Wednesday, September 12, 2012

That Day

A customer told me. We were on the phone; I was trying to fix some inconsequential computer problem for him, and he told me the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I'm a long way from New York and the Twin Towers had never really been on my radar, so it took me a little while to understand. Soon we had a TV set up in a conference room and between calls we clustered around it, watching as the first impact was played and replayed, then the second. I remember being awed by the way in which the towers collapsed, floor dropping straight onto floor within spiky aluminum ribs, stacking in a strangely deliberate fashion, as if the whole thing was orchestrated by a demolitions expert. In a disaster movie the building would have swayed and splattered across the city, crushing everything around. This was graceful, even beautiful.

The announcers told us 50,000 people worked in each tower. I nearly vomited.

Within an hour we had been evacuated from our building, the tallest in Denver, and left to our own devices. I called my husband who reacted by focusing even more intently on his work. I got in my car and headed to the nearest blood bank. The only thing I could think to offer to the lost souls so far away was a part of my physical self, as if a pint of my blood could heal the savage wounds they had just suffered.

The drive down was quiet. I listened to NPR, hearing the same few words over and over and over. The roads were practically silent, drivers solicitous in our common shock. Everyone moved slowly, cautiously, feeling fragile. At the blood bank hundreds of us sat in clusters, united yet solitary as we waited for a cot. I buried myself in my book. I was exhausted by the repeating footage on the television, impatient for facts. I finished 500 pages while I waited. I have no idea what I read.

The technician wouldn't listen, insisted on my right arm. She poked and poked and poked me, unable to find a vein, distracted by her own shock. I said nothing, as if her shaking hands were my penance for the good fortune of living so far away. Finally, after the fourth or fifth try, she switched arms and the blood flowed like relief. Afterward I went home and puttered as the radio continued to spew nothingness, telling me again that 50,000 people worked in each of those buildings. 

There were no patients needing my donation. I've always wondered if it was even used.

I don't remember that evening, or the next few days. I worked. When I left the company years later I found a bad poem I had written the next day trying to make sense of the fact that I was there, working, making phone calls, fixing computer issues, while ash still fell and walls were increasingly obscured by grief on paper. My helplessness expanded to fill the hours in those weeks.

Sometime later we started hearing real numbers. 50,000 dropped to 20,000, then 15,000. My cousins were okay. 7,000 dead. Old friends found ways of saying they were safe. 5,000. I rejoiced in stories of reunion. Finally they decided that fewer than 3,000 died in the attacks.

That day was awful beyond compare. The weeks following were apocalyptic. I still duck when planes fly low over head. But gradually I have been saddled with a guilty sense of relief. It could have been so much worse.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written.

    When I heard those numbers, those insane numbers, somehow my brain turned off -- it was too horrible to contemplate. Somehow, when I saw the collapse, when I talked with my husband (whose building at work was designed the same way, as a fire-safety feature), I knew deep inside that there would be no survivors.
    Instead, there is just us... the many of us who watched in horrified disbelief and lived to discuss it 11 years later.

    I live under one of the flight patterns for the local Air Force Base, as well as the airport. Occasionally the atmosphere is "just right" for an unusually loud flyover. I worry each time.