A witness in Albany, carrying the story on
On September 11th, 2001, I was in my sophomore year of college, enrolled at the State University of New York in Albany, New York. My classes started early, and so like every morning, I’d wake up, and go out to my computer in the common room of the suite I shared with four other roommates. I ate breakfast at my desk and read the news online before class. A headline flashed on CNN’s website that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Knowing this was a serious event, I went back into my room, climbed onto my raised bed, and plugged in headphones so that I could watch TV without disturbing my sleeping roommate. I saw the second plane hit the South Tower live on CNN’s broadcast, at an angle that made recognizing what had happened confusing for even the anchors in the moment. The set’s small screen replayed the footage over and over as confirmations rolled in, and what was originally labeled as a bizarre accident was now becoming a terrorist attack.
I remember very clearly the motion of the plane coming into the shot, moving left to right, behind the tower on fire, and great bubbles of fire erupting from the tower that was out of view. Streams of debris coming out and down like trailing edges of fireworks, not glowing but gray with smoke and dust.
I was born and raised in New York, just on the border of Westchester and Putnam counties in the town of Cortlandt Manor. Like many of the students attending SUNY Albany, my father worked in New York City. He worked for BASF, in an office tower near Times Square. Although I’d visited the city many times, I wasn’t sure just how far away the Twin Towers were from where he worked. And although he traveled often for business, I didn’t know whether he would have been working in his office on that day. By the time I tried to call home, cell phone lines were jammed, and I wasn’t able to connect or leave a message on our home answering machine. Classes on campus were still being held, and so I packed my bag and went.
I had several classes that morning, including a combined lecture and lab geology course that lasted for an hour and a half. The classroom had a computer for each student, and I’d usually come in and continue to read through the news online before class started. That morning, however, news websites had all crashed from high traffic. I couldn’t access anything.
Class proceeded as normal, and an hour and a half ticked by. I wouldn’t realize until later how much had changed in that time. When class ended, and another group of students flowed into the room for the next class, they told us that the towers had collapsed, and the Pentagon was on fire. Those of us who had been unaware thought the news was impossible. I had another class, a calculus course, immediately following my geology session, and so I headed downstairs in the same building and sat in another hour of lecture as the world outside continued to change. I returned to my dorm immediately after class, for what normally would have been a break for lunch, and was able to return to the TV and CNN’s coverage. I could confirm with my own eyes what had seemed unimaginable beforehand. Before that day, news channels didn’t use the chyron with text scrolling across the bottom of the screen that is ubiquitous now. CNN started using that feature during their coverage of the attack. I was squinting to try and make out the words as news kept rolling in, too fast to keep up with it all through traditional reporting. I was seeing dust rushing through the city streets like floodwaters in a canyon, overtaking people, blotting out emergency vehicles. People would emerge from the shroud caked in gray, eyes and mouths red. They looked like silhouettes, still entirely identifiable with briefcases, high heels and curled hair, fireman helmets, but everything inside their outline grayed out by the dust.
Papers were flying everywhere. Amidst the gray dust I clearly remember seeing the pages turning and turning in the air, flashing white, like confetti or a ticker tape parade. All of this was on replay, over and over, for people like me who needed to catch up. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day. I still couldn’t get through to the phone at home, but I did manage to reach the answering machine of my Granny, my father’s mother, who lived on Long Island. I remember leaving her a probably long and rambling message, about how I hadn’t heard from Dad or Mom, and that I hoped she was okay and that nothing had been disrupted out where she lived. At some point I did hear back from my parents. My dad was travelling on business, entirely outside of the state. I was so relieved that my dad hadn’t needed to try and make it out of the city. Mom and my little brother were both fine too, and at home.
Later that day, early in the evening, the university held a vigil. I’d stayed in my room since returning from class, watching the news with my roommates, split between the three rooms in our suite. We struck out together for the vigil, walking from our dormitory quad at one of the corners of campus to its center. There are four dorm quads on campus, located at each corner of the rectangular center. Each quad was identical, with an outer square of low dorm buildings, and an inner tower, 21 stories tall, looking like World Trade Center towers in miniature. Right down to the narrow columnar façade. We knew they had shut down the state government buildings and campus downtown, fearing a connected attack if not a copycat one. The similarity between our dorm towers and the World Trade Center buildings was not lost on us as students, and I had a new reason that day to be grateful that I lived in one of the lower buildings instead. As we walked to the vigil, dark humor took me over. I remember impersonating the President, squinting my eyes and pursing my lips as I joked about mistakenly going to war with Britain over the terrorist attack. The vigil was held around a large fountain and reflecting pool, sunk into the center of campus in its lecture complex. Students lit and held candles. There were speeches I’m sure, but I don’t remember any of what was said. What I do remember, very clearly, is that it was cloudy that evening. Low, overhanging clouds from horizon to horizon. We knew that there was concern about attacks on the state Capitol downtown. We knew that our own dorm towers bore a striking resemblance to the Trade Center buildings. We knew that by that time, all commercial planes had stopped flying. And I very clearly remember the sound of a plane tearing across the sky. Because of the clouds, we couldn’t see it, and couldn’t identify what kind of plane it was – we could only hear it. Flying so low and so fast. It visibly frightened me, and more than a few people around me.
At least one military jet was patrolling the area. The vigil ended, and we all walked back to our dormitory rooms. Many students were from downstate New York. Many had connections to New York City. As my roommates and I walked with the crowd, we were close to a young woman talking on their cell phone.
We overheard as she received the news that someone she knew had been killed in the attack. I don’t remember telling any jokes on the way back.
The first weekend after 9/11, I traveled home to visit my parents. Normally I would take the train, Amtrak down to the Croton Harmon station. But the tickets must have been sold out, and so I took a bus to Newburg instead.
Traveling down Route 9A, I had my headphones on and my CD player, listening to Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” album. There’s a track towards the end of the album titled “4th of July”. I’d listened to this album dozens of times before, but as I’m riding and looking out of the window this song took on a different context. The road runs through residential areas, and as I’m listening to these lyrics mentioning explosions, fire and fallout, and music like a heavy metal funeral dirge, we’re riding past houses. People had set up signs on their lawns, in support of firefighters or in memory of loved ones. They’d lit candles and put them out at the edges of their driveways, around their mailboxes. American flags were everywhere.
I’ll never hear that song without thinking about 9/11, and being a passenger going past those displays.
In my junior and senior years of college, I spent the summers as an intern in the Black Hills of South Dakota. After I graduated, I enrolled in graduate school at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota. While living there wasn’t much of a shift for me culturally, it was geographically. Up to that point, all of my life, with the exception of vacations, had been spent in New York. In New York, particularly southern New York, nobody asked in conversation if you had been impacted by the events of 9/11, because everybody was. In South Dakota, a New Yorker was a bit of a novelty. For many years, whenever I met someone, it was common that after asking where I was from, they’d immediately ask about 9/11 too. I told an abridged version of this story many times – prefaced with the fact that I wasn’t from the city.
While out in South Dakota, I worked with a collections manager who had previously worked for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. She was the first person I’d met from DC, and the subject of 9/11 came up in discussion when she was asked why she’d left there to take a position in Rapid City instead. She cited several reasons, but one of them was the stress that living in the area in a post-9/11 world has caused her. A few years later, I would leave Rapid City to take a job at the Smithsonian Institution, and move from South Dakota to southern Maryland. I now work for the National Museum of Natural History, as a fossil preparator in the Department of Paleobiology. Working for a Federal institution located on the National Mall brought me back into contact with the legacy of 9/11. I work with many colleagues who were in the building on that day, and told stories of the confusion, and being stuck in the city overnight, and all of the changes in the city that followed. The bollards and blast-proof windows and concrete barriers weren’t always there. Colleagues who normally wear dress clothes have been encouraged by a supervisor to keep sneakers in their desks, so that they can run if they need to. The legacy of 9/11 in Washington has combined with many terrorist incidents and threats before and after. Tourists throng the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums, new apartment towers go up and residents crowd nightlife hotspots. It’s a living city, but I’m also always aware of the open vigilance here, that is displayed more clearly than even in New York City. Cameras everywhere. Security screenings at the doors.
Men in black clothing with sniper rifles that walk out on the rooftops. I am aware of where I work. I have plans, contingencies, for emergencies. How to make it out of the city on foot. How I’d cross the Anacostia river to get that much closer to home. If I had to, and of course I hope I never have to.
But I don’t think anyone is naïve enough to think that terrorism won’t touch American cities, and Washington DC in particular, ever again.
I’m grateful to the National Museum of American History for collecting and archiving these memories. For all of the times in the past that I’ve retold bits of this story to casual acquaintances, this is the first time I’ve written it all down, spoken it all out, thought through it to try and reach back 20 years for every detail. Of all of the people who should recall my memories, it’s me