My nephew Adam is a savant with dates. If my sister wants to know what years we vacationed in Avalon, NJ, or when she purchased her dishwasher, he can cite the year and date with remarkable accuracy. Me, not so much. As you get older, the days, weeks and years fly by and start to blur into a mosaic known as “the past.”
It seems hard to believe, but 14 years have passed since 9/11. It was one of those landmark events that imprints your memory. Standout memories for me were the Pirates winning the 1960 World Series — walking home from school around 3:30 in the afternoon, hearing cheers coming from the homes along Brighton Road and in my neighborhood. Or listening to the somber tone of our Principal, Sister Mary Peter, over the loud speaker directing the whole elementary school over to St. Cyril’s church to pray for President Kennedy when he was assassinated.
For me, September 11, 2001, was not a normal workday at the Main Library. I was at an “important” meeting at Commonwealth Libraries (the State Library offices) in Harrisburg. I had traveled there with Barry, a fellow CLP librarian, to discuss potential library digitization projects, with other librarians from across Pennsylvania. Our meeting began at 9 am and we had just started introducing ourselves when the one of the State Library staff interrupted the meeting with the news that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers.
One of the offices had a little 9 inch TV and we all crowded in to watch as the news reporters’ understanding changed from the crash being an accident to possibly an intentional terrorist attack. Then we watched in horror as the second plane hit the other tower. The room was silent in disbelief. The State Library and all Harrisburg government offices were soon put in lock-down at the direction of the Governor. Shortly after noon, all state employees were instructed to go home.
I really was too shaken to drive, but Barry, who prefers a bike to a car, rose to the occasion and drove us. It took us over an hour just to get out of the parking garage and on to the Turnpike, homeward. The Turnpike was surprisingly empty. We passed Three Mile Island and speculated about U.S. infrastructure as targets. As we continued driving west, phalanxes of State Police, emergency and U.S. Army vehicles screamed past us, on their way to Shanksville, near Somerset, the site of the crashed fourth hijacked plane. Barry and I rarely spoke, listening intently to the car radio reports. I called my husband on my old clunky Nokia cell phone. The connection was bad. He told me that citizens asked were not to use their cells. He was able to report that our sister-in-law, a bonds trader, had been evacuated from her Wall Street area office and was safe. We learned later that she was on a ferry to New Jersey when the second plane hit. She saw it right before her eyes.
By the time we got back to Pittsburgh in the late afternoon it seemed a ghost town. All businesses, government, and educational establishments had long gone home. We saw few people or cars on the streets. Folks were indoors glued to their TV watching the unimaginable. It seemed eerie to me, like one of the final scenes of the movie, On the Beach, (based on Neville Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel), when some of the last folks on earth, after the great nuclear war, discover that the mysterious radio signal that they heard and had traveled from Australia to the U.S. West Coast was the result of a broken window sash swinging in the breeze and occasionally hitting a telegraph key, not survivors as they had hoped. A poem in this book contains the line, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” In a sense, that’s how our lives all changed that day, but with a bang and a whisper. I was never so happy to walk into my front door as I was that day, whispering prayers for the victims, their families, and the first responders. It’s a day, a part of that mosaic called the past, that I will never forget.