I wasn’t in NYC that day; I was working at a terrible job doing construction administration for the acoustical abatement of houses near O’Hare and Midway Airports in Chicago, for people who bought a house next to the airport and then were shocked to discover that planes make noise. Our office was a collection of small construction trailers on the periphery of O’Hare Airport, and during my drive to work that morning I had heard something on the radio about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I figured it was a little single-engine prop plane or something.
I got to work just after the second plane hit, and everybody was gathered around a small black and white TV in the boss’s office. There was lots of chatter and speculation about other planes being hijacked, and then a plane hit the Pentagon. And then another crashed in Pennsylvania. I then realized the magnitude of what was going on, and I went back to my desk thinking I had seen it all. A few minutes later, a co-worker poked his head in the room and told me the south tower had collapsed. My exact response was, “You’re fucking shitting me.” I went back into the boss’s office and, a few minutes later, watched the north tower collapse on live television. We all just knew the Sears Tower and Hancock Center were next. We also knew that our world had suddenly changed.
After that, the rest of the day is pretty much a blur. All flights had been grounded, and at one point our bosses called us into a meeting and told us we might be needed to assist stranded travelers over in the terminals. It turned out that wasn’t necessary, though, so they just sent us home for the day. I’ll never forget how quiet the airfield was when I left the trailer. Complete silence. I took the bus into downtown Chicago later in the afternoon because I had nothing better to do, and the place was a ghost town.
It wasn’t until the following weekend, while I was helping restore a vintage Chicago ‘L’ car out at the Illinois Railway Museum, that I was finally able to think about something other than burning skyscrapers, people jumping from windows, and trapped firefighters.
Now it’s thirteen years later and I try not to dwell upon it too much. I’ve been living in NYC off-and-on for over a decade now, and it’s hard for me to remember what the WTC site looked like before it was covered in construction fences. But I still get a lump in my throat whenever I see the names stenciled on the fire trucks downtown.