I remember it was a perfect day in Staten Island. The sky was amazing – it was color blue that I hadn’t seen before; it seemed tangible, a blue so dense and deep you could touch it. The air was warm, and cool, and delicious to breathe in. It was 8:55 or so, and I was getting ready for work. I turned on the television. I had wanted to watch the Ananda Lewis show, because it was a new talk show and something was going to be on that I had found interesting. I turned on channel eleven, but instead of the show, the news was on, showing the North Tower already hit, streaming black smoke. The news anchors at the time thought it was a small plane that had hit the building – the announcers were discussing what could have happened and what could be happening to the people in the building. At around 9:02, from the left side of the screen, another plane could be seen. The announcers immediately saw the plane and started talking in confused voices – “Hey, wait, there’s another plane – wait a minute, wait a minute, it’s too low! Wait, what’s it doing?” and on for another few seconds until I watched, frozen, unable to so much as blink, while the next plane came around, silently hit the second tower and seemed to disappear.
I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t frantic yet. I called my aunt’s house – my uncle was vice president of Cantor Fitzgerald – and the line was busy. I called my husband of just two years, Rob, at work, and the line was busy again. Hadn’t he just told me the night before that he had a meeting in the World Trade Center? I just left the house, contemplated knocking on my landlord’s door to ask if she knew what was going on, but I didn’t. I was listening to the radio, but everyone was talking in confused voices and I started to feel panicked, so I shut off the radio and put in a Dave Matthew’s cd, instead. As I walked up to the salon, my co-worker took a drag of her cigarette and said, “One of the buildings fell.” When my boss showed up, a little after ten, she said, “A plane hit the White House, and the Pentagon.” I felt dazed; my head buzzed. I sat at my desk and tried again to call Rob, but the line was constantly busy. The television on, but I could barely hear it. People could call into the salon, but I couldn’t call out – the lines were so busy it took a miracle to get through to anyone. I kept thinking about Rob, my Uncle Vinny, Rob’s best friend John, and my uncle’s niece, Fannie. I thought they were all dead. I thought tens of thousands of people were dead. I just kept thinking, “Rob is there,” a mantra in my head. One of the stylists, Joanne, started screaming and sobbing that her mother was home alone in New Jersey and she had to get to her. She was in the type of hysterics where, if it were a movie, someone would have slapped her. Intense anger shot through me. I asked her, “Who are you worried about in the city?” and she said, “No one!” I yelled, “Well, my husband is there!” She wouldn’t meet my eyes. She just said, “I can’t stay here. I’m going home, and if I get fired I get fired.” And she left.
Terror kept me quiet and at work. I paced. I thought I was going to be sick. Co-workers tried to keep me calm. The phone rang and finally, at almost eleven-thirty, I heard my husband’s voice. I screamed, “Where are you?” and he was sobbing, “In my office. I didn’t go. I didn’t go. I have to go get Grandma and Grandpa. Uncle Vinny’s there. He works there.” I said, “Where’s John? Was Fannie there today?” and he just answered, “I don’t know. Leave now. Meet me at my aunt’s.”
Rob had decided, early that morning, that he was had too much to do in the office. He wanted to reschedule his meeting in the WTC with the man he was supposed to meet. They cancelled it before eight that morning. The man he was to meet did not survive.
My aunt and uncle’s house was chaos, just chaos. People everywhere, already, my aunt sedated in her bedroom. Both towers had fallen by then, the Pentagon hit, Flight 93 crashed. I didn’t know what she knew. I sat on the green and white checked couch in the den, watching news, with tickers running across the bottom, informing us about death tolls, and triages, and emergency crews. Every time the phone rang no one dared move, waiting for the scream of joy to announce it was my uncle’s deep voice. But it wasn’t, and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t. People were on their cell phones, calling hospitals, asking about lists, about John Does, calling other Cantor Fitzgerald families and asking if they had heard from their loved ones. No, not yet, was the only answer. My cousins were going off to cry quietly about their fear of losing their father. They didn’t want my aunt to be burdened with knowing they were terrified, too.
At about six o’clock, Rob and I were sitting on the front steps, and we watched as the man across the street arrived home. He had walked, from Manhattan, to Staten Island. He yelled something, like, “Did he get home yet?” We shook our heads and just said, “Not yet.” The neighbor slowly shook his head and went inside. I think he wished us good luck.
I thought of my father, of how he always keeps calm in a crisis. How he taught us to always know where the exits were and to always, no matter what, no matter where, leave a place if we thought we were in danger. So what if we lost a vacation day, or our pay was docked? He impressed upon my sister and me, if you ever think you’re in danger, get out. I thought of how, if my father was in either of those buildings, he would have found a way out.
Three weeks before, my father and Uncle Vinny were hanging out together at Rob’s 30th birthday party. They talked about how proud they were of their daughters; they drank a lot, they laughed a lot. They barely knew each other and lived very different lives, but they struck me as very similar men. They knew how to talk to anyone. Everyone they worked with respected them, everyone who met them liked them. They had strong marriages, daughters who adored them, great senses of humor, they were frighteningly smart, and they were kind.
I thought, if my father had thought of how to get out of that building, so would my uncle. I watched that perfect September sun descending, low, the brilliant color of flames, not the choking black of smoke and dust, and I thought, my father would have been home by now. If Uncle Vinny isn’t home now, he’s not coming home.
And he didn’t. He did not make it home. There we all were, in his white house on the corner of the street that now bears his name, all the people who loved him, changed, forever.