Everyone remembers exactly what they were doing on September 11th. I was in my car driving to a client’s barn to ride a few, after having done morning chores at my own barn. It was an incredibly clear, beautiful morning. The weather had started to turn and you could feel fall in the cool, morning air. I had the sunroof open in my little Civic, speeding along the winding country road. I remember how quiet it was, which was unusual, but it was still early, so the day was only starting to unfold. Listening to the radio, the news suddenly blared a plane had hit one of the World Trade Towers.
I thought to myself, how do you do that?
I was shocked by the erroneous accident, but thought more about the innocent people whose lives were suddenly, irrevocably changed because of someone’s mistake or negligence. I kept driving along and when I pulled into the driveway of the farm, news broke the second tower had been hit. Instantly, I was nauseous.
Once is a mistake. Twice is deliberate.
I got out of my car and Grace said, “Did you hear?”
She was white as a ghost.
Grace was British and here on a visa, grooming for the owner of the farm.
I said, “Yes, I did.” The fear on my face was palpable. I said, “I need to call my family.”
As far as I knew, they were all in Texas, and safe, but it didn’t matter. The fear of not knowing was insidious. I needed to know, to hear them say, they were all safe. I tried calling each of them, but like millions of other Americans, I couldn’t get through. I tried on the farm’s landline, thinking that would make the difference, but it didn’t.
After twenty straight minutes of failed attempts, all while listening to the news on a radio in the barn, I said to Grace, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. I don’t know what’s going on, but I need to track my family down.”
I drove the same road back to my barn, paralyzed with fear. The beautiful weather of the day belied the tragedy that had occurred, and little did we all know, was still occurring. I got out of my car at the barn, and stood there. I didn’t know what to do or where to start. That’s when I realized you could have heard a pin drop.
It was eerily quiet.
Not only did I not hear a single car on the road, but I also didn’t hear any planes in the sky. The barn was right under the flight path to Dulles. Most days when I was riding, I could see three planes in a row—the one that had already flown over my head and was almost out of sight, the one headed towards me, and the one further behind in the hazy distance. Watching them at night, in the dark, I could often see as many as five sets of lights, all in single file.
There was none of that on the day of September 11th.
Only the sounds of crickets and the bees.
I paced next to my car in the driveway, frantically calling my family. Each phone call ended abruptly with a feminine, robotic voice telling me chirpily, “All lines are busy right now. Please try again later.” I wanted to scream at her and her bullshit, happy voice.
Finally, my mom picked up. The call went through. In a very controlled voice, she said, “Your father was flying home from Newark this morning. I can’t get in touch with him either. All the lines are tied up.”
I stopped pacing when she said this, and crouched down on my heels, the wind knocked out of me, still holding the phone up to my ear.
Crickets and bees.
It was another two-hours before we heard from my father. He was in fact, sitting on the tarmac at Newark when the North Tower was hit.
They announced his flight was being held as a result. The plane was soon sent back to the terminal, one of thousands grounded that day. It was quick thinking on my dad’s part to head straight to the rental car area. He was one of the lucky few to secure a car. He said because he was a member of “Emerald Isle,” a program for frequent travelers, he could walk straight to any available car and take it. He got one of the last ones there. He also said no one could claim their bags. They told the passengers they would send them to them whenever they could.
It was only when my dad made it out of Jersey behind the wheel that he called me. He said, “I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going.”
I was so relieved to hear his voice. I said, “Dad, just come here. I’m only five hours from Jersey. Just drive here and we can figure it out.”
My dad did, in fact, drive to Virginia and stay with me. It took him seven hours to finally arrive. We were all emotionally exhausted at the end of the day, but I know being so close to it must have been incredibly scary for my dad. Even so, we stayed glued to the television until the middle of the night.
My dad had been travelling with a colleague for business, who was flying back to Dallas. His flight had been grounded in Memphis after taking off from Newark. After spending the night with me, my dad drove to Memphis the next day and picked-up his colleague. They continued on to his home in Dallas, before my dad headed to his home in Houston.
My dad said, “It was a crazy day. First, I had asked the young guy who was with me if he wanted to go have lunch at Windows on The World before we flew home. He had never been to New York and I thought he’d really enjoy it. I told him we could easily move our flights back. But he said ‘no,’ his wife really wanted him home, because they had two young kids and all. If she had said ‘yes,’ we would have been there.”
I shuddered to think.
Sadly, he said, “Ya know, the plane that took off right in front of mine on the tarmac was the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.”
He was silent for a moment.
“Did you know?” he asked. “They tried to fight back.”
Softly, I said, “Yes, Dad. I did know.”
My father sent me the photos right after 9/11. He printed them onto paper, which he mailed to me. On the back, he scribbled the note below.
Time, our most precious resource.
Spend it wisely.
Spend it with the people you love.