Severe Clear: It’s an aviation term used to describe a day so bright and clear with unhindered visibility for miles.
That’s what it was like September 11, 2001. Blue skies. Not a cloud to be seen. The weather was perfect on the northeastern seaboard. A perfect day to travel. To fly.
September 10, Midnight.
The flight back from Southern California was long—especially with two toddlers even if there were four adults between them. The luggage missed the connection. Car seats will show up later on our front lawn. But our friends were waiting at the gate to cart us all home. The last time we will ever be greeted like that in an airport.
I should have been in the office 30 minutes ago. I’m not running this errand Hoosh asked me to run—the traffic is too choked in the direction I need to go. I turn around and head to work. A perfect day to drive and our brand new minivan is a comfortable ride.
Sometime before 9 a.m.
Booting up my Mac. Getting my stuff settled for the day. Loving the windows in my office that let the bright morning light in. Our maintenance guy Don comes on the loudspeaker to say there was a plane crash at the World Trade Center in New York City. Sometime like that happened in Texas a few weeks ago. Some guy in a Cessna had a heart attack mid-flight and clipped a building. That’s probably what happened. Poor pilot.
Laverne comes by my door looking at me quizzically. Should we check this out? Denise’s office has a TV and we have the keys because she’s not in today. We head down the hallway, unlock her door, and flip on the set to NBC and the Today Show. Katie Couric is reporting and we see an image of the first tower hit billowing plumes of smoke. I can’t tell how big that plane was. Why was a little prop plane flying so high? Katie and Matt Lauer don’t know what’s going on. They are relying on a helicopter flying nearby to tell them something.
Then we gasp and scream at the same time. We just saw a commercial jet slam into the South Tower. This is not an accident, I say. This has to be a terrorist.
Between then and 10 a.m.
We watch in disbelief. Laverne is from New Jersey. She needs to call people. I need to tell someone. I call my parents in California and though it is 6 a.m., I wake them up and tell them to flip the TV on right now.
The towers hold a lot of meaning for our family. We were New Yorkers for a time and those buildings were where we took visiting friends and family. We’d ride the super-fast elevators to the observation deck and stand outside for pictures. Over 100 stories in the sky. Forty-some years later and I still can feel the wind whip through my five-year-old hair.
I call my husband and tell him to find out where his brother is. The brother that works in lower Manhattan. I tell him what happens. He tells me he’s driving and will call him and tell his parents. He says he’s driving by the Pentagon and will be at his office soon.
After 10 a.m.
Everyone is in the office now. We head to an empty room with a much larger TV set up and watch and watch and watch. We see bodies drop to the earth until the cameras stopped showing that. We see people hanging out of windows trying to escape the unbearable heat from burning jet fuel. We see anchors and reporters and people on the street trying to make sense of what is happening.
The camera cuts to images of the Pentagon. It has been hit by another plane. We hear there are more planes hitting buildings. Then no planes hitting buildings. Fighter jets are up and they will shoot planes down if they have to. I call my parents again. We are hearing we need to stay off phone lines because they are getting jammed with the nation trying to call each other. Call people on the planes. Call anyone to tell them they love them. I say I might not be able to call for a while, but we are ok.
We are watching and witnessing and can’t comprehend what we are seeing. And then the South tower implodes. But there are still people in there. They didn’t get out. The firefighters and cops. They could not have made it down the stairs yet!
The clouds of debris and dust and particles of life blow through the streets and people run. Reporters and the cameramen try to go on until they are overpowered by the maelstrom, some knocked to their knees while they attempt to keep doing their jobs.
We are watching a horror film.
And then the second tower comes down. And we know more people have not made it out. Will never make it out.
Parents leave to pick up children from school. We are under no apparent threat a mere 30 minutes from Washington, D.C., but no one knows for sure. Will there be bombings next? Will this severe clear sky today soon be peppered with jets from a foreign nation raining down hell on our peaceful suburbs? It felt like anything could happen.
We find out a plane went down in Pennsylvania. I call my aunt who lives near Pittsburgh to see if it was near her. It wasn’t.
The reporters speculate that this plane was shot down. A plane full of civilians. In the United States of America. Then we hear that was not true. But a plane of civilians is lost.
We hear the President has been flying around in Air Force One and no one will report exactly where he is, for good reason. We all know people working in DC. And we start to hear about the mass evacuations from around the capital and the snipers now seen on the roofs.
My husband is ok. What was bearing down on the Pentagon was in his rearview mirror. But he did not see it.
By 1 p.m. they tell us all to just go home.
The roads are so empty. And the blue sky is so empty. The flight path to Baltimore Washington International Airport crosses my commute home. There is always a Southwest jet in the sky coming in lower and lower on its descent to land. But not that day.
My toddler is napping on a blanket on the floor of our living room when I get home. My mother-in-law has the TV on and now we look at the smoky debris of what was once the World Trade Center twin towers. I see the skeletal remains of the entrance we’d walk into, the place we’d buy our tickets for the observation deck on our sightseeing missions. I watch my daughter sleeping—not quite two years old. What is this world we have brought her into? What will it be for her now? I’m scared.
Hoosh comes home in the afternoon. His brother fled Manhattan on foot—he was not near the towers. He crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and then was able to catch the train to Long Island.
We’ve watched coverage all day and into the night. We’re not sure what the plan is for work the next day. We are in shock. I worry about retaliation against people of Middle-Eastern descent because Hoosh is from Iran. Will this be like 1941 again? As they sift through this horrific terror, will they isolate people from that part of the world into camps as they did with the Japanese? I vow that my Indian self will go wherever he goes, that my family will stay intact. All feelings of security in these United States are gone at the moment. I don’t know how or where we go from here.
In bed, we sometimes hear the din of planes flying overhead. Tonight when I hear one I forget for a moment. Until I remember it’s a fighter jet patrolling DC airspace now.
20 Years Later
In the days and months and years to follow, the pieces came together. We found out who and why. We learned of people we knew or were somewhat connected to who perished that day. An entire family in my neighborhood—on American #77. The brother of a childhood friend who was in one of the towers on his first day of a new job. We heard of the near misses—people who were late to work that day, my sister’s friend who made it out in time. We learned to take our shoes off in airports and ditch our bottles of water before security. We say goodbye to our loved ones at curbs or security.
And in 2011 there was retribution on a compound in Pakistan. But not before 20 years spent on a war that hasn’t delivered a more peaceful world for anyone.
What has changed since? Everything and everyone.
Because of a severe clear day in September.