On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was at work in Oneonta when a co-worker, on her day off, called the office to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When we learned that it hadn’t been an accident and we were under attack, my first thought was of my four adult children: “Where are they? Are they safe?”
I don’t know if it could even be called it a thought. It was a visceral reaction, instantaneous, maybe out of proportion to the threat we were under, but an instinctive, animal response to danger. In those first scary and uncertain hours, I needed to account for my kids, to know they were safe.
I knew that one son and daughter were nearby, in Oneonta. My other son was on vacation in Maine. The child I worried most about was the eldest, living in an apartment complex in New Windsor, a few miles from West Point. Her husband was away on business. She was alone and nine months pregnant.
I had to leave the office for an appointment in Edmeston, but I listened to National Public Radio in the car. No one knew what was happening to us. In the absence of information, NPR fielded calls from people in New York City describing what they could see. The only call I remember came from a man who said he lived one mile from the burning towers and could feel the heat on his chest. I called my daughter and found her in shock, like the rest of us, but okay. (She said armed vessels were lined up in the Hudson River to protect the military academy from attack.) Two weeks later she gave birth to a boy, my first grandchild. This month he turns 20.
I remember the horror of 9/11 and the deaths of so many innocent people at work in their offices and traveling on planes — including families with children — and the firefighters, police and EMTs who rushed into those burning buildings but never came out again. And rescue workers developing fatal illnesses. I remember the thud, like bags of cement hitting the ground, made by the bodies of office workers who’d jumped from windows 70 or 80 stories high to escape the flames. I remember a 911 call recorded that day, from a man trapped in an office with his fellow workers, pleading for help that would never come. “We have children!” he said. “We’re not ready to die yet!”
I scarcely remember life before 9/11, normal life. From my diary I know that on Labor Day my wife and I had attended an Oneonta Tigers game at Damaschke Field. The following weekend I’d gone to watch the Mayor’s Cup, played on SUNY Oneonta’s new soccer pitch. After 9/11, I moved in an emotional haze, describing the attack in my diary on the day it happened but uncharacteristically writing nothing else for the next nine days. For weeks I couldn’t listen to music. And all month I had nightmares: I gathered evidence about terrorism directed at airplanes; sorted through strands of colored wire to defuse bombs in an apartment building; collected and displayed pictures of the people killed at the World Trade Center.
On the morning my grandson was born, I drove to the hospital in Middletown to see him and his parents. I came home later that day and stood in the back yard, looking out over the Butternut Valley, exhilarated. I’d become a grandfather. I pulled a scrap of paper from my pocket and wrote a description of the sunset. I wrote the date, 9/29, the time, 6:48 p.m., and this: “Western sky peach-colored with purple clouds lit to a pink and bright rose on their undersides.”
That’s all. For some reason, on a day of a cosmic change in my life and in our family, coming after weeks of horror and uncertainty, I’d felt the need to notice and describe the setting of the sun, the celestial body that gives us life. My grandson’s first day of life. His first sunset and my first as a grandfather. For all the chaos and suffering in the world, life would go on. But life would be different. None of us knew then how different it would be.
Robert Bechtold lives in Morris. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www. thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.