Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Recollections of 9/11

Ten years ago today was one of those days every American (and many non-Americans as well) can vividly remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the attacks. For me that day certainly fits that description. However,  I have since I was a child used notable historical events (particularly disasters) that have occurred during my lifetime as navigational landmarks in my memory marking the way for me whenever I try to remember where I was and what I was doing relative to the closest "event". Certainly 9/11/01 and the 9/11 Attacks  are just about the most memorable of those events and dates but for me probably not more so than 10/17/89 (Loma Prieta Earthquake) and 1/17/94 (Northridge Earthquake).

I woke up late (probably late in the 8AM hour PDT) the morning of September 11, 2001, in Room #3 at the Sonora Gold Lodge in Sonora, CA. I slept in that morning due to exhaustion from the road trip with my mother I was in the midst of which had started a few days earlier. The trip had started out as a get-way to California's Mother Lode Country in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. However, on Day Two or so (which was September 9, 2001) we started the day in Cameron Park, CA, and drove south down Highway 49 intending to spend the night at the aforementioned motel to which we had reservations.  At some point in our drive to that night's destination we became aware of a very dangerous and spectacular Darby Fire raging out of control in the Stanislaus River Canyon. We checked it out the rest of that day and spent the night in Sonora that night and the following night spending September 10, 2001, solely fire-chasing the Darby Fire with me taking ample photos and shooting some video of it from various nearby vantage points.

From the moment I started my day that morning I was in high gear anticipating that we might tarry another day to watch the fire pending if it really took off again that day or not by late morning. Failing that mom and I intended to head home to Atascadero, CA. I was taking a lot of home video of the fire and had run out video cassettes (no digital for me) so first thing I did after getting out of bed was to head up to East Sonora, CA, to the Walmart there with the intent of purchasing some blank 8mm hi8 video cassettes and picking up coffee for mom on the drive back to the room.

I only got around to the first item on that list because no sooner had I reached the part of the store which featured what I was looking for before I heard some alarming discussions taking place on the store display TV's sitting in the electronics/entertainment section located on the other side of the aisle from where I was standing. One of the talking heads on the TV broadcast I was hearing said something about when people don't care about their own lives as they did in the 1993 Word Trade Center Bombing they can do so much more harm by comparison "as we see here today". My immediate thought was "oh my God, what are they talking about that would make the 1993 WTC Bombing seem tame by comparison"? So I walked around the end of the aisle and into that section of the store and asked the two female clerks what I was hearing. They explained to me (and you have to remember that this was early on and there was much false info and rumor-milling occurring.) that several passenger jetliners had been hijacked and crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City which had subsequently collapsed and another plane had been crashed into The Pentagon and yet had crashed into Camp David (actually it had crashed into a field atop a reclaimed coal mining pit near Shanksville, PA, as a result of the passengers turning on their plane's hijackers whom then ditched the plane in the ground) and that there might be more planes (actually that turned out to be yet another false rumor quite fortunately). All I could muster in response were the sorts of expressions of disbelief one might imagine but I also immediately got technical with the ladies and said the buildings couldn't have completely collapsed but merely collapsed from the points of impact upwards. Boy was I wrong; I did not yet grasp the concept of progressive collapse. The buildings' individual levels were designed to hold up all the weight that was RESTING above them, NOT the weight of everything above them falling down upon them.

I immediately took my blank video cassettes to the check-out line and paid for them and fled back to the motel room to tell mom what had happened as I surmised (correctly) that she had not yet turned on the TV as she would have been showering while awaiting some caffeine from me upon my return. I came in the door and she had already showered and was getting prepared for the day. I told her to sit down on the bed because I had something to tell her. I wanted to badly to turn on the TV right away but knew I had to brief mom  before I did so as otherwise she would be utterly confused by what she was seeing. I then related to her what I had heard at Walmart. She was predictably shocked and then I turned on the TV. The first image I saw was live video feed from a helicopter hovering over the water looking back into Lower Manhattan showing the area draped in a funerary cloth of dust and smoke. As it turned out both towers had collapsed entirely and enveloped the immediate area in dust and smoke as well as fires now raged throughout the rubble of the Twin Towers and in the adjacent buildings. Firefighting resources were stretched thin due to the sheer volume of fire and the access problems created by rubble as well as water supply problems created by the destruction of water pipes when the Twin Towers crashed into the ground.

We then proceeded to have breakfast ("to go" food I picked up in downtown Sonora) there in the motel room in front of the television in stunned horror. Watching the Darby Fire was now no longer a consideration no matter what it did that day which I believe was not all that much as it turned out which means we would have driven home that day regardless. We watched the live coverage on TV for a little while and quickly got caught up on all we had slept through. Most disturbing to me were the jumpers. They showed many still shots and video clips of people plunging to their deaths. Given my issues with heights and falling this above all really got to me. I remember one interviewed witness in particular, a short little white guy who was utterly hysterical who speaking to the cameras described having seen the street outside being littered with "broken bodies" and how "horrible" it was. This turned my stomach even more than all the other stomach-turning details we were seeing and hearing.

We were so captivated by what we were watching on TV that we were torn between staying the day and spending another night just to watch what was going on so we missed nothing during the drive home especially if more attacks were forthcoming which at the time and given the rumor mill seemed quite conceivable. Furthermore, at that time I was living with mom and the house did not have television which meant going home would mean no watching history unfold on television. We discussed all this and elected to head home as that felt the best given how the world as we knew it seemed to be falling apart and if more trouble did happen we wanted to be hunkered down in our bunker. However, we agreed to get a motel room in Atascadero and while sleeping  in our own beds spend our waking hours watching history unfold on TV for as long as it felt right.

The drive home was surreal as we came down out of the foothills of the Sierras and across the San Joaquin Valley and through the interior Coast Ranges and home. We both were driving in our own automobiles (mom in her green Ford Explorer and me in my red Chevy S-10 pickup) and traveled caravan-style with me in the lead. It is ironic how we human beings often notice things only when they disappear but otherwise rarely notice what is there. Here in California we get a lot of contrails from jet aircraft both military and civilian given that so many important air routes pass over our fair state and also given the sheer volume of air traffic traveling to and from California. The sky was disquietingly clear and free of any aircraft nor of the typical contrails streaking this way and that way, nearly always many to be seen at once unless the atmosphere is temporarily hindering their formation as happens but never for long. There was not an airplane of any size or shape or configuration to be seen anywhere the entire drive home. All the while witnessing that bit of oddness our radios were tuned into the live coverage and report upon report, rumor upon rumor kept flooding in, sometimes accurate, sometimes not entirely accurate or altogether false. However, my nation's nerves were shot and hysteria and paranoia were quite understandably rampant.

It felt really good to get home, but no sooner had we gotten home than I drove over to the Rancho T Motel and checked us in and started watching the live coverage on TV with mom soon joining me. We proceeded to live there the rest of that day and late into the evening watching the story unfold live on television. The next day we rented the room again and did so day after day for the next several days until we had been there almost a week. Although we slept at home at night we oft visited the room and made it our 9/11 "crash pad" (no bad pun intended) watching the live television coverage and reading the newspapers. We soon developed a routine of what we ate and where we got it from and became regulars in the neighborhood that week Of course we could have simply stayed home and purchased a television and a cable television contract but the thinking at the time was that we did not want television in our home in general and emotionally it helped to deal with this disaster by staying close to home but not feeling trapped within it so it was nice to have a place to go that was nearby but not home itself. Also, we believed 9/11  would soon pass which it thankfully did. Nothing else of note followed thereafter other than two costly wars, one the following month and one a year and a half later. The funny thing is that ultimately 9/11 blew the doors off our abstinence from television as we soon thereafter purchased a new TV and got cable television reinstalled at the house where it remains to this day.

I could and probably will right a separate essay henceforth on the after-effects of 9/11 on me personally and on my nation and its people and how we all live now and how society changed (and did not change).


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