Faulty Towers

Here’s what I recall– undoubtedly muddled-up in the intervening years.

It was a beautiful day. Sunny and warm. I sat in a corner office on the forty-second floor of the Hancock Tower in Back Bay, Boston. I typically got to work early, seven-thirtyish. In my mind the first plane hit the first tower around 8:30 or so.

My phone rang and it was Murph. He was calling me from a block away on Boylston Street.

“Did you hear a plane hit the World Trade Center?”

“No way,” I said without an iota of alarm. “Fucking dumbasses.”

We both laughed. All I could imagine was one of these little Cessna planes that gave wealthy tourists aerial views of the city had somehow failed to see the enormous tower due to pointing out Fulton’s Fish Market or some such. His little laugh told me he agreed. This was a sad accident for a handful of people, not a calamity in any wider sense.

I went back to work.

A little later the phone rang again. Murphy.

“Turn on the TV.”

I did. He knew that being in advertising we had televisions everywhere.

“Look at the size of that hole. Must be twenty floors.”

“What the fuck? How does a little plane do that much damage.”

You could see sheets of paper or something like that fluttering out the hole where the building’s exterior had been. I don’t really recall saying much more. We were both a bit stunned at the sight, but not overly concerned I wouldn’t say.

I walked across the hall to Tom Jump’s office.

“You hear about the plane hitting the World Trade Center? Turn on the TV.”

He did and we watched, looking at the huge hole that now had fire shooting from it amidst thick black smoke.

“How does a little prop plane do that kind of damage? It’s unreal.”

We both looked at the live footage and listened to the commentary which was equally at a loss for words, much less answers.

It feels like we were both quiet and contemplative– just watching and trying to figure it out.

Then, in my mind it was live but I’m sure it probably wasn’t, we watched the second plane hit.

This was no Cessna.

I think I stood up in alarm. We didn’t squeal or shout or anything. I think Tom may have put a hand over his mouth in shock.

For a half of a second I thought, what are the chances of two planes crashing into the same building on the same morning? I’ve always had a naive streak I try hard to conceal.

It only lasted a second. These weren’t accidents. Not sure what they are, but someone, some group, is intentionally flying planes into the World Trade Center.

Then I remember turning away from the television, which was toward the center of the building, and out Tom’s windows which, like mine, faced out over the harbor and toward the airport.

There, in the clear blue and cloudless sky, we looked out upon a line of three or four planes that appeared to be flying at exactly our “eye level” in a landing pattern for the airport. While in no way were they flying toward us, you couldn’t help but see just how easy it would be and what an incomprehensible feeling it must have been to look out your window and see a plane coming at you so fast and yet appearing so slow– like a Great White closing a lot of ground but seemingly in no hurry.

“Holy shit,” one of us said. I honestly don’t remember who. I have a decidedly third-person view of these minutes now. I’m watching me, not being me.

We had an office very near the WTC and my friend Mike Sheehan was there. I called his wife.

“I talked to him. He’s fine,” she said relieved yet not.

I don’t remember a lot of flying about in the office. I remember it as still and quiet. No hysterics. Very slow motion.

Then it seemed like everyone began to work it out at the same time. Me. Tom. Others in the office. The television news. This was an attack. A planned event. There are onside kicks and then there is this.

I remember years later watching a documentary about 9/11 from the perspective of just the air traffic controllers working at the time. I just remember one woman saying, to herself as much as anyone else, “Do you mean two separate planes hit the towers?” Later, this same woman, I think, would say, “There are more than two planes missing?”

Rather than condemn anyone’slennon-full lack of preparedness I have always felt a little comfort in it as strange as that seems. While I know it’s important to think along the lines of criminals and terrorists to remain one step ahead, I’m sort of pleased that such depravity couldn’t have even been conceived of by most of us. There was still some archetypal purity in us.

I’d seen enough. I got up and told everyone on my team to go home. I’m not sure if I was scared or just wanted to be with my family. Probably both. I can’t recall if we took the 42 flights of stairs or the elevators. I don’t know why we’d take the stairs as we were in no imminent danger, but I think we did. I might be confusing my preparation for an emergency evacuation with our actual “evacuation.”

I walked to the train station. Evidently I wasn’t the only one who wanted to go home. The Red Line was absolutely packed. It was relatively quiet. Then a murmur began to make its way through the train car like the wave. It was sort of like the “Telephone Game” where the message began to morph somewhere between Dorchester and Quincy.

Another plane had crashed.

“Do they mean the second one?” I asked the equally confused woman sitting next to me. She shrugged too.

They were talking about the Pentagon as it turns out.

When I got home to my wife, four year old and baby we all watched the TV as the puzzle would be put together.

I’ll never forget how that night we lied in bed with perfect silence except for what were clearly military jets zooming overhead.

That was the scary day. The next few days would be more like a bad sequel to a movie that held you rapt.

I think the following day the building was evacuated again due to some crank call.

The next day Murph and I were having lunch and a few pints at MJ O’Connors over in Park Plaza. We looked up at the little TV above the bar to see a huge crowd gathered around what was plainly the Hancock. We headed over. Authorities thought they had some bad guys holed up in the hotel across the street. There were cops and soldiers and you name it– even a little tank-like thing that must have been for explosives. We joined the crowd and watched what turned out to be one of a million false-alarms in the days that followed. It was like street performance.

Gradually things got back to normal. The new normal, anyway.

I think Murph and I were going on our annual golf trip on the one-year anniversary in 2002. Our wives protested, at least mine did, but not too loudly. Nobody really wanted to yield an inch to these thugs and bullies.

As I woke this morning I was amazed at how vividly some things came back while others were lost to shadows. It’s like a scar that’s faded over time. Part of the permanent record, but pushed down and covered over by fresher wounds.

4 Comments on “Faulty Towers”

  1. Chris Bell says:

    Awesome writing as usual.

    I guess it is one of those moments we all remember. I was in the air…on my way to pitch Entercom in K.C. A few minutes before landing, the captain came on and said…”This is your captain…first of all, we are in no danger and will land a few minutes early in K.C. However, there has been a mid air collision over NYC and the entire ATC is being shut down and all planes are being grounded indefinitely. So, please be advised that you will not be leaving KC for some time…please plan accordingly”….hmmm I thought…that is strange…but thankfully I did not have to leave K.C. for a couple of days…I remember very clearly thinking, as we all often do in such situations “thats a shame…but it does not impact me…no worries…carry on.”

    The most surreal moments were yet to come. As our packed plane touched down, everyone turned on their cell phones…in an instant…200+ cell phones started ringing…it was a strange sound…together…they sounded like a fire alarm. I had 17 missed calls that had all come in over the previous ten minutes. I called the office…my assistant was crying and just kept saying, “we are under attack”…the phone disconnected. I walked off the plane and immediately ran into a crowd huddled around a small T.V. in the airport bar. I had not even realized what I was looking at when the first tower collapsed. People were screaming and crying and in an instant, I realized that something was terribly wrong. In a moment of clarity, I had one thought…”rental car”. I made the wise choice of heading immediately to the rental car office where I found myself second in line…within minutes..by the time I got my car…there were over 100 people in line. I went through the line asking if anyone was headed to Atlanta…I could find no one. Over the 10 hour drive home, I called everyone I loved and cared about…and I listened endlessly to news reports on the radio and contemplated what it all meant. I still don’t know. I will never forget any of that…nor should I.


  2. buffaloreynolds says:

    Fortunately, I never had the “salmon situation” you described. I know so many people who got cars in NYC, many more who couldn’t, and still even more who just started walking away. It is very primordial how we are compelled to get home in these situations.


  3. Tim says:

    Man, you set off all my nerve endings with this, Reynolds.
    Nice writing.


  4. Cindy Stockwell says:

    I could picture you and Tom in the office. I wasn’t in Boston yet, still in Chicago. I was on maternity leave. I came back home from a run and sat transfixed in front of the TV. Just shocked and so incredibly sad. I lived and worked in NYC for 7 years before moving to Chicago and felt so violated for my old city and all the friends I still had there. I remember it was impossible to find out if they were all ok. Luckily they all escaped. I had a friend that lived in the Village. She wanted to help in some way so she started cooking for the local fire station that was working around the clock on the recovery effort. It gave her back a small sense of being in control.

    Thanks for writing this. It was great Patrick.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s