Skies without contrails

The Sunday paper is especially thick this morning, burdened down by the fifth anniversary attacks on the World Trade center. The television stations have been portentious with teasers for their five-year recollections, and commentators ask the question: when will it happen again?

There are signal events in history that we all live through, track marks in our lives that we can all point to and say, “I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard….”

My father was in the boat shop on a cold Sunday evening in December, listening to the radio with his father when Pearl Harbor was announced. I was playing with blocks on the black and white linoleum floor of my parent’s house in Houston, Texas when JFK was shot, watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in the living room of Aunt Betty’s house ….

There will be a lot of this in the next few days. A lot of “I remember” and “It will happen again” writing. We trade our stories and anecdotes: “I know a guy who talked to his brother standing on the roof of the north tower when it collapsed and he’s been completely unhinged ever since ….”

I identify 9/11 with the weather.

Any cloudless blue sky in late August or early September makes me recall it. Walking through Terminal A of the Delta Shuttle in Boston makes me recall it.

Here’s my story:

I flew out of Logan that Tuesday morning on my way to LaGuardia. I am still chilled by the idea that I was in the same airport, on the same morning, headed in the same direction as the terrorists. I am chilled that they got to Logan on the same commuter airline I flew for years to Manhattan, Colgan Air. I arrived in the city an hour before they did, took a car into the city and through the Midtown Tunnel to my office on 51st and Park. Stopped at the Starbucks in the lobby and was in the elevator, on my way to my desk, when a bicycle messenger said, in a joking tone: “A plane hit the World Trade Center.”

I thought about King Kong. I thought it was a Cessna. I thought it was a traffic helicopter.

I walked into my office and saw the tower ablaze.

Like most of the world I watched the rest of the disaster unfold on television. My phone rang — friends were calling from around the country to check on me. I made arrangements to return to Boston. No rental cars were available, so I found my two Boston colleagues and discussed our options. Stay in the city. Take a ferry to New Jersey and work out a solution from there. Walk to the South Bronx.

After the collapse we left the building and walked to Grand Central. I saw people in the crowds I hadn’t seen for years. F-16s from Otis Air Force Base, five miles from my home on Cape Cod flew down Park Avenue. Grand Central was choked with people, dotted here and there by survivors who were completely covered in dust, standing out like snowmen in the mobs.

There was a Metro North leaving for New Haven. We boarded it. Cells phone didn’t work. I read the wire news on my Palm through an early wireless modem and shared updates with my colleagues. We were met in New Haven by a colleague’s husband and driven to Logan, arriving there around midnight. The airport was roadblocked but the State Police let us in to get our cars from the parking garage. The garage was adjacent to the airport hotel where the families of the dead on the planes were gathering. I found my car and drove home.

I couldn’t return to work for the next two weeks. I went fishing by myself in Nantucket Sound and did a lot of thinking. There were no planes in the skies and the skies remained as blue as they did that Tuesday morning, only without contrails.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Skies without contrails”

  1. I can vouch for those cloudless blue skies as a trigger, David. I also remember staring out the window on the 30th floor of our Midtown office and wondering, What would it be like to see a plane bearing down on me at 600mph? Chilling stuff, vivid memories, even five years later.

  2. 12/7/1941

    With phone lines down, I managed to Yahoo Messenger my significant other’s parents in Denmark to let them know she was alright. She was walking into 7 World Trade when the first plane hit and came to my office, not sure where else to go, still covered in white dust, shaken, confused, as close to a complete state of shock as I have ever seen.

    We hopped a bus uptown, not paying, and watched the only channel we could get, a spanish lanuage broadcast out of New Jersey. All the main New York stations were down.

    No TV, no phone, jammed cell lines, but internet and Yahoo messenger were up and running thanks to a T1 in the office.

    Classmates, friends were lost. Things changed. And didn’t.

    It was a frightening day but 5 years later, the political infighting, the hole in the ground, a war, a mastermind still on the loose, and a cripplingly bizarre TSA screening system has left behind an astounding cost, financially, emotionally, constitutionally.

    Franklin said: “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.”

    And the media coverage, endless, the same, is beyond numbing, hopelessly bland. Co-opted by the widows, the politicians, the media, the fanatics, 9/11 makes me think of Pearl Harbor…

    A simple, elegant memorial I have visited, a war well faught, clearly articulated, with its own errors of internment camps and propoganda.

    Yes, the sky was blue that day. I remember it well.

  3. i remember that day well, having been on assignment in Illinois at the time. the period until i was able to contact my brother, working in midtown, may well have been the longest of my life.

    my father, i didn’t have to worry about, for just as with the first bombing of the world trade center, he’d serendipitously chosen that week to vacation in Maine. i’m lucky that way, sometimes.

    i lament the losses, the damage and the scars, just as i worry about the costs. in a sense, though they failed, the terrorists have won, because everyone is scared. all these years later.

    and that may ultimately be the saddest thing of all. as Franklin would undoubtedly concur.l

  4. I remember that week SO vividly. We had spent the earlier part of that week driving the long way from NC to Martha’s Vineyard for a wedding. We had stopped in Philly to visit my best friend, and we were on the second leg, visiting my sister who was living in Boston. We had planned to walk all over Boston that day and sight see. Our first stop that morning was a coffee shop. While sitting there, we watched everything unfold on tv. The owner of the deli was a mid-eastern man. He was standing maybe a foot away from the television, and as soon as the second plane hit, he turned and looked directly at me and said, “Al Queda” and walked away. I had no idea what that meant.

    We didn’t realize what was happening… and when we went out in the streets, it was nuts… everyone scrambling to do something, but what. I remember waiting for a train and watching the workers take all the trashcans away. We spent the next few days holed up in my sister’s tiny college apartment, glued to the teeny tiny tv and watching the F16s in the very clear blue sky. Her roommate’s father worked in the WTC, and we spent hours waiting to hear if he was ok, which he was.

    That weekend we decided to forge on the Martha’s Vineyard for the wedding. We had gotten word that no one was going to be able to make it because all of the planes were grounded. A group of friends from Durham found the last van on the last lot, rented it, and crammed 9 people in it to get to MV. When we got to the wedding which was at my friend’s parent’s home, her father had found and bought the largest American flag I have ever seen before or since. He covered the entire front of the house with it. Everyone was laughter to tears that whole weekend.

    On the drive back from MV to NC, every overpass, had an American flag or some sort of signage hanging from it from. Every gas station had local firemen collecting money for the families in their boots. It was the most emotional week of my life.