I’ve been unusually sad the past couple of weeks. It wasn’t until I realized the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was drawing near that I knew why. Because thoughts and feelings are often shared between individuals within a society, I expect my sadness emanates from the collective pain and sadness felt by others on this day.
My recollection of ten years ago actually starts three days earlier. On Saturday, September 8th, I travelled to the Washington Mall for the First Annual White House Book Fair, hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. Tents were set up on the grounds around the Capitol Building for dozens of book sellers, authors and speakers. Thousands attended, no doubt drawn outdoors by the clear blue sky and mild temperature.
I was living in Germantown, Maryland at the time and rode the Red Line to Union Station with several books I hope to have signed in tow. But, almost as soon as I arrived, I felt uneasy. What could it be, I wondered. Never a fan of crowds, my thoughts turned to claustrophobia. But, I was outdoors. It was a beautiful day. I had never felt this way before (or since). Convinced I was losing my mind, I kept walking.
Soon, rivers of cold sweat were running down my back. I wondered if I looked crazy to the people around me. My heart was pounding against my ribs. My breathing was shallow and rapid. I was having a full-out anxiety attack—but why?
I decided to cut the day short, get my books signed and get out of there. The particular author I had come to see was signing books in the Library of Congress Building, next to the Supreme Court and directly across the street from the Capitol. People lined up outside the building for screening through the normal metal detectors. As I stood waiting in line, I became more anxious. Visions of the building collapsing and my being trapped in the rubble with crowds of people kept running through my head. When it came time for me to enter the building, I became extremely claustrophobic. For those who don’t know, the Library of Congress is an enormous building. The idea I would be claustrophobic inside was utterly ridiculous to me. Yet, there I stood, afraid to go inside because I was afraid of being trapped. I turned on my heel and left. The further I got away from the Capitol, the more my anxiety eased. By the time I arrived home, I felt perfectly foolish.
The following Tuesday, I planned to go back to the Library of Congress to finish some research, hoping my inexplicable phobia was gone. But, on Monday night, I was restless. Something close to free-floating anxiety kept me from falling asleep all night. When I finally did shut my eyes, the sun was coming up.
Like most others, I remember September 11, 2001, vividly. I spent the day in front of the television, never changing out of my pajamas. As the day continued, I moved from initial confusion to disbelief to realization, like stages of grief. While the rest of the country noted the absence of airplanes from the sky, low-flying military aircraft shook the walls and my nerves all day long.
Because I had once worked on the 78th floor of One World Trade Center, I became something of an expert in my circle of friends. Practically everyone I knew called me that day for perspective on what was happening. There was one sad truth I knew immediately. Once the buildings collapsed, there would be no survivors.
For the rest of the week, I sat transfixed in front of the television. Watching the surreal images over and over again, I felt numb and helpless.
On Friday, when my brain started working again, I decided I needed to do something. Even though I lived outside of Washington, DC, and was closer to the Pentagon, I felt the most urgent help was needed at the World Trade Center.
I remembered seeing reports after the Oklahoma City bombing about rescue workers wearing out a pair of boots each day walking over the rubble. Reporters at Ground Zero were calling for donations of gloves and respirators. (Now, many first responders are sick from breathing toxic dust because safety equipment was not widely available.) I knew what I had to do.
I went to several hardware superstores and bought dozens of work boots, leather gloves, respirators, goggles and socks. Even though I had been laid off from work nine months earlier, I spent over $1,000 on supplies, loaded them in my SUV and drove to New York.
While I worked at the World Trade Center, I lived in Jersey City, directly across the Hudson River. Every morning, I rode the PATH train two stops into the belly of Tower One. Yet, when I returned to my old neighborhood, loaded with donations, I couldn’t believe I was looking at Manhattan. A putrid haze hung in the air, fed by fumes from an uncontrollable fire. The familiar pattern to the skyline was gone.
I drove past several security checkpoints to the waterfront where I was stopped. A male police officer told me I would have to take my donations to a central warehouse in New Jersey. A female police officer pointed out my Maryland tags and asked if I knew the area—I did not. Another officer asked what I had brought. I opened the rear hatch to show them boxes of boots, respirators, goggles, gloves and socks.
“The guys are screaming for this stuff,” one of them said. Before I knew it, they were loading the boxes onto a Coast Guard boat to be ferried across the river. For the first time in a week, I smiled.
Driving home from New York, I passed several flat-bed trucks carrying the twisted metal girders that once supported the world’s tallest buildings. The same girders that once held my office aloft in the clouds.
It would be months before I connected my anxiety attack on the mall to the events of September 11, if they can be connected at all. I’m skeptical about paranormal claims and don’t believe the future can be foretold. But, I do believe people are connected to each other in ways we may not understand. I still wonder if the hijackers were on the mall that day plotting their attack on the innocent. Perhaps what I felt then was the impending terror they envisioned. Perhaps what I feel now is the sadness that still hangs over a nation in mourning.