On really clear days, we could look outside our upstairs window and see the top half of the twin towers many miles to the east, between our New Jersey ridge and New York City. The morning before the towers came down, it was like that. I was getting our 2-1/2 yr old son ready for daycare—potty, snuggles, breakfast, tv—before heading to Newark airport. It was hard for me leaving my baby behind to run experiments at the synchrotron—but my brain knew that doing the science was a long term investment in my career, and that my son seemed to thrive just fine when I was gone, though extra clingy for a day or so when I returned.
There was less airport security in those days, so I definitely noticed that my driver's license was checked twice—once when entering the terminal (which was normal, though not always a given), and again right before boarding the airplane (which was unusual). I even said to the flight attendant "You guys are being extra careful today." She paused and looked me in the eye and said: “Yes. Aren’t you glad that we’re doing this for your safety?” I had my scientist-self on, and lectured her: “Actually, no. I think that flying is mostly safe, but there are finite risks. I don’t think that checking IDs at the door truly address that risk, but it does make people feel better.” She looked at me (probably thinking: “what a jerk. A girl jerk.”) and I looked at her (probably thinking: “Oops. Messed up that interaction. Maybe I just should have said ‘thank you.’) and we went our ways.
It’s one of those conversations burned in my mind, and I’m sure for the flight attendant also.
What a day for flying!! I spent the flight with my nose pressed to the window—so crystal clear—and my brain thinking about all of the calibrations that my colleague Wendy and I will get to do for the next two days before our experiments start.
My memory rejoins when we got in early to the beamline office space the next morning. There were TV monitors, and someone said—turn them on. So I saw the footage of the 2nd plane going into the towers. Time slowed, so I remember my brain working through the unlikelihood of two accidents in which planes hit the towers. My first hypothesis was domestic attack (still in the wake of the Oklahoma city bombings). And I screamed. I think. I don’t remember. But I remember people trying to calm me down. I remember the janitor with her arms around my shoulders. (Years afterwards we would see each other during my synchrotron visits.)
As we discovered who carried out the attacks, I saw deep into a horrible future—in which we live in fear, in which we trade our privacy for a false sense of security, in which the world is engulfed by hatred.
I called my family—husband, mom, dad. All safe. My sister was watching shocked downtown workers swarm away from the city across the Brooklyn Bridge. I wondered about my cousin, who lives right there. (She was in her living room—with its panoramic windows looking out on the towers. She had turned her toddlers around so their backs were at the window. She sat opposite, distracting them with play, and saw all.) I remember thinking: where is our president? Shouldn’t he be addressing the nation?
We’re scientists, so we attempted business-as-usual, following the lead of the beamline science manager. There was new safety training to do. There were attempts at calibrations. There were attempts at concentration, but we gave up soon after and Wendy and I took the car and drove to see some colleagues at the University of Chicago. Four of us sat outside on the grass, and talked. Of science, of the world. There was nothing. Nothing in the sky. Everything felt different.
Nothing flew for a day or two. We had a rental car, and our plan was to drive east, and I would drop Wendy off in Ohio on the way home. But planes flew again, and I was on one of the first planes out of O’Hare. It was silent boarding. The flight was silent. Landing was silent. The people who had cellphones called as soon as the plane was down, and you could hear people whispering to their loved ones “We’ve landed. I’m back. All seems ok”.
I came home to a new upstairs view—a plume of smoke where the towers used to be.
Then no more specific memories, only my retrospective on the aftermath.
My husband was the only parent who stayed at work that day so our son had the corporate daycare center (and its great staff) to himself.
My mom is a mental health professional in Dutchess County, NY, which lost several workers in the towers. She directed the crisis intervention and family support services for the county’s FEMA Project Liberty grant allocation. I still have a notepad from the time, which I kept for its motto: “Feel Free to Feel Better”. My mom’s personal response is complicated and interesting and worthy of another essay. Short summary: re-emergence of bacon cheeseburgers in her life.
For years and years, when I leave my family (almost always to do science), my heart feels like it will explode. Less so with time.
For a short but significant time, the part of my brain that knows that life-goes-on allowed the part of my brain who knew that the-world-is-coming-to-an-end make some decisions. Less so with time.