In the years that I’ve been living in New York, the city has afforded me a number of fearful experiences. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, had my apartment broken into, seen my first dead person (not at a funeral home), and crashed my motorcycle. But Sept. 11 revealed a new set of fears I hadn’t felt or anticipated.
I live two short blocks south of where the World Trade Center used to be. It was an entertaining struggle to try to explain to people out of town that I lived almost literally next door to the Twin Towers. People live there? Yes! I walk out the door and look straight up at them.
I’m glad I have that memory. But there are other memories I would be better off without.
I was sitting at the computer next to the bedroom window when the second plane came roaring overhead. If you’ve seen the new video from the Czech tourist that shows the second plane striking Tower Two, that’s my building in the foreground. At first I didn’t know what it was, just a growing rumble, but by the time it was overhead, the building shook, a rushing roar filled my head and my body. I jumped up and stuck my head out the window and watched the plane bury itself into the side of the South Tower. A plume of flame and paper shot out the side of the tower. The lights in the building across the street dimmed. People in the streets below screamed and ran like they do in Godzilla movies. I panicked.
Trapped rat fear
Even if you’re not the kind of person who has to be prepared for every possibility, you’ve probably heard a few disaster tips on television at some point. During an earthquake, stand in a doorway. In a tornado, lie in the tub. I don’t know if these precautions actually keep a person safer, but I remember them nonetheless. But I had no mental note for what to do when massive passenger planes, loaded with fuel, crash into your neighborhood. After that second plane, I was convinced there were more coming. One was just one — another bizarre thing happening in New York City. Two means three? Or four, or who knows?
What do you do when planes are crashing into your neighborhood?
The answer in my case was that you run back and forth from living room to bedroom in a nearly blind panic. Is it safer to hide behind the couch or under the bed? There aren’t a lot of options in a one-bedroom apartment. I was like a trapped rat.
The panic didn’t last long, but I felt enough of it to know that I was entering uncharted emotional waters.
Eventually I calmed down and went outside and took pictures, then came back in and called the MSNBC.com news desk to let them know they had an employee near the towers who had seen the second plane hit. I was back with my head out the bedroom window and the cordless phone to my ear, describing what I’d seen, when I heard the rumble again. I immediately thought it was another plane. “What’s happening?! What’s happening?!” I screamed into the phone. For some reason, I thought the news desk would already know, as if a press release had been sent out. There was no answer.
Then I saw the top of Tower Two move a little and the edge begin to buckle. I heard the KKKKSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHH of 110 stories worth of windows falling out and smashing onto the street below, and the tower began shrinking. I kept waiting for it to stop, but it didn’t. The rumble grew and grew and the tower shrank and shrank into a puff of dust.
The dust now mounted. I was on the sixth floor of my building and still I was looking up at this cloud, which was now rolling down my street, approaching quickly. I had time for only one thought — that this must surely be a mushroom cloud and “they” had nuked the Twin Towers. There is a scene in one of the Terminator movies in which a nuclear blast transforms a person standing at a chain link fence into a skeleton. This was my only vision. I was surely dead, soon to be a skeleton standing at a window.
I had no vision of past good times or a replay of my life. Just that flash of the skeleton and a deep, deep sense of loss. Imagine stacking the feeling of every game you’ve been disappointed to lose, and every valued object you realized you left somewhere. That terrible, hole-in-the-chest loser feeling. I had lost at life. I had lost my life.
I yanked desperately at the window to close it. In my frenzy I was pulling sideways instead of down, but eventually I jerked it closed. I don’t know why I thought closing the window would save me from a nuclear blast. As I ran to shut the living room window, the cloud passed by. Paper and dirt billowed into the room, and with a whoosh, all light was gone. I closed the living room window without being able to see past it.
For the longest time, thinking about this part of the morning and remembering the certainty with which I accepted my death, was the only thing that would consistently make me cry. I have since learned not to think about it.
Though the television no longer worked, I still had electricity and phone service after the first collapse. I spoke again with my wife, still at work, to let her know that I was OK.
“Come here now,” she said. She may have said more, I don’t recall. I don’t remember what I said, but I still remember those three words as clearly as if they’re being spoken into my ear as I write this sentence. I heard them not only from my wife, but at once from the children we have yet to bear. I heard my grandchildren. I heard my sister and my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and every ancestor and friend I ever had, all saying, “Come here now.” I felt 10,000 hands grab me by the front of the shirt and shake me as if to say, “This isn’t a game, this is everything. Everything that brought you to being and everything you will ever be will all end now if you don’t get out. Get out or die.”
I suppose another name for this fear is cowardice. Perhaps heroes don’t hear these voices. Instead they hear the voices of victims from that pitch black where the towers were: “Come find me, come pull me from the rubble.” If those voices were calling to me, I couldn’t hear them. I feel some shame about it now, but at the time I had only one thought, with three words.
I tried my best to plan ahead. I put my cell phone and charger in my pocket. I wet a T-shirt to put over my face against the dust. I covered the fish tank with a towel, closed all the doors. I pulled my bicycle out of the closet, thinking I would ride up to Midtown. The front tire was flat, but I could always walk it over to that bike shop in Tribeca… Of course I could not, I didn’t even know if there still was a Tribeca, and as I paused with my brain stuck on that fact, there was another rumble that again lasted longer than any rumble should. The windows, which had lightened to a dark gray, again flashed to black as the remains of the North Tower blew by.
The fear that follows
As it turns out, the lessons in fear would live past that morning.
Even though seasons change gradually, there is always one day that is distinctly not the humid haze of dying summer but the crisp clarity of autumn. There are days when you step outside and you can’t help but breathe in the day. Since then, with that first breath of fall, my stomach drops and I feel a sense of dread. Sept. 11 was one of those days, and now when there’s a nice day, especially the first nice day in a while, I still get the twinge, an emotional flinch. I was dismayed to discover that I even get it sometimes in the spring.
I’ve also lost my ability to dismiss things I can’t identify. Having stretched my conception of a worst-case scenario, the possibilities of what a mystery noise could be are more ominous and harder to ignore. Things that I would have shrugged off or not even noticed now distract me.
Sustained rumbles are especially bothersome. I run through a mental checklist while I wait for them to end. Subway? Motorcycle? Thunder? Truck? A car with a booming stereo? What I wait for is confirmation that it’s not the enduring rumble of an incoming plane or falling building.
I think there is a word for this fear that follows and lives in my mind, out of my consciousness until something triggers it to surprise me with anxiety. There is a word for the loss of the ability to dismiss a sound with a wave and a casual, “What’s the worst it could be?”
I think the word is terror.
Will Femia, an msnbc.com producer, still lives in the same apartment building two blocks away from where the World Trade Center used to be.