Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11, 2001 in Austin, Texas

I have thought for some time it might be interesting--at least for me, perhaps for others, perhaps in time for my children--to record my recollections of that fateful day in a place far removed--and yet oddly connected--to the horrors that were visited upon tens of thousands of people in the Northeastern United States.  I shall leave for elsewhere reflections on the significant political ramifications of those events, and focus here solely on the personal.  Perhaps this account will resonate with the experiences and memories of others.

Among the unsettling aspects of catastrophic events is the almost banal way in which they intrude into our lives.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was undertaking my usual morning routines with my youngest boy, then 2 1/2--my wife having taken our older son, then five, to school already.  Our morning ritual --breakfast, dialogue, negotiations, jokes, getting dressed--proceeded apace, insulated by distance and silence from the horrors descending at the same time elsewhere.  This charming, loving, insular world existed unto itself. 

I mark the time from which I started listening to National Public Radio in the morning (we did not, and still do not, have television) to that day.  For I had no idea what was transpiring elsewhere until after I had dropped my son at daycare and had parked my car in the Law School parking lot, around 9 am, Texas time (so an hour after the attacks had begun).  There, I ran into my colleague Steven Ratner, the international law expert, and extended to him the customary morning greeting:  "How are you?"  "Not so well," he replied, "Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center."  There was only one plausible interpretation of the fact of "two planes"--namely, intentional attack--but intentional or not, the news was extraordinary.  What was going on?  I proceeded into the Law School, to the student lounge where CNN on the big-screen TV was recording events.  There was enormous uncertainty, and I can not now recall whether they had already begun the endless replays of those appalling images of the planes hitting the towers.  Before long, there came the images of the towers collapsing...since there was no information yet about evacuations, the first thought was that tens of thousands had been killed.   This nightmarish unreality was real, this unthinkable atrocity visible and audible.

At 10:02 am, a senior colleague sent out the following e-mail, with the subject line "horror":

for goodness sake turn on your TV or radio.  Both World Trade towers are gone, part of the Pentagon is gone, hijacked suicide planes, hundreds dead.  all air traffic grounded, second hijacked plane headed toward D.C.

That aptly captured the disorientation that gripped, I suspect, most of us individually and collectively at that moment.  Were there more hijacked planes heading across the Atlantic towards the US?  So some reports said.  Was it hundreds dead or tens of thousands?  Phone calls to friends and relatives in the Northeast went through only erratically, though I see from my e-mails that by 9:57 am (Texas time), we knew that my in-laws who worked in New York City were all safe, though one brother-in-law who worked in the financial district was stranded in Manhattan and heading to a friend's flat uptown to weather it out.

The University President, Larry Faulkner, made the decision that the University would remain in session as usual that day.  I confess it was a bit hard to think about preparing class, but I do not begrudge President Faulkner that reasonable decision--though, at least in my case, things did not proceed smoothly.  My 10:30 am "Evidence" class convened, though everyone, by then, was aware of the unprecedented developments in the world at large.  The class was a large one--nearly 140 students--but attendance was good that day.  I began by acknowledging our concern for the horrific events elsewhere in the country, and reporting President Faulkner's decision that we ought to proceed with our business nonetheless--which we did for 15-20 minutes. Then a female student, a few rows up on my right, received a call on her cell phone; she left; then returned a few moments later, picked up her books and papers, and left in tears with audible apologies.  At that point, other students in the class had tears visibly welling in their eyes.  No one knew what this was about, but all knew it was connected in some way to the frightening events of that morning.  I fumbled on for another minute or so, then excused the class, a decision that met with no dissent.

The woman whose tearful exit from class had brought to Austin the unsettling nature of the morning's events had a father who was a pilot for American Airlines.  The phone call during class reported that no one had been able to make contact with her father.  It was at that point she left, in what must have been a state of such awful distress that her graciousness in extending a public apology for her sudden departure is all the more remarkable.  Happily, this one horror story from the morning of 9/11 had a happy ending:  her father's plane had been grounded in Canada, and he was safe.

The rest of the day is a bit blurry now.  I recall speaking to my wife many times that day.  I recall wanting to pick my boys up from school and daycare to hug them (that instinctive parental gesture towards safety), but we decided it was best not to disrupt their day with events that would make no sense to them.  A friend from New York e-mailed that he had gone to the top of his apartment building after hearing of the first plane crash, only to  witness, with his own eyes, the second plane striking the building.  He saw the Towers collapse too.  He would have preferred to have witnessed neither.  The footage on television was ghastly enough, I can not imagine what his experience must have been like.

About a week later, I for the first time saw an airplane coming in for a landing at the Austin airport--an American Airlines jet no less.  The mere sight of it triggered a moment of anxiety, given the image that had been played and replayed in the media.  Several months later I flew into Manhattan for the first time since the attacks.  My first live viewing of the island's silhouette without the Towers was equally unsettling, though it now no longer strikes me when I fly into New York.  The horrible has a strange way of receding into the normal.

Of the many memorials written for the victims of 9/11, I still find this one, by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Aghanistan, from the second anniversary of the atrocities, the most important and meaningful.  I hope my recollections, above, have some value for some readers.

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