Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11, 2001

As a Canadian, with no family in New York City or Washington, my experience of September 11, 2001, was nothing compared to what the people in those cities went through.

But it was still a traumatic day -- one that my (American) mother said reminded her of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 -- and one that still hit very close to home for my dh & I.

As in New York, Sept. 11 was a beautiful clear, sunny fall day. Shortly before 9 a.m., I e-mailed my younger sister at work to wish her a happy 39th birthday (I still have the e-mail). Dh & I both work for one of Canada's major banks, in one of Canada's tallest office towers on Bay Street -- the Wall Street of Canada. I'm on the 6th floor, but dh works at a stock trading desk on the 65th floor, near the top of the tower (where he can often see small planes flying by).

The trading floor is full of monitors with news feeds and television sets, and, shortly after 9, he called me to say that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Centre towers. Both of us assumed it was a small plane, pilot error or heart attack, etc. I went to the office TV set, which someone had tuned to CNN, watched for a few minutes & then went back to my desk.

Awhile later, dh called again. Another plane had crashed into the other tower. And both of them were not small planes, but jumbo jets. It was being described as a terrorist act. I think everyone was in a bit of a daze. And starting to get nervous about what all this meant.

I went back to the TV set, where a small crowd of my colleagues was now standing around, & watched for awhile in disbelief. Tried to go back to work (denial or what??), but couldn't focus, gave up and went back to the TV set, just in time to see the first tower collapse. Mass confusion, reports of more planes in Washington. Then the hit on the Pentagon, the crash in Pennsylvania. I remember CNN broadcasting live cellphone calls from people who were in the towers. (I wonder if those people got out.)

My boss said, "I'll bet it's Bin Laden." I'd never heard the name before.

At that time, dh was trading U.S. stocks and options, and once the exchanges in New York closed down, he was told he might as well go home. He called me to say he thought he'd catch the next train home, & asked if I could leave too. Nobody had said anything about leaving, so I said I'd see him at home later.

He says he went out the doors of the tower, stopped & said to himself, "Am I nuts??" turned around & came back inside & up to my floor! Someone let him in the security door & he appeared at my side just as we were all watching the second tower collapse.

Shortly after that, our office administrator told us the senior VP of our department had said we could all go home if we wanted to. All over the downtown core, people were going home. Who could work?? By then, I REALLY wanted to go home -- who knew what else was going to happen & where?? (& if all I was going to do was watch the news on TV all day, I'd rather do it in my own home!).

We had 15 minutes to catch the next train home. I returned to my desk to collect my things, & my phone message light was blinking... I looked at dh & said, "That's mom," & it was (calling from 1,000 miles away), & she sounded like she was in tears. We didn't have time to call her back just then.

I said to dh, "Do we go underground, or outside?" Where did we feel safest?

We decided to go outside -- less claustrophobic -- and hurried down Bay Street -- taking nervous looks at the glass office buildings towering above us. It was an eerie feeling. The station was busy -- much busier than it normally would be, midday (& apparently the next train after ours was PACKED). I felt my anxiety dissipate somewhat as the train pulled away from the downtown area -- but it was weird to look at the beautiful Toronto skyline, with all the towering skyscrapers set off against that gorgeous blue sky, and wonder how in the world two similar buildings, and thousands of people in them (and at that point, we feared that it was tens of thousands), could just VANISH from the face of the earth in the space of less than two hours??

I called my mom on my cellphone & let her know we were OK. We stopped at the grocery store on the way home. I figured that if the world was going to hell in a handbasket, we'd better be stocked up on food, just in case. We spent the rest of the day sitting on the couch, stunned, numbly flipping from the CBC to CNN & the other American networks.

The next morning, I awoke to find dh already downstairs, sitting on the couch, watching CNN with tears in his eyes. "They say there are more than 200 firefighters dead," he said tearfully. "When I was a little boy, they were always my heroes."

The train ride into work was quieter than usual. It was not a day for casual chit-chatting.

There is a certain point in the track, near the end of our trip, where we round a curve & the skyline of Toronto comes into view. Looking at it from the train window, I swallowed hard, thinking of how different the skyline of New York City must look that morning.

The closer we got to our office tower, walking up from the train station, the more emotional I felt. My eyes started filling up with tears. I said goodbye to dh & watched him disappear into the elevator that would take him up to the 65th floor. It feels a little presumptuous to write this but, as the elevator doors closed, I started crying, thinking of all the women who had said goodbye to their husbands the day before, who went up an elevator to a trading floor near the top of a tall office tower, and never came down again. Having that connection, and also having experienced a traumatic loss myself in recent years-- the stillbirth of our daughter, three years earlier -- I felt like I could relate, just a little bit, to some of what they might be going through. Reading some of their accounts of their grief, I marvel over the common ground we share in bereavement, no matter what the circumstances of our own unique losses.

I was the first person to arrive at our office, so everything was still & silent.... very eerie. (At least nobody was around to see my raccoon eyes!) As the morning went on, though, it was down to business and I started to feel much better. The Canadian bank I work for has about 300 employees in New York working at Liberty Plaza, right across the street from the World Trade Centre site -- who were all eventually deemed safe and accounted for -- and there were calls to make and messages to draft to let all our employees worldwide know they were all right.

With the stock markets in chaos, dh was told to go home early again. Over the next few days, he spoke with traders from companies who worked at nearby buildings and across the river in New Jersey, and he heard some awful stories from them.

A few days later, there were memorial services held around the world for the victims, including one in Ottawa. Work once again came to a standstill as my colleagues & I gathered around the TV set and bowed our heads during the moment of silence. (We did it again on September 11, 2002.) I'll never forget the image of the television cameras silently sweeping over the crowd of 100,000 people assembled on Parliament Hill, heads bowed in total stillness.

Some two dozen Canadians lost their lives on September 11, 2001 -- in the planes, and at the World Trade Centre. One of them was a young brokerage executive, who worked for the bank across the street from us, and was visiting Cantor Fitzgerald's offices while his pregnant wife went shopping. His death in particular felt "close to home."

As time has passed, the effects of 9/11 continue to linger, in subtle & not so subtle ways. I was born in a small town on the Canada-U.S. border. My ancestors settled on a farm just a mile or two from there on the Minnesota side in the late 1870s, & my mother was born in a small town 20 miles to the south. By this time next year, as part of the fallout from Sept. 11th, I will need a passport to cross the border to visit my ancestors' graves in the cemetery. :(

I walk faster through the crowded concourse of the train station now, & dh & I have actually moved from one car to another when one of us has felt uncomfortable about the behaviour of other passengers. I have noticed days (like yesterday) when more security officers than usual are standing in the concourse of my building, watching -- for what? What do they know that we don't?

Our 68-storey office tower had never had a full drill before -- we'd simply line up by the fire exit to the stairs and that would be our fire drill. Even before 9/11 I thought that was totally ridiculous. How long would it take us to get out of the building? Where would we be exiting the building, and where were we supposed to go from there? Nobody seemed to know. Since then, safety training has vastly improved, and we now have an annual fire drill each fall in which the entire building is completely evacuated.

In the past, people tended to assume that most fire alarms were false & work through them. These days, fire alarms tend to get taken much more seriously, and people are far more likely to evacuate, than they were in the past.

Huge planters have appeared on the sidewalk outside of my office building, forming a barrier in front of the street. It's obvious they're there to prevent a vehicle from being deliberately driven up the steps. Another time, we were asked to clear our desks to allow access to the windows to allow a protective film to be applied that would make the windows more shatter-resistant. Nothing was said about why the windows might shatter, but we could all imagine why.

I've worked in this tower since it opened, 20 years ago. I've probably spent more waking hours there than any other place in my entire life. It is home to me, in a peculiar sort of way... the coffee shop girls, the familiar faces... I walk through the concourse and look around me and, while I'm always happy to go home at the end of the day ; ) I think about how lucky I am to be working here. I think sometimes about the World Trade Centre survivors, and how -- totally aside from the tragic loss of coworkers, family members, friends -- they also lost the place they spent so much time every day, some of them for years & years -- their sense of belonging to a certain place, the comfort of a daily routine. That has to be disorienting.

It's now seven years later -- and in the morning, as we round the curve in the track and the Toronto skyline unfolds into view, I still often look up from my newspaper to admire, breathe a silent prayer of thanks -- and remember September 11, 2001.

My 100-word version of this post -- along with 100 words about 9-11 from dozens of other bloggers -- is being posted some time today on Bridges. Stop by, read & remember.


  1. Wow... thanks for sharing your memories of this tragedy.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this, loribeth. I remember that day too... I was at home with dd, then only 4 months when dh called and asked me to turn on the TV. It still feels surreal to me. What has angered me more though, is how the people of NY had been handled after the incident. the blatant negligence of health and safety and today many people are still suffering from health issues and denied help. That gets me fuming and shaking.
    Today, I remember those passed, and those walking in living hell.

  3. Thanks for sharing. It brought back so many memories and feelings, it made my hair stand on end.

    It is amazing how suddenly, overnight, you don't even feel safe in your own home anymore.

  4. Wowza. I always wondered how it was perceived/experienced elsewhere. Very clear picture you paint - lovely.

    You're right it's a bizarre situation, bereavement - it's like a club that everyone will inevitably belong to and even though we come about it in different ways it's all horrid.