One Southeast Texan’s 9/11 Memories

September 11th Remembered

My 9/11 began like any other day.

I woke up in my two bedroom apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. I lived there with a friend I’d made while at the University of Texas Austin in the early 90s.

About a dozen of us had moved to New York City after college.  9 11 Statue of Liberty

Up until September 10th, we had a perfect life.

We all worked super hard Monday through Friday and enjoyed being young in the big city on the weekends. We went to nightclubs, parties, and made new friends through our old friends. We spent time on Long Island. We took road trips upstate, to Connecticut, and to Montreal. We had dinner parties and cocktail parties and brunches. We talked. We laughed. We were wonderful friends.

I went about my early morning routine quietly so I wouldn’t wake up my roommate who’d been working late in a Manhattan IT department. I shaved, showered, and put on a favorite suit. Back then, I loved wearing suits into the office.

Laptop bag in hand, I walked down the block to catch the F train into Manhattan.

I worked at the Discovery Channel as their Ad Sales Support Manager. My team got in early and left late. Sixty hour work weeks (Monday-Friday) were not uncommon. The ride on the subway was a great opportunity to wake up and prepare for the day. Back then there was no cell phone or internet access in the subway tunnels. We read newspapers and novels or listened to music on four pound Sony Discman CD players.  The people watching was amazing. Better than TV.

When I got to the stop at 54th and Lexington in Manhattan, I was excited to be headed up to work. Working at the Discovery Channel in Ad sales meant  long hours, but it was a high energy environment with great perks. We enjoyed being part of building the networks that are so popular today: Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet. We were there when some guy randomly suggested, “What do you think about a whole week where we show nothing but sharks?” We were there when a team went to Siberia to thaw out a woolly mammoth. We were able to enjoy company sponsored lunches, happy hours, and to have wonderful food brought in when we had to work late. The Christmas parties were wonderful – beautiful settings, caviar, and town car service home.

A man I recognized from another department at Discovery grabbed my arm as soon as I got to the street level and said, “I just heard on Howard Stern that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center”. I smiled reassuringly, it was on Howard Stern after all.  “I’m sure it was some kind of accident. Probably a small plane with an inexperienced pilot or engine trouble”. Back then, we had no concept that the United States would be “under attack”or that something as ubiquitous overhead as a passenger jet could be used as a weapon against us.

9 11 FlagWe went upstairs, each to our own department, on separate floors of a large Manhattan skyscraper that housed Discovery Channel Ad Sales, Discovery Channel Latin America, Discovery Online, and a dozen other companies. I switched on my TV (one of the nice things about working for a cable network – there were TVs everywhere).  No sooner had they explained that a large jet liner had crashed into one of the towers than the second tower was hit live on TV. It was like a gut punch. We didn’t understand it right away, but we did know that two of the world’s most famous buildings don’t get hit on the same morning by accident or coincidence.

Without asking for permission or what the procedure was, I sent my team home. I told them I’d take responsibility and asked them to be safe. We’d come back in the next day or whenever it was safe.

The phone rang. I’m surprised he got through, but my brother called from the Coast Guard National Headquarters in Washington DC. I responded to his questions with a big brother’s fake self confidence, “No we’re forty blocks away. We’re fine. I’m sure everything is over now. Let me call you later. I’m going to try to get back to Queens while I still can.”

We hadn’t been off the phone long when CNN announced that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane as well. The Pentagon was just across the river from my brother.

Do you have any idea what the odds of that are? While we were on the phone I’d thought something like, “Well, if my city is really under attack, at least my brother is safe.” How could he not have been? He was in another city, over a hundred miles away.

At that point, it became clear that something bigger was going on than we were going to figure out sitting in our high rise offices while it continued to unfold. I had believed my office was safe, but after the Pentagon was hit, I wasn’t so sure. Who knew at this point? For a little while, it looked like jets might be headed for all of our national landmarks. It was all happening so fast that we did not know what to think.

A co-worker and I joined a stranger in grabbing the last cab to get across Queens Bridge before they shut down traffic. We weren’t supposed to get across. The police had been ordered to shut down the bridges and the tunnel. One of the ladies in the cab with me brashly bullied the police officers into letting our cab onto the bridge. One of those “New Yorker” skills that most of us Southeast Texans don’t have. The Queens Bridge is beautiful. I’ve crossed it in a cab or friend’s car over 100 times. It never failed to amaze me. It was a threshold into “The City”. It was an artery into America’s city.

On 9/11,  it was different.

When we got onto the bridge, the first tower  had already fallen. Since there was no one behind us, the cab driver was able to stop for us to look and try to take it all in. As we did, the second tower collapsed on itself. It was numbing. It seemed impossible. We’d all been in those towers several times. They were so big and solid and… permanent.

The cab driver wouldn’t take any money from any of us, but patiently dropped us each at our destinations before going home to process what had happened with his own family.

When I got upstairs, my roommate was watching the news, “My cousin works there.”

I hadn’t known that. We’d met through a girl we’d both known. When she dated another friend of ours, we developed a lasting friendship. We spent a lot of time together in early 90s Austin. Our group of friends saw a lot of live music together: Fishbone, Primus, Public Enemy, Anthrax, Ice T, Metallica, Dead Horse, Anything Box, and others who came through Austin. We had big parties at clubs, student apartments, and at my house off South Lamar. In short, we were young together. It was so wonderful to be young.

The whole rest of the day those who hadn’t gotten out before the bridges were locked down walked down Queens Boulevard by the thousands. Many walked all the way from Manhattan to the Long Island Rail Road, several miles. They were in their suits and had their laptops and whatever they’d grabbed from their offices, unsure when or if they’d be going back to work.

People lit candles and gathered and talked. Sometimes we sat quietly, just appreciating having others to share the unprecedented experience with. Someone to help humanize the inhuman moment.

On 9/11, I don’t know if we “grew up”, but I do know that we changed. I was soon back to work, but my close friend spent his days at Ground Zero looking for any sign of his cousin that he could9 11 Candle feature bring to his family. Day after day. Week after week. He was there. He never found anything. Not one sign that his cousin had been alive. She’d been erased. How does a person disappear? Why?

She was just a bright, wonderful girl who’d done everything she was supposed to do. She’d gotten her college degree. She’d fought for and landed a wonderful job with a bright future. She’d shown up early for work in one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks. I’m sure she’d sat down at her computer with a cup of coffee and felt like she had the whole day in front of her. She’d had her whole life in front of her.

And then she didn’t.

The experience is haunting to me to this day.

I loved my career with the Discovery Channel.

I loved my apartment in Forest Hills. To this day, I believe it is one of the most perfect neighborhoods in the whole world.

Three months after 9/11, I was driving back to Texas to begin a new life.

New York wasn’t safe anymore. It wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t “mine” anymore.

What had been perfect was dirty and undesirable.

In that sense, I guess some very bad people won a little on that day.

All I know for sure, is that Texas was home again. I wanted to be closer to family and somewhere terrorists had never heard of.

A year after 9/11, I was asked to speak about my experiences on a popular Lufkin radio station. I was so sure I’d been able to pack up the memories and put them in a safe place. When I started talking that morning, I started crying. I’m sure it was a terrible interview.

Every year, I think I have moved on. Some years are better than others, but I’m crying while I write this. I’m crying a lot. More than I have in ten years.

I miss that America that kept us from knowing fear. I miss talking with my Pakistani coffee guy on the corner without thinking, “He’s so nice. I know he’s not a terrorist”.  I don’t like thoughts like that occurring in my mind or in others.

I miss one of my best friends living in a world where he’d never had to quit his job to spend weeks at an explosion site looking for his dead cousin’s purse or necklace or name tag.

I miss the innocence and being able to love everyone equally no matter where they’d come from or what they believed.

I guess I haven’t really gotten over 9/11 yet. I know I haven’t forgotten it.


9 11 New Towers

  • Daryl Fant, Publisher. SETX Church Guide
  • (512) 567-8068

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