Thursday marks the 13th anniversary of the Islamist terrorist attacks that took the lives of 2,977 men, women, and children and at least 11 unborn babies in Manhattan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Currently, more than 19,000 first responders are suffering from illnesses contracted during rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center site, and more than 1,400 first-responders have died since 2001.
Every year at the time of the 9/11 anniversary some pop-culture voices – not very loud or prominent, perhaps, but persistent – urge us to “move on” from our grief over the attacks. I don’t know how that would be possible unless the victims, the planes, and the buildings were miraculously restored to us. We cannot “move on” from 9/11 any more than we can “move on” from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the shots fired at Ft. Sumter, or the October Revolution, each of which altered the course of history.
We certainly cannot return to the sleepwalking, innocent, 1990s mindset that I once heard described as, “September 10th.”
My final hours of “September 10th” unfolded in a frenetic whirlwind of professional activity. At the time I was working for a Madison, Wisconsin, software company that annually welcomes its customers to a four-day User Group Meeting in September. On the Tuesday every year is the General Session, an elaborate dog-and-pony show at which attendance by all employees is mandatory. General Session day is the only day of the year on which none of the company’s employees is traveling, which fact turned out to be fortuitous in 2001.
My experience of the events of September 11, 2001, was framed and defined by the company’s idiosyncratic culture. The firm typically hires people in their 20s – often straight out of college – and works them to exhaustion in a cult-like environment revolving around the company’s genius founder and chief visionary (I’ll call her Judy) who runs the organization with a capricious iron fist.
Having worked in Judy’s field for 15 years, I can say that her company makes outstanding software – probably the best on the market – but treats its employees like children.
The 2001 User Group Meeting had attracted a record number of customers from across the country. Judy issued a directive that employees were not to drive themselves downtown to the General Session’s site at the Civic Center and that they were instead to ride from the company’s headquarters several miles away on company-provided buses. Dutifully (sheep-like?), I drove to company headquarters, parked my car, and boarded the bus at about 7 a.m. CDT on September 11, having already stopped at both a dry cleaner’s to pick up my business suit and my office to change clothes. My day was off to a busy start.
At the Civic Center, I learned from my colleagues that because of the strong customer turnout, we employees had been barred from occupying our customary seats in the orchestra section. As we milled about and chatted, yelling to be heard in the deafeningly crush outside the mezzanine doors, unbeknownst to any of us an airplane far away in New York slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
We were in our seats for the beginning of the program at 8 a.m. CDT, 15 minutes after the first plane’s impact. On an impulse (and, subsequently, to my great chagrin), I turned off my cell phone.
The General Session unfolded with a blend of glitz and technical near-perfection within our bubble of naivete. I believe the theme of that year’s User Group Meeting was related to ancient Rome, so an employee dressed in a toga issued a welcome to open the program. From there we saw a slick video promoting the company’s newest products, a speech about future technology by the company’s vice president, and (if memory serves) an entertainment segment involving a juggler. Two or three times cell phones rang in the dark vastness of the customers’ seating area.
Judy made a speech too during the session’s two-plus hours. Word had passed among the employees that we were all to applaud when Judy made a specific comment about recruitment. Clapping like a trained seal, and feeling every bit the part, I decided never again to attend a General Session (which promise I have kept).
My first sense that something was amiss came during the “integrated demo,” a highlight of the General Session, during which an army of highly trained sales staff followed a script to demonstrate all of the company’s products’ operating in concert.
What was strange that day was that one of the demo staff made a mistake. She stumbled over her words and got lost in the script in a manner completely atypical of the highly rehearsed General Session.
Within 90 seconds she was summoned to the stage-left wings, from which Judy and the other General Session presenters emerged as a group. At the last second, Judy shoved the microphone she was holding into the hands of one her senior staff. Surprised, but able to roll with the punch, he cleared his throat.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have some truly terrible news to report to you. America has been attacked this morning by terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Both towers of the World Trade Center have collapsed.”
Twilight Zone moment.
Immediately the 30-foot-high screen at the center of the stage showed lower Manhattan with billows of smoke where the twin towers should have been, accompanied by commentary from ABC news anchor Peter Jennings. It was 10:30 a.m. CDT, nearly two hours after the first plane’s impact.
At that point the General Session was over. Judy had made sure that the assembled group had seen the video, the future technology speech, her speech, and a specific portion of the integrated demo before letting the rest of us in on the horrific and historic events unfolding around the country.
I later heard that all of the General Session’s staff had been glued to a TV backstage. The excuse offered for Judy’s failure to inform the audience earlier was that there had been trouble setting up a TV feed into the auditorium.
(This was Madison, Wisconsin, in 2001 – not Nameless, Tennessee, in 1951. The guys assembled backstage were computer technicians who wrangled cables for a living. The excuse offered for Judy makes no sense at all.)
Stunned, I watched the screen for two or three minutes before turning on my phone and calling home.
The official word was that those of us without afternoon obligations at the User Group Meeting would be permitted to leave; I would have done so anyway. Without a car (since I had obeyed Judy’s busing directive like a good little soldier) I set off in my business pumps on the two-mile hike to the University of Wisconsin campus, where I hoped taxis might be found. I met up with two colleagues en route. We shared a cab back to company headquarters. By noon, I was finally home and able to see on television the devastation in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but I had been prevented from witnessing any of the morning’s events in real time.
I cannot forgive Judy for deliberately withholding critical information on that day.
I remember from the days and weeks that followed wanting desperately to know what had happened. Eventually there would be books, films, and articles offering first-person testimonials. When those became available I read and watched voraciously.
Along the way I found some wonderful resources. I read Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back, Jere Longman’s skillful retelling of the saga of United 93; Report from Ground Zero by Dennis Smith, a compilation of first-person accounts from firefighters and other first-responders who went into the towers on September 11th or worked on the site afterward; Portraits: 9/11/01: The Collected “Portraits of Grief” from The New York Times, the wrenching collection of victims’ New York Times’ obituaries, which drives home the point that quite a few pet dogs were grief-stricken after 9/11 too; and 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, a minute-by-minute review of events in the towers from the first impact through second collapse, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. Equally informative is 9/11, a stunning film by Jules and Gideon Naudet, who happened to be working on a documentary at a lower-Manhattan fire station on the day of the attacks. For sheer beauty and depth of feeling, I recommend PBS’s Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.
Learning as much as possible about 9/11 was my first means of coping with the horror. This helped, except on the anniversaries. In 2002, I wished we could just jump directly from September 10th to September 12th and thereby avoid the inevitably painful remembrances. The 2003 anniversary was similarly agonizing. To my surprise – since much of life had acquired a normalcy of sorts – so was the anniversary in 2004.
One evening in November of 2004, I started formulating a story about a young man who struggles to come to terms with his best friend’s death on 9/11. “Gee, it would be great if someone wrote a screenplay about that,” soon became, “Maybe I should write that screenplay.” So I did. It was a fascinating experience. Weaving into the framework of my story a beautiful anecdote I had read in late 2002 about a Ground Zero ironworker who had overcome PTSD, I wrote the middle of the play first. I began each writing session with the intention of moving the story from A to B and then allowed the characters to determine how that might come about.
By mid-2005, I had completed work on my feature-length screenplay, Into the Arms of Angels. Here is its logline (or TV Guide-style summary):
Devastated by the death of his closest friend five years earlier in the Twin Tower terrorist attacks, an emotionally crippled Wisconsin dairyman travels to New York City in September of 2006 and through intense suffering reaches an epiphany of healing and insight.
The Tower of Lights memorial in lower Manhattan. (Photo: Restlus.com)
Writing helped me come to terms with the horrors of 9/11. After completing my play, I found the anniversaries less painful.
Update: In 2016, I serialized Into the Arms of Angels in 14 parts. Please click here to read part 1. Each chapter includes a link to its successor.
I hope you enjoy the play.
Quote for Today
“The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.” – former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani