September 11, 2011

Where We Were

Hatched by Dafydd

My own story is not particularly inspiring: I was still sleeping (morning does not become Dafydd) when Sachi, who had left for work long earlier, came bursting home, shook me awake (none to gently), and breathlessly announced, "Dafydd, something terrible has happened -- the World Trade Center is gone!"

As I tried to make sense of what she was saying, she spilled the rest of the news -- that a barbaric and evil terrorist attack brought down both the Twin Towers and leveled one of the segments of the Pentagon, or the five-sided triangle, as I call it. Worse, that there were still unaccounted planes in the air, other targets, and that Southern California could be in the crosshairs as well.

We spent the day glued to the television while calling friends and relatives, naturally; but my own experience of the enormity was neither interesting nor personal but purely communal. (I found out later that one of my cousins, who worked in a building just a few blocks from the WTC, had actually eyewitnessed the second plane striking the south tower.)

But Sachi's tale is rather more interesting and cautionary, speaking to the heart of why the September 11th attacks could succeed in the first place. So I turn the forum over to her...


That day, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I left home a little after six in the morning, PST. When I turned on the radio, I heard the excited voice of a local Los Angeles radio show host, Larry Elder. I thought it was strange, because his program usually came on in the afternoon. I don't remember whose program I expected, but normal programming was not on. The first words I heard Elder say were "-- the worst terrorist attack in the US history!"

I remember shouting at the radio: "What? What happened?" It seemed like forever before Elder came back to the point that two jet airliners had slammed into the World Trade Centers, and that several planes were still unaccounted for.

Elder was on with another news reporter from New York, who talked about the many people still trapped inside the two towers. The New York reporter said people were actually jumping off the buildings to their deaths rather than brave the heat and hopelessness on the roof. Then suddenly, he stopped and shouted, "What was that?"

A terrible sound came over the radio, like something big exploding. It was the sound of the first tower collapsing, the south tower (which was actually the second tower struck).

Still driving, I started to feel dizzy. I thought it was not safe for me to drive any longer. But I was very close to the Navy base where I worked as a civilian engineer, so I kept on going. A half an hour after the south tower collapsed, while I was waiting in a terrible jam-up at the security gate, I heard the second tower disintegrate.

The base was at Threat Condition Delta, the highest alert condition. Sailors with automatic weapons, not the usual security guards, were checking our credentials and cars a lot more thoroughly than usual. Needless to say, it took long time to get through the gate.

Over the next thirty minutes or so, I began to hear what had already happened to United Flight 93, which had crashed into Stonycreek Township, PA; and to American Flight 77, which had crashed into the Pentagon.

Finally I parked and headed for the office, but I felt disconnected. I had to lean over the car to stop myself from falling. I kept saying out loud, "Oh my god, oh my god!"

As soon as I got to my desk, I tried to call Dafydd. But for some reason, the phone in the office was out of order, and I didn't have a cell phone back then.

In a stunning instance of irony, the attack fell on a Tuesday; and in 2001, an anti-terrorism brief was given every Tuesday at our base. As a new employee, I was scheduled to attend a brief that very morning!

At 0900 PST, I attended the brief. But the instructor just shook his head and said, "Everything I was going to tell you is out the window. I was supposed to tell you that a highjacking is a survivable situation, as long as you do what the highjacker demands. Don't be a hero. See how that turned out!"

So instead, we just watched the TV. For the first time, I actually saw what I had only heard before: planes driving into the towers, people jumping off the buildings, and the two towers crumbling like waterlogged sand castles, one after another.

I couldn't cry; I just felt sick to my stomach.

After the brief, we non-essential employees were all dismissed. "Go home, don't come back until we call you." I drove home.

I went into the bedroom and woke Dafydd. I remember saying, "Dafydd, something terrible has happened...!"

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 11, 2011, at the time of 4:33 PM


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