“We are getting reports that a small plane or a helicopter may have crashed into the World Trade Center,” interrupted my morning radio show as I was driving to work in downtown Atlanta on Sept. 11, 2001.
I immediately called my then-boyfriend, and eventual husband, Kevin, who was living in the East Village of Manhattan. He was walking to the subway to head to midtown for work and had not yet heard the reports. My naivety apparent only in retrospect, I told him since he still was so close to his apartment, he should go and get his camera and see what was going on downtown.
That call would unknowingly send him directly toward the worst attack on American soil our country has ever seen. No one would hear from him again until 10 p.m..
As I arrived at my office, everyone was gathered by the TVs in the lobby. We watched as the second plane hit the South Tower, and the enormity of this nightmare began to unfold. This was neither a small plane nor a helicopter, and it certainly was not an accident.
I started incessantly calling Kevin. No response.
When the Pentagon got hit and we realized this attack was not limited to New York City, discussion began about our safety being in a highrise building in downtown Atlanta. They had just decided that we should all go home for the day when the South Tower crumbled to the ground.
I can picture exactly where I was standing, phone in hand, when I, like the tower, crumbled — the magnitude of what was happening and what I had done hitting me.
I held my breath calling Kevin’s parents, praying that they had heard from him. When I heard their panicked voices, I knew they had not. Through sobs, I had to tell them that not only was their son in Manhattan, but instead of letting him go in the opposite direction that morning, I had sent him directly toward what would later come to be known as Ground Zero.
Those of us who were alive to experience this day know that the rest of it was spent staring at the TV in utter shock and disbelief. For those of us with loved ones in New York, D.C. and passengers on those planes, it was with phone in hand.
I had a plane ticket to fly to NYC on Sept. 15 to help Kevin move to Atlanta.
Why had we picked that day? Why not a week sooner? What if I had been listening to a different radio station that morning? Or a CD? What if he had left five minutes earlier and had been unreachable on the subway?
The questions and regret were crushing.
My story ended the way that so many wish theirs had. My phone rang.
At 10 p.m. that night, Kevin called, saying he was safe and with friends at their apartment. The air was full of ash, there was no power, it was next to impossible to get a call out and he didn’t know when he’d be able to reach me again. He was safe.
But because of me, he saw and experienced things firsthand that he can’t unsee. He saw people running down the street covered in ash and debris, buildings disintegrating in front of his eyes and, of course, the unthinkable — individuals jumping from the high floors because the scene behind them was somehow more horrifying than falling dozens of stories to the ground.
Two weeks later, he was able to leave Manhattan in a U-Haul, driving alone down streets lined with National Guardsmen and armored trucks.
I don’t remember when we had the film from his camera developed, but I do remember the sadness that came with seeing them, knowing someone I loved experienced the destruction in those photos.
I also remember thinking that we were holding a piece of history in our hands and vowing that we would one day share these with our kids. We have done just that, at our home in Charlotte, and talked about how a day that began fueled with hate and fear,ended with solidarity and the very best of humanity.
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