Eighteen years ago, I recall that I had the day off and was looking forward to sleeping in after a late night on the Herald News copy desk. We were following a story out of Washington, D.C. involving a lawmaker and the disappearance of his young and particularly attractive intern. Our cynacism was already in gear and this potentially lurid tale would be all but forgotten in the days to come.
My phone rang and woke me out of a deep sleep. A close friend at the time, also a writer, was on the line. His voice had an edge of astonishment and anxiety.
“Are you watching TV?”
“No, you just woke me up out of a sound …”
“Turn on your TV. A plane has just flown into the World Trade Center.”
My nightstand clock at a glance read 8:52 a.m. Reaching for my remote, an image appeared on screen: One tower smoking and local news anchors fumbling for words. A video replay kicked in, a blurred image from an awkward angle showing a plane striking the tower and a finger of flame and debris spreading out – a July 4th skyburst of fireworks with tenticles spreading fiercely like a fiery star.
My first thought was of a twin-engine private plane colliding with the tower. I thought of the B-25 Mitchell bomber, bound for Newark in May of 1945 in a fog-laden night sky. For its Army pilot trying to find his bearings, an anxious turn for a point of light on the horizon slammed him and his reluctant passengers into the Empire State Building. They were all killed instantly.
But this image was different. No fog shrouding the Twin Towers. It was a delightful and clear September morning. A chill ran through me. As my friend and I debated the images before us, my clock clicked to 9:03 a.m. Another blurred image of glinting aluminium and the second tower spewing flames and debris.
It hit us both that we, our nation, were under attack.
“I have to go. Talk later,” I whispered and hung up.
My first thought went to my wife Cheryl who had left our home 90 minutes earlier. An art teacher in Hackensack, she was already well into her first class of the day. My son Chris was starting his second week as a freshman at Ramapo High School. I dressed quickly and headed out the door. I knew that it would be all hands on deck at the Herald News, my daily newspaper. I knew, too, that it would be the best place possible to stay on top of the situation and best protect my family.
My first stop was Chris’ school. Other parents were arriving as well. I got him out of class, spoke to him calmly and eased his fears. I instructed him to go directly home after school. Next stop was my wife’s school and a similar conversation. With a hug, a kiss and assuring glance, I asked her to go directly home at day’s end and for she and Chris to await my call and updates.
Numb and with a growing pain in my midsection that seemed to radiate out, I vaguely recall rushing to the paper on Interstate Route 80 with the radio on. The first tower had already collapsed. To my left at one stretch of the highway near Paterson, I could clearly see the Manhattan skyline and towering clouds of smoke drifting to the south. My eyes went back to the road before me and I heard the radio news anchor gasp. I turned back to the skyline and the second tower was gone from sight.
Through my core, I felt as though a thousand voices, a thousand souls went silent all at once. It was all I could do to keep my hands on the steering wheel as tears welled up and ran down my cheeks.
Minutes later – it seemed like an eternity – I was in our newsroom on Garrett Mountain – and ready to do what I could. I was the resident aviation expert and dove into the chaos. On this day I would be flying a desk, editing raw copy and prompting our field reporters and photographers on what to look for and relay back to the news desk.
Our managing editor Jim McGarvey called our copy desk chief Joe Castronovo and myself into his office at one point and said:
“We’re writing history today as we always do, but all the more today. I want you to give serious thought to what our front page headline should be for tomorrow’s paper. I don’t need to tell you that all that we do today will pivot off that.”
We both walked from his office and staggered from the responsibility. Joe caught my eye, I caught his and the legacy headline, four short and concise words, seemed to flash through our minds at the same moment.
Joe gave voice to it first: “A Day of Infamy.” My eyes began to well again.
“Of course,” I said, “How could it be anything else?” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on Dec. 8th, 1941 echoed through my mind. We were at war then, and now once again. That’s how I remember that day so long ago.
There were other sights and sounds that haunt me to this day. Images of so very many running for their lives on the ground before being caught up in acrid clouds of dust and debris. Live shots of those trapped on upper floors, waving T-shirts to attract attention as the wind swirled with smoke and sheets of paper danced through the air like crazed butterflies caught up in the madness. As the flames and smoke intensified, seared into my mind are those who, knowing there was no escape, took a leap of faith and stepped from broken windows of the burning towers rather than endure the flames. They fell one by one, some with a partner hand in hand in a loving bond that embraced humanity and sacrifice.
These things I remember all too well.
Later that day and well into the evening, I called my family several times, just to hear their voices and know that they were safe and secure. At one point over our building up on Garrett Mountain, two Air Force F-15 fighters streaked across the sky loud and low, their wings banked hard right and their noses pointed toward the Manhattan skyline.
For our first edition, we pieced together the day’s painful events as factually and poignantly as possible. In the days to come, there would be other stories to tell: of survivors and those grieving and now mourning; of the just plain lucky who were running late to their jobs at the Twin Towers; of the scores of cars and SUVs resting unclaimed at park and ride lots in surrounding communities.
If I recall, the winning Pick-3 number a year later on September 11, 2002 was 911.
When all was said and done that night and we’d pushed the button on the last edition, we left the building frazzled and frayed. I recall the night sky, the shimmering stars and two things that made us grow cold: Busy Interstate 80 just below us was devoid of any traffic. And most eerily, there was not a sound from the sky, not a telltale whisp of condensation crisscrossing the air above. The silence enveloped us all like a foreboding veil.
By the time I arrived home, it was well past 2 a.m. I climbed the stairs, woke both my wife and son and held them in my arms for as long as I could. My tears mixed with theirs and a loving embrace helped to wash away our fears.
The world as we knew it was no more, but we all found strength in that we had each other to guide our way toward a new day. We must never forget.
3 thoughts on “Recalling a Day of Infamy”
Hi – This is Nancy Rubenstein. My husband and were seated on a plane heading to Las Vegas, bloody marys in hand but it was 5 somewhere in the world. An orange-jumpsuited guy came aboard and we were quickly led off the plane. We saw the huge flames as we left the plane. I was sure the airport would be next target. Outside the taxis were loading people from nearby towns. Luckily 2 guys from Montclair shared occupancy with us (we live in Cedar Grove…-It was a terrifying incident.
Nancy! Thank you for sharing this. It adds to both our collective memories! Warmest regards to you and yours and so very pleased you are following my blog!
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