Repost: Four Days

This is my original post from September 11, 2006. It is presented without revisions, but with a few clarifying links. 

All times approximate, Pacific Time Zone

Tuesday, September 11, 2001
5:50 AM

The alarm clock said 6 AM as it went off, but even half asleep she knew it was really ten minutes earlier. She rolled over, slapped the OFF button, and grabbed the TV remote. The TV — still tuned to CNBC from yesterday morning — turned on, and she saw a skyscraper on fire.

That looks like New York City, she thought, but if it were, there would be two of those towers instead of just one.

The phone rang. It was her husband. He was out of town on business. He said “I hoped I could reach you before you turned on the television.” She was still a little sleepy, trying to figure out what he was saying, and make sense of what Mark Haines was saying on CNBC at the same time.

“What our people on the scene do not realize,” Mr. Haines said evenly, “Is that the South Tower has collapsed.”

She came to understand what had happened: that several madmen had flown fuel-laden planes into the buildings; that another plane had hit the Pentagon; that a fourth plane was missing and presumed hijacked. The footage was live, and so she saw a person jump from the remaining tower. With a sinking feeling in her guts, she thought Well, I suppose if you know you are going to die anyway…. Within a half hour, the other tower fell.

Data was coming fast and furious. The markets would be closed until further notice. Air traffic closed until further notice. Lists of companies — including many brokerage houses, the IMF, and the World Bank — that had offices in the towers. Phone numbers for employees and families to call for information. Data about the square footage and height of the now demolished towers. Hastily prepared maps of Lower Manhattan with the towers and other landmarks labeled. Estimated 80,000-90,000 people visit the towers for business or tourism daily — needless to say the worst case had to be assumed until proven otherwise.

7:45 AM

After she had showered and gotten dressed, it was time to wake her son and take him to preschool. She had decided he didn’t need to know a lot of details about what had happened. She also hoped air traffic would be back to normal by the time his Dad was supposed to come home. Pretending nothing was wrong, she packed his snack and helped him pick out clothes. She had already scribbled a note for his teacher, reading “He does not know. I trust you will do what is best for the kids.”

They got into her car, and she made sure he was safely strapped in before starting the engine. She pounced on the radio’s OFF button as she realized her regular station was going to be talking about what had happened in New York, and probably nothing else.

Then she drove. The only sounds were the car engine, and her son singing the same four notes over and over again. They formed an odd little minimalist composition, repeating endlessly for most of the ride.

8:50 AM

They arrived at school. Before she could offer the note, the teacher asked simply “Does he know?”

She replied “No.” They both nodded.

The teacher, with effort, put on her happy preschool teacher smile and turned back towards the class. The mother went back to her car.

Alone, she turned on the radio. She changed the channel three or four times, before coming to the conclusion that everyone was talking about the same thing. The same meager set of facts she had learned a couple hours earlier was being repeated, some details superceded by more accurate ones. Now they thought only 40,000 or 50,000 people might be dead. Rescuers were searching for survivors. Interviews with people who had been fortunate enough to be late for work on that particular morning. Locally, there was talk about the air traffic situation, and the fact that the ferries would be running, but no vehicles would be allowed. Well that’s sure going to mess up traffic.

She tried to leave the school parking lot. Traffic was awful; she couldn’t make a left turn. Finally she gave up and turned right. I am going to the beach, she promised herself. As she drove the mile and a half to the beach, she passed multiple churches. One of them was even the denomination she belonged to. She half-thought about going inside, but then changed her mind. God isn’t in there. He’s out here.

She arrived at the rocky beach. It was cold, windy, and she could see the huge ferry coming in, loaded with people but no cars. She could hear the radio of the car parked next to her, continuing to stream the same facts and theories. She crossed the railroad tracks to a little coffee shop. As one barrista made her a cappucino, the manager was talkig on the phone to a second barrista who wasn’t sure she would be able to come in to work because she didn’t know if the ferries would be running. The woman helpfully relayed what she had heard on the radio. The manager thanked her, and the barrista handed her the drink.

She has no idea how much time she spent standing on the rocky beach, sipping a cappucino, staring out across the water and at the mountains beyond. The same four notes her son sang rang in her head.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Various Times

As she looked back upon this week, she always felt that Mark Haines and Alina Cho deserved some kind of award for their coverage of 9/11. Maria Bartiromo was starting not to look quite so shaken. Bob Pisani was starting to look quite frazzled; clearly he was not sleeping, and frankly she couldn’t blame him. She was shaken herself, and she hadn’t been in New York City.

As a mere viewer, she knew they had all lost people they knew, people they had interviewed, people who had been regular guests. She began to wonder about friends and business associates in New York City. Are they alright? It would be weeks before she knew: One friend had watched the towers drop from his office; Another had been in Building 7.

More details became available. Akamai had lost their CTO in one of the planes. Other companies were disclosing lost high-level personel. Some companies, like Cantor-Fitzgerald, had lost over half their staff. The New York Stock Exchange is talking about hoping to be able to open for normal business next week. Miraculous rescues were still happening. Details about what the President and Vice-President had done the day before were now becoming widely known. Now they thought probably only 5,000-10,000 people were dead.

Still, those same four notes rang in her head like an endless tape loop.

CNBC’s David Faber apologized for the fact that they are a business news network, and that in addition to the terrible events that happened yesterday, they will be reporting important business, national, and international news as it happens. Various guests talk about what will happen next week when the markets reopen. Sell airlines, because air travel is changing forever! Sell aviation manufacturers! There will almost certainly be a recession so sell everything! No, buy defense contractors!

Sometime amidst this, she thinks with alarming clarity Well, no matter what else happens, people will need to get from place to place, and American Airlines and United Airlines both have planes to replace. And no matter what gets built at “Ground Zero,” it will need air conditioners and elevators. Buy United Technologies when they open.

At some point she went outside. The eerie quiet of the skies was broken by a fighter jet from a nearby military base.

Thursday, September 13, 2001
Various Times

As she was out and about, she noticed American flags everywhere. It was like the Fourth of July on steroids! She was even noticing people who had painted their old beater cars red, white, and blue. She couldn’t help but wonder if those people were going to be quite so proud of those paint jobs 6 months from now.

She still made sure the radio was off when her son was in the car. There was still too much talk about what had happened than she really wanted to expose a preschooler to. She was also very very cautious about turning on the TV at all. Luckily, she was already in the habit of taping Sesame Street for later viewing.

The four notes were not in her head anymore — at least not constantly— but she still couldn’t go an hour without wondering why Tuesday had happened.

Friday, September 14, 2001
9:15 AM

The moment her son was safely in school, she went back to her car and turned on the local NPR affiliate. They were supposed to run the memorial service live from Washington Cathedral. Billy Graham was supposed to give the sermon, and she desperately hoped he had something truly inspired to say.

“…And now they are passing the offering plate…” the announcer said.

Stunned, she stared at the radio for a moment before turning it off and driving away.