was answered, she introduced herself as captain.... The families thought she was calling to inform them of a tragedy. She had to begin by saying their loved one was unharmed and then she could introduce herself.

    Nothing was normal that day. The Pentagon isn't that far from Williamsburg.

    I think all parents had a need to gather their children no matter how old they were or how far distant. How long does it take to fly to Cincinnati? No one in the US was safe. My son was in high school and they were sent home. My other daughter was in college and their classes were canceled.

    When I was teaching history in high school, we used to discuss the way in which they US was formed because of its borders. No one thought of planes taking off from American cities to attack another American city.

    We are now a grown-up country. We learned that any belief in our invincibility is magical thinking.

  2. Oh, Jeff, you said it so well. Friends and family are eternal. What a sewer of a day. and what heroes emerged. I still don't do well with it.

  3. Lil, none of us do. It's like a ring you always wear: it's there but we forget until something brings it to our attention, then it passes on again unnoticed until the next time.

    Interesting point, Beth. It reminds me of something a teacher once told me. She noticed that after 9/11 children seemed far more "protected" by their parents. I don't know if you agree, but it seemed to make sense that parents felt that urge to cuddle (and perhaps spoil) their children in the wake of such a horrific experience.

    Speaking of horrific experiences, the sheep heads Yrsa imported from Iceland for us to share last night were anything but that. They were the instant party maker. I felt I was back at the party scene on Mykonos. My advice is that if ever you want to attract attention in a bar, just whip out a couple of (cured) sheep heads.


  4. Oh, Jeff, what a heart-breaker. I was there, too -- booked out on a morning flight -- and wound up spending I don't know how many days in my hotel, sharing the experience with total strangers in the streets and on the sidewalks. People were so open to each other, not always the case in NYC.

  5. In January 2002, my daughter was skiing in New Hampshire when she took a bizarre fall. She wasn't going fast, the problem was the way she landed. She was taken from North Conway by life support ambulance to the trauma unit in Portland, Maine. She had a scrape from the ice on her cheek, the only visible sign of the fall but internally she had lacerated her liver, kidney,and spleen. She was in danger of bleeding her life away and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent it.

    We were in Maine for ten days before she was ready to be transferred to Boston. For a long time, I needed to see her all the time. I was convinced that if I took my eyes off her she would disappear.

    She's minus a kidney but she is absolutely fine although I don't think I will ever recover. I think the reactions to 9/11 was much the same. People left home in the morning and disappeared. We know people can die suddenly but, for most of us, there is the process of the wake and funeral that allows us to absorb the loss through our senses. I think amid the horror, we needed that same kind of sensory input to touch them, to talk to them, so that we could prove to ourselves that our children hadn't disappeared, they were still in the realm of the real and present.

    Accidents happen all the time but this wasn't an accident. It was the result of choices made by a small number of people to "disappear" as many souls as they could. That randomness made us need our children close because the 3000 people who died were somebody's children.

    Doesn't make sense but nothing about that time did.

  6. Beth, I somehow knew that if anyone could explain the phenomenon described by that teacher it would be you. Thanks.

    Yes, Tim, there was a camaraderie born of that disaster that all who went through it will share for the rest of their days. But I guess that's the nature of such horrific events, perhaps none so much as war. And--in an effort to lighten the mood a bit--of such glorious moments as our crew's time together at Bouchercon.