Background information: Phoenix, Arizona – September 11, 2001 around 6:30 am. The East Coast is three hours ahead of Phoenix during the months of Daylight Savings Time.
The drama below took place back in the days before cell phones were ubiquitous.
Early Tuesday morning, after arising just before 6 am, I frantically chased around the house to get ready for work. My roommate, Millie, had already completed her daily nesting maneuver into the recliner and was watching television. As was her wont, she chattered to me in a frustrating whisper, about something or the other. But, as always, between making breakfast, doing my morning abolutions, and gathering material to take to the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum, some twelve miles from home, where I was employed, I paid little heed to her ramblings and stuck to my daily list of morning chores.
“TRUE ladies always speak in low voices,” she would tell one and all, when friends and I complained we could never hear her. So we generally ignored her.
By 7:00 am, Phoenix time, I finally took out the garbage and loaded the large pile of finished projects into a box in my car. As I whizzed back to my bedroom, holding my list and pen, Millie mumbled something, “Doesn’t your daughter … live …City?”
“Leaving at 7:15 as usual. Be right there, Millie! Have to put my jeans on.”
“Well-LLLL, … neighbors see … pants?” she whispered as I disappeared into my room.
“Oh!” Louder, then she said: “Mother-in-Law Hildur? New …”
I went to get my coffee for the car. “Yes daughter. Yes pants. Yes Hildur is NJ dying at the Lutheran Home.”
“Oh.” Pause. “Have … heard?”
“Dammit! Speak up! It’s nearly 7:20 and I have to go. Shout!”
She raised her voice a few decibels, never taking her eyes off the TV. “Have you heard?”
“No, I never hear you in the morning.”
“I mean, haven’t you heard?”
“Well, it’s probably not important, Liz.”
“Ok.” Nothing was ever important during her morning television time. I could ignore her so easily, because she would discuss celebrities and world news, endlessly, in her whisper.
“Are you sure you haven’t heard?”
I rolled my eyes upward, but deigned not to reply.
All at once, a siren went off down the block. Then I began to hear several others from various nearby points. Distant autos on the nearby freeway were honking their horns without pause. Was there another accident? I’d have to take local streets.
“Time to go. I hope the Interstate-17 isn’t backed up. I’m running late. Have to be there at 8. Tell me tonight, ok?”
Loudly and slowly she said, “An airplane hit the World Trade Center. I wanted to tell you if you hadn’t heard.”
I stopped cold and headed for the TV. The telephone rang. One of my daughters in New Jersey was on the phone, almost shouting. “Turn on the TV, mom! Turn on the TV. Didn’t you hear …?” Then she screamed. “Oh my God! We’re at war! Don’t you dare go to work! I’ll call you back!” She hung up.
Another call came in from another daughter in New Jersey. “Mom, don’t you dare go to work! The United States has been attacked. Don’t you dare! Where’s Millie?”
“Uh. Here. Esther said we were at war, Barbara. Are we?”
“We’ll call you.” The line went dead.
I tried the dial tone. It was flickering on and off.
I quickly returned to the living room. “Millie, I just heard. The girls say I’m not to go to work because we’re at war.”
“Thank God my girls are in Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey,” she commented.
“Yeh, less than half an hour, as the crow flies, from Manhattan.” It was a sarcastic comment, I admit.
“Millie. Turn up the sound.”
With my elbows, I leaned on back of her recliner. We watched as a few helicopters were circling the Twin Towers. A large airliner approached in the right of the screen on a path that seemed to be behind the burning North Tower. It disappeared. “That was scary …” I started to say, thinking the plane had gone behind the buildings. Then a ball of flame appeared behind the North Tower.
Henceforth, time would stand still for us.
The dial tone was working again. Close to numbing fear, I called my daughter in Phoenix and my son in New Jersey. By fate, my mother-in-law, who had lived across the East River from the World Trade Center, was in the Lutheran Home in New Jersey by that time. She would have been frightened and have asked me to stay in touch. Truthfully, I was frightened, too, and I certainly have no intention of going. She never knew what happened.
Another close, older friend in New York City and I touched base. “Oh, so the girls heard what happened? I am so upheaval-ed,” he sobbed. “I can see the smoke across the river.” He sounded so frightened, and I was concerned about him. We agreed to stay in touch.
“ Yes. Work? Oh, my gosh! Work. I don’t know. I’ll call work now and then get back to you.”
I called my boss, who had already arrived early, as was her wont. “Nancy, have you heard about the plane attack of the World Trade Center?”
“No. No. No. Stay on the phone!”
With the phone in her hand, she dashed into the classroom and turned on the TV. I knew what was happening with her because she was using the portable phone. I heard her yelling to the upstairs offices. Then her TV came online. It was the same station we were watching at home. The three of us, joined by that telephone line, watched in horror as a tower came down.
She and I watched in silence. Then, in an extremely calm, cold voice, I had never heard from her before, she said. “Don’t come into work, Liz. I’ll call my husband at the college, and my mom in Illinois. We’re going to keep the museum doors locked. I’ll call the governor’s office and get back to you.
“Listen to those sirens!” I could hear them on the telephone. When I hung up, they were echoing through the town.
I ran out of my house to the main feeder road a hundred feet away and looked at the freeway, about a quarter of a mile distant. Traffic was at a dead halt. Horns were blowing without let-up. On the feeder road, several abandoned cars were partially on sidewalks or parked in traffic lanes. Some drivers simply parked their cars on sidewalks and starting directing traffic in both directions. Abandoned cars with keys left in them were pushed onto the sidewalks to clear the roadway.
As I watched, the traffic lights went out.
People were shouting at each other, “Have you heard? We’re at war! Have you heard?”
As I returned to our community, a half block away, some gunfire was heard close by, and then, Bud, our neighbor two doors down ran into the street, firing his pistols. Several passers-by hit the ground in abject fear. A police car providently careened into our community, and one of the policemen shouted at him. “Put your gun away, Bud, you idiot! You’re gonna need it when we’re invaded. Didn’t you hear we’re at war?” Then they sped away, sirens and lights on high.
Bud retreated into his house, and we could hear his wife screaming at him at the top of her lungs. “Have you heard the cops calling you an idiot, you idiot?”.
I went back into the house. Millie was still at her television. We watched for awhile, then saw the Pentagon go up in smoke.
“Oh my God,” I whispered, “Tom and Milliene (my nephew and his wife) work in the Pentagon.” I fought the nausea razing my insides.
The phone rang. As I went to answer it, Millie said, “All your children called. They said to call them right back before the phones go dead. They said I was not to let you go to work and to physically restrain you if you tried.”
“You try to ‘physically restrain’ me, and I’ll beat the stuffing outta you.” I growled. Millie looked stricken and then turned back to the TV.
It was my sister in South Carolina. She is Tom’s mom. I could hear the sirens wailing in the background of her telephone. She taught 7th grade. “I’m calling from school. Have you heard?”
“Yes, I’ve heard.” She apparently had no clue about the Pentagon.
“The town has ordered all schools evacuated and closed. Most of the parents are picking their kids up. We were told not to tell them anything so they won’t be frightened.”
I took a big gulp. Then overcome with fear and terror, I took a deep breath and said, “The Pentagon’s been blown up. I have no idea of how much damage.”
My poor sister was overcome. There was nothing I could say or do. She laid down the phone and put on the television in her classroom. She was able to ascertain it was not the wing they worked in. It would be six and a half hours before we would learn her son and daughter in law were alive and only slightly wounded.
After talking to her, I called my children back.
Again, I was ordered not to go to work by each of them.
Calls echoed back and forth if the dial tones were there.
I checked the status our food supply, and ascertained we had about two weeks worth of normal meals. Then I filled the tub with water for drinking and toilet use.
The TV showed the airspace being shut down and the fate of Flight 93 as it crossed Pennsylvania before disappearing from the radar and hitting the ground.
Phone calls came in constantly. No one knew what to do. James called me from New Hampshire. MaryAnn, his sister, and her family lived within walking distance of the World Trade Center. Her husband walked to work in one of the towers. “MaryAnn ran down to the school and it was evacuated. Empty. The students and staff were gone. She has no idea where her two kids are, and is frantic.”
It was to be two more hours before she was called to pick them up at a local YMCA where the students of the school had been taken. It was another hour before her husband turned up alive. He had come down seventy one stories before the tower collapsed. He was bruised and exhausted, but he was alive.
My son in New Jersey is an ER nurse. He called to tell me he was heading north some ninety miles from southern New Jersey to Ground Zero to help. He spent a day and a half there without a break. “I will not be intimidated,” he declared. “This is my country!”
By this time I had already spent three hours at home glued to the television and fielding phone calls. By that time, we knew we were not at war, and that brutal terrorist attacks had occurred.
I thought about what he said and snuck out of the house to go to work on a now empty freeway. The abandoned cars had been cleared off the sidewalks and side streets. The sirens had stopped.
The museum was in downtown Phoenix, twelve miles from my home. Most of our crew was arriving at the same time I did.
We were defiant and felt no terrorists were going to intimidate us. They had attacked the nation we loved, and we would rather die than be intimidated.
That sounds dramatic, but we felt that way.
We rebelliously opened the doors, but no visitors came. By one o’clock, all non-essential government departments were closed by the state and we went home.
It was a long night, and the next day everything seemed to have returned to what can best be described as non-normal normal, but our way of life was gone forever.
Had you heard?