July 19, 2010

Memories of September 11th

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Some friends of mine are getting married this September 11th. Apparently that was the only date available when they booked locations. It seems people want to avoid that date for the obvious reasons. On September 11th 2001 I was in the US staying with friends in the town of Frederick, Maryland. I was halfway through an round-the-world holiday, and the next day I was scheduled to go to New York to stay with another set of friends.

Frederick is a pretty little colonial town where the residents seem to be largely commuters. Most people there including Katrina and Chris, work in surrounding towns – one of which is Washington, DC. I did a postgrad degree with Katrina. Soon after graduating she married and travelled to the US for Chris’ work, although she quickly got a job at the same international engineering firm. On the day, Chris took the day off work (it was a Tuesday) to go with me to Gettysburg, while Katrina was going to work as normal. Just as we were leaving we saw on the news that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Centre towers. Initially it didn’t look that serious, and there wasn’t much information or any pictures of the incident. There was just what seemed to be a small plume of smoke coming from the tower. I assumed when they said plane they meant a small plane. Chris and I left. Arriving in Gettysburg after a short drive, we stopped to pick up a packed lunch at a local deli. As we walked in there were half a dozen people staring at the TV. The second plane had just crashed into the other tower and this time there were explicit pictures.

We stared at the TV with the others until lunch was ready and then went to the Gettysburg battlefield. I remember seeing an exhibition showing the broad outline of the battle in the museum. There was a small auditorium with steeply banked seating. The “stage” was a map of the battlefield. Little lights blinked on and off to show the location of events in the battle with a recorded commentary. I don’t remember much of the exhibition’s content other than it was a deadly battle – my mind was elsewhere for most of it. We went to start a tour of the battlefield, but Chris had a call from Katrina saying that another plane had hit the Pentagon, a fourth had crashed in Pennsylvania and that most people in the office were going home, including her. We walked for a little bit, but Chris soon asked if I would like to stop the tour and go back to their place. I said yes, so we left straight away. I was happy to go; it was hard to concentrate on my surroundings. Chris appeared concerned too.

We got back to the house, sat down and watched TV. I think we got back after the towers collapsed, but it is hard to remember as the footage of the towers being hit and collapsing were played on a loop. Almost all the channels were dedicated to live news. I remember thinking that it must be serious because no channels were showing Star Trek (a running joke on my trip – as it always seemed to be on). Not sure if I said that out loud as the mood was very serious. There was a general concern over what would be coming next and a sense of “if they can do this, what else can they do?” It was around this time that I discovered that the house was walking distance to Fort Detrick a US military base where the national chemical weapons arsenal was stored. I remember this causing some tension, especially as later Oliver North appeared on one of the channels suggesting Fort Detrick was the target for the fourth plane (although I believe this was later disproved). I later walked to the front gates of the fort and nothing could be seen other than bush.

Chris and Katrina started calling and emailing people to let them know they were fine. Katrina asked if I wanted to let people back in Perth know I was ok. I was focused on what was happening and said they all knew I wouldn’t be in New York until Wednesday, but Katrina suggested I might like to let them know anyway. So I emailed everyone. I also tried calling Skot and Tara – the friends I planned to stay with in NY. It took some time to get through to them. Communication was understandably difficult. Mobile phone connections were rare. They eventually emailed to say they were fine, but their apartment (very close to the World Trade Center) was inside the exclusion zone and they would be staying with friends for the next few days. In the end they never stayed another night in that apartment. It was days before they could re-enter it, and then only to collect their stuff – they rented a place in Brooklyn instead. By then the airspace had been closed and trains cancelled – it was clear I would not be going to NY. Indeed by the end of that day it felt as if the world was at war – the TV news helped promote this perception.

The following days were spent watching the news, wandering around Frederick and imposing on Katrina and Chris’ extended hospitality. A few events stand out from this time. I remember passing what looked like a fire station and there being a small armoured vehicle outside and a group of people with flack jackets and assault rifles on the driveway – it was a little intimidating. For days after the attack airspace was closed to commercial flights. However, there were many helicopters flying overhead. They were all heading to or from Fort Detrick and looked military. Sometimes there were a couple of dual rotor helicopters with escorts of smaller war-like helicopters. I remember playing volleyball with some of Chris’ workmates a few days later and a plane going overhead. We all stopped and just watched it draw a contrail across the sky. Afterwards we went to the pub and when I said I was from Australia (the same as Chris) they replied “are you with us?” At first I thought they were kidding, but they were very serious. I assured them Australia would support the US (as it did) and they went back to their drinks. Patriotism was highly visible. US flags proliferated on the streets. Most houses had a flag outside, as the picture taken round the corner from where I was staying shows.

I never did make it to New York. Instead I spent a week in Boston and then caught the bus from there direct to my outbound flight at JFK airport. I passed through the city and had 10 minutes interchange at the bus station near 42nd street. I took one photo.


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