September 11 – Never Forget
Where I was on September 11
I had just finished my freshman year at Temple University and, after almost failing out, decided I wasn’t ready for college yet and needed to take some time off. I moved back in with my parents in Jersey and ended up landing a job at a bedroom furniture store. Even though I wasn’t good at sales, I learned the products quickly and people seemed to like and trust me enough to buy from me. I had already made a few thousand dollars in that short time and since I didn’t really have any expenses (thank you mom and dad for not charging me rent), I decided to fly down to Florida for a week to visit a good friend who moved there earlier in the year.
On September 10, 2001, I flew out of Newark, NJ, and landed in Melbourne, FL a few hours later. I remember the security guard as I exited the terminal and headed over to the baggage claim. It was an older guy with white hair, probably around 70 years old. He was sitting on one of those high-top chairs, on the right side of the terminal, looking down towards baggage claim and not at me. See, I was going through my party phase and wore big baggy pants and other clothes that drew attention, so I was it was strange for him not to be eyeing my up and down. As I got closer, I realized why. He wasn’t looking at the baggage claim, he was looking at his eyelids. He fast asleep and lightly snoring! Needless to say, I don’t think anyone has observed an airport security guard in that state since that day.
I woke up to the house phone ringing sometime around 9:30 am but ignored it since it was my friend Emily’s house and she had already left for work. A couple of minutes later the phone rang again, and then again and again and again. After the 5th or 6th time I finally picked it up and it was Emily. She was audibly panicked and was asking if her sister or mother had called. She said she tried calling my cell phone, which was stuck between the cushions on the couch I slept on and was in silent mode. I told her the phone rang a bunch of times, but this was the first time I answered it. She asked me to check the answering machine, and while I was heading to the other room to see if the message indicator was lit up I asked her what was going on and if something had happened to her mom or sister. She said, “you don’t know? Turn on the TV”. I told her there weren’t any new messages and asked her what channel to turn on. Her response was, “any of the local stations but it probably doesn’t matter. Two planes just flew into the Twin Towers and another crashed into the Pentagon. My sister works in one of the towers and I can’t get a hold of her. Answer the phone if it rings again; I’m on my way back to the house”.
I turned on the TV and flipped on one of the single-digit channels. On one half of the screen was a live image of the Towers, with smoke and fire coming out of the upper floors, and a replay of the second plane hitting the South Tower on the other half. It must have been just before 10 am because they had just switched to a newscast from outside the Pentagon when unusual background noise came over the air and the anchor abruptly cut him off. The next image I (and the rest of the world) saw was a brown cloud of smoke around the South Tower, or where it had been seconds earlier. Then it dawned on me. Today was Tuesday, the day my dad normally went into NYC to see customers.
I tried calling my dad but couldn’t reach him. His cell phone would return what sounded like a busy signal, but much faster and a slightly different tone. Other times it would answer with a message that “all lines are busy” or “your call cannot be connected at this time”; neither of which I’d ever encountered before. I tried the home phone but it either went to voicemail or abruptly dropped the call after ringing a few times. I paged both my mom and dad, knowing that there would be no immediate gratification there.
The next hour was a whirlwind. First came the reports and videos from different angles confirming that the South Tower had collapsed and the streets of Manhattan looked like they were flooded with brown water. Next came the reports of the plane crash in PA, which we later found out to be the hijacked United 93 flight. Then came the reports and still frame shots of people jumping out of the North Tower. Emily walked into the house minutes before we watched the North Tower buckle and disappear forever.
Emily was frantically trying to reach family members to find out if her sister was safe when I got a call from my mom. She called from the school she was working at to tell me that she had spoken with my dad and that he was safe but that a lot of the phone lines were jammed and cell service was all but non-existent and he would call me when he got service. While on the phone, Emily was able to reach a couple of her family members but none of them had heard from her sister.
A couple of hours later I got a call from my dad. He was on his way into Manhattan earlier that morning and was sitting in traffic about a ½ a mile from one of the bridges into the city when he saw the smoke from the North Tower and the second plane hit the South Tower. I asked if we had any family members that worked in the area and he had already confirmed that that one who worked downtown was safe.
Sometime around 4-5 pm Emily finally got a call from her sister. As luck would have it, she had been running late to work that day and was in the shower when the first plane hit. She was drying her hair when she noticed the smoke in the sky and turned on the news. She spent the next couple hours frantically trying to reach co-workers and colleagues, but all the phones were down over there. I think she was living in Hoboken, or somewhere else along the Hudson River.
No surprise but my return flight was canceled and since I was under 21, with a less than impeccable driving record, I couldn’t rent a car. I also got a puppy when I was in Florida and wasn’t allowed to bring her on the train or bus. Was I completely irrational in assuming that Greyhound was dog-friendly? To make a long story short, Emily ended up renting a car and was able to convince them to name me as a second driver. It was some tiny little car that got blown around by the strong winds that were coming in off of the east coast and every time I drove past a semi, I would grip the wheel as tight as I could.
When I finally got back home that weekend things were different; I don’t know how to explain it. I used to be able to see the World Trade Center and the rest of the NYC skyline from my parent’s front yard. Now I was looking at a big, brown blanket of haze with the tops of the taller buildings protruding through. I knew where the Towers were but couldn’t visualize them until the blue memorial lights were turned on.
While we didn’t lose any family members or friends, many did. My wife, whom I didn’t know at the time, was going to film school in Manhattan at the time and saw a lot more than she’d like to remember and ultimately transferred to Penn State at the end of that year. She couldn’t get the images out of her head, and to this day, still has difficulty watching any of the documentaries or video clips from that horrific day.
– Laurence Schiffman