Reflecting on 9/11

11 Sep

Nine years ago, I was working as a consultant for a small company that developed software applications and websites for businesses.  A lot of my time was spent either at client sites around the Greater Toronto Area or traveling to various locations within North America.  My home base was the office serving the eastern half of North America, located in the west end of Toronto.  My workspace was near the windows facing east towards the city centre.  We had a nice view of the Toronto skyline with its distinctive CN Tower, then the tallest free-standing structure in the world.

I happened to be in the office on September 11, 2001.  I was walking from the kitchen to my desk, armed with a cup of fresh coffee, when one of my coworkers handed me a printout from the CNN website.  It showed a picture of the World Trade Centre’s North Tower, with smoke billowing from the top half.  My immediate reaction was that this must be one of those elaborate Internet hoaxes involving Photoshop.  When I realized that this was actually a legitimate photograph, I thought the same thing everyone else did: that a freakish and tragic accident had occurred.

As I scrutinized the printout, I heard a shout coming from the direction of the conference room: someone had been able to get the temperamental TV to work, and we all spilled into the room just in time to see live footage of the plane hitting the South Tower.  An hour later, we were still sitting in the conference room.  We were incapable of speech; someone muted the sound on the TV because the frantic commentary of chaos was violating the silence that we all needed.  I don’t think anyone moved for about ten minutes.  Eventually, someone at the back of the room whispered, “Oh, my God.”  That utterance was a catalyst for everyone to rush to their phones to call family members, pausing on the way past the window to see if the CN Tower was still there.

There was no question of any work getting done that day.  We all spent the day on the phone, contacting loved ones South of the border to find out who was alive and who wasn’t.  My parents called from South Africa, unashamedly relieved to hear my voice.  Toronto is not that far from New York, especially to people watching the chaos unfold from the other side of the world.  After talking to my parents, I went crazy contacting people on Instant Messenger and by phone.  By late afternoon, there were two people in New York who I had not been able to reach.  I went to bed that night not knowing whether they were alive or dead.  I didn’t sleep.  I suspect that most people didn’t that night.

The husband of one of my missing friends emailed me early the following morning.  As soon as the South Tower had been hit, she and all of her coworkers had been evacuated from their office a block away to some hall somewhere.  Phone signals were jammed: for several hours, my friend’s husband did not know whether or not she had been buried in the rubble of collapsing towers.

I never connected with my other missing friend, Jason, who had an office in the North Tower.  At lunchtime on September 12th, I spoke to a mutual friend, Mark, who had commuted to work with Jason the previous morning.  Jason had dropped his dog off at the vet on his way to work, so he was late.  The two friends had gotten off the subway at the same stop, and then they had gone into a Starbucks for their morning coffee.  With coffee in hand, Jason had gone into the North Tower, waving goodbye to Mark, who had to go a few blocks further.  The time was about 8:35 a.m.  Eleven minutes later, the North Tower was hit.  Jason could have left the building in those ten minutes, I said to Mark.  Not likely, was Mark’s reply.  Jason had said something about a 9:00 meeting for which he had not prepared.  He would have been sipping his coffee and working on reports at his desk, which was right in the flight path of American Airlines Flight 11.  I said to Mark, “I hope Jason got to finish his coffee.” People say the oddest things in times of stress.

Now, nine years later, I reflect on that day along with the rest of the world.  I think of Jason and hope he died instantly, with no pain or stress.  I look at my two children, neither of whom was alive on 9/11, and I pray that the world will be a habitable place for them when they are adults.  I watch coverage of bigotry and extremism on TV and wonder what’s wrong with people.  I look at the world around me and wonder if we have really learned anything.

Something that’s a bit odd is that right at this moment, for the first time since learning of Jason’s fate, I am wondering what became of his dog, the one he dropped off at the vet on that terrible morning.

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