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Wednesday, September 11, 2002

That Day, Part I: Get Up, the World Is Crumbling

Diane E. tells me (tell us all) that we have nothing to say today. She says, If you think that [you do], you weren't here. Well, I wasn't there. I wasn't even here. I was Elsewhere. If I were her I'd be doing what she's doing, going out in the city somewhere to remember in public. But I can't do that, so I am here, remembering in private. In public.

On September 11, somewhere between 11pm and midnight, I was sitting in my apartment in Sydney, at the computer. I was playing Tetris, I think, and watching Star Trek ("Return of the Archons") out of the corner of my eye. I caught a crawl across the bottom of the screen ...terrorist attacks in the United States.... I hadn't had the cable very long, so I didn't know how often they announced news items with crawls (never, as it turns out), and so was prepared to be unimpressed.

Holy. Howling. Hell.

By the time I switched on CNN, both towers had been hit, but had not collapsed. When I saw the first tower collapse, I was mildly surprised. I thought surely it could withstand a plane impact. But mostly I was angry. I wasn't sad; in a way, it wasn't my place to be sad. But I was angry, and my very first thought was, We have to rebuild it. We must rebuild it. They must not win. I would have been more surprised when the second tower went, but by then I had been numbed.

A little after midnight the phone rang. I'm sure I answered it with, "I see it."

Do you see it? It was my mother.
I see it.

She told me some stuff I already knew from the TV, and I got off the phone as fast as I could. I didn't want to talk to my mother.

Now, in those first hours we didn't know what the hell was going on. We didn't know how many planes there would be, or whether hijackings would be the end of it, or if there were other things in store. Reports flew thick and fast. Things were reported, and then completely dropped. Other reports contradicted each other. Separate events sounded awfully similar. For a long while after Flight 93 went down, there were reports of a plane headed toward Washington. Was that the same plane that went down, or was there another one?

I got out of the computer chair and took to the couch. I put the covers around me, but didn't feel any safer. Somewhere between the first and second collapses, I started writing in my diary. It was the only thing I could think to do, that seemed remotely useful.

...The newsreader at the BBC says, "For those of you who are just joining us and think you're watching fiction---you're not."

...A reporter in the street stops a dusty businessman trudging numbly past, clutching his briefcase. At first the man acts as if he doesn't want to talk, but the reporter lures him. After asking the businessman what he's seen, the reporter asks him where he was. He was in the South Tower. The reporter tells him this tower has collapsed (The North Tower is still standing at this point). The man is slow to understand. "You're a lucky man," the reporter tells him. The businessman doesn't know what to say, so he says what you're supposed to say when someone congratulates you. "Thank you. Thank you very much," he says, patting the reporter on the arm. Then he shambles on.

...A man with a big round bald head comes into view. He's covered in dust, and has a head wound which has bled profusely, darkening half his face. A reporter catches him and he seems to swim up toward the camera, looking directly into it, his eyes wild. He's in a hurry to be gone, but as he stumbles away a paramedic takes him by the arm and leads him aside.

...A Fox News reporter is standing in the street, talking to three guys in hard hats in a pickup truck. The driver is telling what he saw. He is calm, confident, articulate. He seems almost excited to be talking to a reporter. Eventually the reporter asks him the dumb-ass reporter question: How do you feel? The man pauses. "What do you mean---how do I feel? I've seen bodies falling from the sky. You tell me how I feel. I don't know."

Niles, now, happened to be at a conference in Hawaii, which meant he was 4 hours ahead of us (more precisely 20 hours behind), so it was about 5am, his time. I hesitated before calling him. It seems weird, but I wasn't sure he would want to be awakened for this. But I wanted to talk to him.

I called his hotel. "Fancy Schmancy Hawaii Resort!" chirped the man at the desk. I figured he couldn't know. They probably don't watch TV there at the desk, at 5am. I briefly thought about telling him to turn on the TV. Instead I just asked for Niles.

Hi, honey, it's me. I don't know what time it is there. Sorry to disturb you, but you must turn on the TV. Turn on CNN.
Terrorists have hijacked some airliners. They've flown them into the World Trade Center...
...Both towers have collapsed.
Both towers have collapsed. Get up. The world is crumbling.

We talked for about an hour, then hung up. About four I tried to get some sleep. I was awakened every few minutes by the screams and explosions in my head.