On a Sunday in 2011

By Jeffrey Page
Early on a morning in late summer 10 years ago, I was at my desk in the newsroom of The Record struggling over a story about the rarely improving condition of New Jersey highways.

The phone rang, an old friend calling. A minute later the guy at the desk next to mine leaned over and said he thought World Trade Center was on fire. The towers, just 11 miles away, were visible from the newsroom, which was in Hackensack. We all ran to the windows. We could see the smoke. It was the moment the world changed.

Then we gathered at the TVs. Then the other tower was hit. Then the Pentagon. Then the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania.

I felt a creepy horror when I thought about the randomness of it, and how possible it would have been for me to be aboard one of the planes. I thought about my wife and daughter and how I wasn’t ready to take leave of them. The dread has never entirely abandoned me – and I wasn’t even among the people who lost someone on Sept. 11. I can’t begin to imagine how they deal with their losses this many years later.

And I still wonder how I would have responded as a passenger. Would I have stood up and been part of the group that tried to regain control of Flight 93? Would I have joined a charge of the hijackers? Would I have cowered? What would I have done if I realized there was no way out of this, that if I ever had control of my life I had none now? Would I have understood that I was about to die?

An editor told me to go to Newark Airport, but issued no assignment. The airport was closed. I wound up at the Vince Lombardi service area on the Turnpike. There was a view of the towers. People stood in that universal pose of profound grief – wet eyes, raised brows, hand over mouth. Ismael Koroma, a trucker from Steubenville, Ohio, said: “You can’t imagine something like this in your worst thought. Things like this don’t happen in America.” But of course, they do.

The publisher of The Record agreed that we needed to print an extra. I wrote a long story about reaction such as Koroma’s. The newsroom staff spent days, months and years covering the attacks. In doing so, we got to know scores of people the dead had left behind. We wrote their stories. Wrote their grief, wrote their rage.

Over the decade, I’ve often thought about the woman whose husband was killed and whose families – his and her own – would never speak to her again after she remarried. I’ve thought about the Port Authority commissioner from Bergen County who was expecting a lunchtime visit from the agency’s new executive director and whose last call to him was to find out what kind of sandwich she should order for him. He was killed. I’ve thought about the widows and the orphans, and even about all the cars that went unretrieved from railroad parking lots all over North Jersey the evening of the 11th. And I thought about the cops and firefighters killed at the trade center and got a germ of an understanding of the nature of courage.

Whenever I go across the George Washington Bridge I think of the Port Authority workers assigned two days after Sept. 11 to unfurl the huge 90 by 60 feet flag from the bridge’s superstructure and how a crowd of them then gathered 200 feet out on the pedestrian walkway to remember their friends killed at the trade center, and to recite the Lord’s Prayer as the smoke continued to billow from the dead towers.

And always, through 10 years of life and work, of discussion and contemplation, I wondered about the killer. No matter how seriously the cause, what are you when you order the deaths of 3,000 unarmed people? Do you still lie to your people and to your god by referring to yourself as a human being?

I’m thankful for having lived to this time, to the particular Sunday night just past when the news that I often believed would never come actually came.

He was dead.

How sweet the justice if 3,000 people could return to life if only for a moment to hear the words: The country survived. The city survived. But he is dead.

Jeff can be reached at jeffrey@zestoforange.com.


2 Responses to “On a Sunday in 2011”

  1. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    Well put. We lost a cousin and the trauma of that and of other family who worked nearby has never left us. There was cousin Bobby, a firefighter missing in action. We feared the worst; we had just buried his brother; sister in law and nephew in another tragedy. how much more could we shoulder. Lorraine’s death aged her already aging parents and left her beloved nieces and nephews, her sister and other family members broken. They will never recover not even with the death of Osama Bin Laden.

  2. Jean Webster Says:

    Good piece, Jeff.
    There are many reasons I will never forget that day – that week. First, the trauma we all experienced. Secondly, seeing the planes attack the towers in my home city. Then, learning that our brother-in-law’s brother had died trying to help another man get down the stairs in one of the towers. Finally, learning that Mohammad Atta and his cohort had boarded the plane here in Portland, Maine. My husband and I had just moved into our new home – days before.

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