One of the perks of being an author with The Wild Rose Press are the weekly chats held by the awesome staff. A few weeks ago the head honcho, Rhonda Penders, did a chat about pulling elements from your life experience into your writing. She used 9/11 as an example
When 9-11 hit, we all know exactly where we were and what we felt. But how many of us, as writers, have taken the time to write that down and chronicle it for the next generation. No one but the ones of us who experienced it will ever be able to tell how it felt when we heard about it. You don’t have to have been in NY or PA or DC to have had strong experiences around it.
She is right, of course. I don’t talk about where I was or what I felt that much because I was in a safe place and didn’t know anyone directly involved, so it didn’t feel like I had the right to talk about how I was affected. But in one way or another we were all effected. Today, I want to take a moment to share where I was and what I was doing, if only so that when my son grows up and has questions, I’ll be able to point to this post and say, this is what it was like for me.
I was a student in the film studies program at Point Park College at the time, I also worked as a nanny for a family in Fox Chapel, just outside the city. It was a fairly normal morning for me; woke up at an unnaturally early time for me, drove to Fox Chapel, got the kids ready for school, and took them to the bus stop.
It has been 14 years, so I don’t remember what kind of mood I was in, or if the kids were being cooperative or not. I do remember getting into my sister’s car (which I drove most mornings) and heading to Oakland for class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Traffic was bad that morning so I was anxious, afraid I would be late to class. At that time in my late teens / early twenties I was on an old school punk kick, but I was curious if there was an accident or something that would explain why traffic was so bad. I turned off the CD I was listening to and found a radio station.
I wish I could remember the station I was listening to, or the DJs that were talking. It was most likely 105.9 The X, but that is just an educated guess. It feels like a really important detail that I should remember, but don’t. After all, whoever the DJs were, they are the ones that I first heard the news from. It was 8:55 a.m. I knew something big was happening because there was no music, and no commercials. I tried to make sense of what the DJs were saying. Something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in NYC. They were speculating about something being wrong with the plane or air traffic control. At the time I don’t even think they knew that it was a full-sized plane. Everyone assumed it was a small recreational plane at first. That was before all the horrific images were coming out. No one knew about injuries or fatalities yet.
Right around 9:03 a.m. someone ran into the audio booth and said a second plane hit one of the towers. I think that is the longest radio silence I’ve ever heard. On some level everyone realized this wasn’t a coincidence.
I was strangely numb listening as they described the images coming across the news. I slowly made my way to class, eventually arriving fifteen minutes late. But when I got to the small movie theater where we screened films for discussion, there was no sign of the professor. A bunch of my fellow classmates sat around talking about the events and speculating about what happened. Five minutes later the professor came in and announced he was canceling class and that we should go back home. Most of the students rode the bus that day, and I offered to take them back to the dorms in downtown Pittsburgh. It took forever to get there because of the massive amounts of traffic.
After dropping them off I wasn’t sure exactly where to go. I lived on the South Side at the time, so I headed there. It was while I was sitting on the Smithfield Bridge that news came of Flight 93 crashing into a field in Somerset County, about an hour and a half outside Pittsburgh. That was the first moment I got really scared. Up to that point everything else had been so far away, I felt removed from it all. Like I could have been one of the listeners of The War of the World’s radio broadcast from the 1930s.
My fear was expounded by my mother’s longtime phobia of bridges. As kids, on every road trip that took us across a large bridge she would repeat the Hail Mary over and over again under her breath until we got safely to the other side. Memories of her fear had always made me a little nervous going over bridges, something I thought I was past after a year and a half navigating the bridge heavy Pittsburgh. But sitting on the Smithfield, feeling the slight bobbing of the bridge thanks to so many cars being packed on, a knot formed in my stomach. Everyone was trying to get out of the city as fast as possible, but none of us were moving very far. I did something then that I hadn’t done in years, since I started questioning organized religion. I recited the Hail Mary over and over. It was ingrained in my brain after years of Catholic school and my mother saying it under her breath. It brought a sense of security to me, not because I thought a higher power was watching over me, but because it made me feel closer to my parents, specifically my Mom who I thought of as one of the strongest people I knew.
Eventually I made it across the bridge, realized I had no idea if the kids were going to be released from school early or if they needed to be picked up. So I bypassed my apartment and headed to Fox Chapel. Once I got there my boss was already home. I sat on the couch in their little sitting area by the kitchen watching CNN obsessively. The same images kept playing over and over. I remember crying a lot. but mostly the rest of the day was a blur. At some point I got the kids off the bus. I made them dinner. I played with them. I kept them away from the TV. there was no need for them to see all that. I think I may have spent the night at their house that night, but I honestly don’t remember.
Fourteen years later I still get emotional thinking about that day and the days after. I can’t watch the footage without crying. I know my story isn’t particularly special, everyone in the country have a similar one. But it is a touchstone in my life. Along with the day I first had my heartbroken, fell in love with my husband, got married, found out I was pregnant, and first held my son in my arms, it is one of those days I will never forget.