Friday, September 11, 2009

A Seemingly Typical Morning

Tuesday morning was pretty standard. I had an 8:30 conference call with my team of contractors in the US and India who were helping my company to upgrade some 15 million lines of COBOL code to a newer version of the language that would work with the forthcoming 64-bit mainframe upgrade. As was often the case, it took a while to get everybody connected, so while the meeting was about twenty minutes long, I spent a full hour sitting in a conference room that was too small for its table. My co-manager, Lori, was there too. We chatted about whatever office drones chat about when they’re sitting around waiting. We connected with Senthil in Connecticut and Ravi in India and completed our daily status review of the project. It was cordial and friendly – I liked these guys a lot and enjoyed working with them. It was a thankless project nobody wanted at our company – it added no new functionality or capabilities, it just upgraded the programs to work with the new mainframe. It was being done purely out of necessity, with no glory or enthusiasm. And it was boring. That was my typical Tuesday morning. At about 9:35 AM, I stepped out into hell.

There was a crowd of perhaps twenty people gathered around a television on the 10th floor of MONY Tower I. There was a lot of fidgeting and tension, but it was quiet except for the news broadcast. It wasn’t just the silence of people paying attention, it was the mute atmosphere of a wake, when nobody speaks because they don’t know what to say and would rather just be alone with their thoughts but still in a room full of people. It was a cocktail party without drinks or conversation – everyone together and alone at once. I sidled up to the fringes of the crowd to learn what held their rapt attention. I could tell it wasn’t good.

Somebody had wheeled out a large TV on a sturdy metal stand and tuned it to the news. Two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City around an hour before – just after I’d gone into the conference room and shut the door. And something else had happened in Washington, D.C. A helicopter had crashed outside the State Department or somesuch. All air traffic was grounded, but not everything had landed yet.

A few minutes later, the news was updated – it hadn’t been the State Department that was attacked, it was a plane that had crashed into the Pentagon moments before. It was 9:45 AM and I’d been watching events unfold for ten minutes. Three planes full of people had been turned into enormous bombs, screaming missiles that had been carefully guided into three of the country’s largest office buildings. And the Pentagon – the Pentagon! The symbol of America’s military machine. The headquarters of the armed forces that kept us safe and ensured that our enemies didn’t send our aircraft hurtling into skyscrapers in a jumbled, twisted crunch of metal and incendiary jet fuel and burning dying people.

And this just in: there was one more jetliner still flying around out there somewhere that nobody could reach. Best guess is that it was over Pennsylvania, but in all likelihood it was now a missile aimed at the White House.

It was another twenty minutes before the next major event and people would, from time to time, break out of their stunned malaise and speak softly to a person standing nearby. The murmur would rise from a barely-audible hum to a low rumble that didn’t seem to emanate from anyone in particular but filled the area thickly the way fog wraps itself around you and feels close and solid and heavy. Every so often, someone’s logical progression of thoughts would pull them out of the scenes on the television – cameras pointed up at smoke billowing out of two New York skyscrapers – and back to their own lives. And you’d see it happen, because they’d look around in wide-eyed wonder and cock their head just so, as if listening for the approach of a jetliner with mad-eyed religious nutjobs at the controls screaming to Allah as they dove headlong into

OUR skyscraper. OUR twin towers. Holy hell, we were standing in a building that was the World Trade Center in miniature.

The realization came to different people at different times, but you could see it happen by the way they gazed around as if they’d never really thought about the office they worked in. True, they were nineteen stories high rather than a hundred and ten. True, they were in Syracuse rather than New York (and what was the likelihood that Arab terrorists had ever heard of Syracuse?). True, these weren’t even the tallest buildings in the city, nor did they house anything especially symbolic or important. But they were where we were standing at the moment and WE were important to US, dammit.

We were all in a daze and you don’t think cogently when your mind is overloaded by the impact of events and the enormity of the unknown. So there was fear, if only briefly before the reality that we weren’t a target sank in. But then, for me at least, a larger, less personal fear sank in. What would be next? More attacks? Was the White House going to be destroyed while I watched on television? Were we at war on our home soil for the first time since the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor? And if so, with whom? Faceless cowards who hid in mid-east ratholes, darting out on occasion to nip at our heels before ducking back in? Surely not an army to stand and face the wrath of a fully-awakened U.S. war machine out for blood and vengeance.

The clock ticked on, but time seemed slow to us standing there in a crowd around this TV watching people stream out of the World Trade Center buildings. By 10 AM it seemed as if the worst was probably over in New York – it would just be an effort then to put out the fire and tend to the wounded people and count the bodies from the plane and from the floors where the inferno had roared up and incinerated everything and everyone. It was awful, to be sure. There were people smashing windows and jumping from the 100th floor because they preferred a few seconds of wind and falling with a quick death at the end to being roasted alive by the hungry flames. But the damage had been done at that point and the authorities should get things under control in reasonably short order.

Then the South tower crumbled to the ground. It was spectacular and horrifying and seemed to suck all of the air and life out of the room. The sibilant whispering murmurs receded again to silence, except for shocked gasps. There were no exclamations of “My God!” or “Oh no!” or the like, as you might have expected. The sight of such unimaginable destruction actually happening live while we watched denied any such articulation. Breathing, being autonomic, continued and gave the silent watchers the barest conduit to express their dismay through sharp intakes of breath, but for most the experience elicited not a sound. A tightening around the eyes was common. A relaxing of the muscles of the face and jaw certainly. But the shockwave of that building collapsing under its own burning weight created an electricity-dampening field that instantly enveloped every watcher around the world (excepting, perhaps, those who had orchestrated the day’s events and were viewing them not with horror but with joy and pride) and snuffed out the impulses that normally jumped from one synapse to the next within their brains. SNIK! All thought, all speech, every conscious action was rendered impossible at that moment by the impossible suddenly becoming real in a way that couldn’t be disbelieved or refuted, but had to be absorbed and reconciled and accepted because it was real and it was happening right then and it was on TV.

I wandered off a few minutes later. I think I walked over toward my desk, refreshing CNN.Com in my browser window but not being able to really make sense of the words on the screen. I remember, and it seems silly now, but I remember being emotionally dead at the time, and realizing that I wasn’t all there, and being unsure what I ought to do about it. I had the notion that I ought to try to shake it off and get back to work, losing myself in the routine of my projects and reports and emails. Within ten minutes or so, I was heading down to the ground floor to get a soda from the little convenience store down there. There was a TV on behind the counter and I was standing in line waiting to pay when the second tower crashed down, so small in black and white and shades of gray.

I went back to my desk and drank my soda. Both towers and part of the Pentagon had fallen. The fourth, lost plane had crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania rather than the White House. We all went home within an hour or so to sit and watch the world’s reaction to that seemingly typical Tuesday morning.

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