Into the Fire
The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire
I wasn’t there. I didn’t know anybody who was there.
But I was there. I saw it all.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was supposed to wake up at 4 AM. This was nothing new, I’d been doing so for close to a year now. It was my intention to be a writer and, while I was a stay-at-home dad, I found out that childcare was very busy work and writing didn’t figure into it at all. So I trained myself to get up before everyone else. This morning, for some reason, that didn’t work out. I woke up closer to six, made myself a cup of tea (I didn’t drink coffee), and shambled into my office. My life in 2001 wasn’t great, although the day before had been pretty good.
September 10th. Mondays were my wife’s day off (she’s my ex-wife now) from the veterinary clinic where she worked and we’d had a decent day. Our minivan, a Dodge Caravan that I loathed, needed some work and the dealership gave us a rental for free. The fact that my wife’s grandmother worked at the dealership probably helped that. It was a Dodge Stratus that we got, which we both fell in love with. Within a year, we’d trade the minivan for a Stratus, and within two years, I’d get one of my own. That Monday, we went to the Silver City Galleria in Taunton in the morning, in the afternoon I had an appointment with my gastroenterologist. I sat in the waiting room with a copy of the novel I was reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I had a colostomy bag that we were preparing to remove. Some weird guy kept coming into the small waiting room (now my doctor is in a big building, back then, it was a small building) and I kept imagining the guy was going to begin shooting people, or blow himself up.
Calm yourself, I thought. It’s just you’re overactive imagination again.
Shit like that happens, I argued.
I saw my doctor with no issues. Things like people walking into a waiting room with guns blazing or with a bomb strapped to them really happened, but not today.
So Tuesday morning, the good day was still in my head. Things were troubled, though. I had the surgery coming up in November, and the three-bedroom apartment that was owned by my wife’s distant family had been sold. The new landlord wanted us out but what could two people in their early-twenties, with little money and a three-year-old find easily? Luckily, the week before, we’d found a shitty little one-bedroom that we could use for a two-bedroom, and the landlord seemed willing to rent to us. Still, the stress it was causing, as well as the overall unhappiness I was feeling in the marriage. My writing career was nearly non-existent, with only two small publications under my belt. Unhappiness, overall, but there was still some happiness. My ex and I still had good days, my two best friends and I were working on a comic book together, and I had my daughter.
I sipped my tea, put the cup down, and checked my e-mail, maybe went on the web. I really can’t remember. I began writing at 6:30. I read what I’d written on the novel I was working from two days before. Six pages. I made small changes, a word here, a sentence there. The novel was about a slave family and their former owners, and was to span from the 1860s, when a slave escapes due to an uprising on the plantation and the dark deal he makes to a mysterious stranger, to the present, following the two families and the supernatural curse they both share. I was nothing if not ambitious. I began writing fresh copy. Back then, 2,000 words–or ten pages–were what I strived for in a session. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I got 800. Four pages. And those came with difficulty. I averaged about 1,000 words per hour, so two hours took me to my goal. On this day, it took me just over an hour to get four bloody pages, and I remember not being happy with them. Who knew why?
Eventually, my wife got up and so did my daughter. The day was to look like this: My wife was going to take the rental car back to the dealership and pick up the minivan. Before heading there, she was going to drop by my parents’ apartment house, start the laundry we had, and then bring the car in. On the way back, she was going to go back to the laundry, switch it from washer to dryer, and then come home. I’d take her to work for around noon and come back home with my daughter. Around five o’clock, Courtney and I would go to my parents until it was time for my wife to get out of work. We’d go pick her up and go back home. I’d be in bed around nine or so, ready to get up at four the next morning.
That was how it was supposed to go.
As my wife was getting ready, we had The Today Show on. I brought the trash outside to the curb. The sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. A plane flew overhead and I looked up, smiling. I can’t get away from the New Bedford Regional Airport. I grew up near it, and ten years ago, I lived right on one of the flight paths. This single engine plane flew overhead and I thought, Someday I’ll have to go on one of those. I’d never flown, but on the beautiful late-summer morning, it seemed like something to put on the top of my To Do List.
Back inside, eating my morning cereal, I was watching Today with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. They had their outside shots of the crowd outside and I thought, Damn, I have to go back to New York. I hadn’t been since I saw The Late Show with David Letterman in August 1995 and it was high time for a return. I took out the schedule I’d printed from the bus station I worked at on weekends. I decided that I would mention it to my two best friends, Toby and Jorj, when they came over to work on our comic book that Friday.
My wife and daughter left and I shut off the TV, and went back into the office. I was surfing the web and not paying attention to much. Time passed. At around nine o’clock, the backdoor opened and I jumped, not expecting my wife to back already.
“Oh my god,” she said. “You’re not watching the news?!”
“No,” I said. That was ridiculous. She knew that the TV stayed off when I was alone. The internet had become my drug of choice.
“The radio said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”
I stood up and came out of my room. “What? The World Trade Center? In New York?”
“Yeah,” she said, rushing into the living room.
“Where’s Courtney?” I asked, close behind.
“In the car,” she said. “I still have to bring the car back, but when we got back into the car after starting the laundry, the radio said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I had to see it.”
She turned the TV back onto Today and I saw the Twin Towers, both of them ablaze, one with a giant plume of fire coming off it.
“It looks like they’re both on fire,” I said. I’d been thinking that a small plane, like the one I saw just an hour before, with a really inept pilot had made a major blunder. Earlier that summer, a paraglider had attempted to fly over the Statue of Liberty but had become stuck on the torch.
“Maybe the fire jumped from one building to the other,” she said.
“That’s impossible,” I said. “Those towers look close on TV but they’re pretty far apart.”
What neither of us had noticed in the few seconds that it took for us to have that dialogue after she turned on the TV was that no one was talking on the television.
Matt Lauer fixed that. “Um…uh…it appears a…second plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
We looked at each other.
Things were different.
Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothin’ but these chains that bind me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s this sixty pound stone
On my shoulder’s a half-mile of line
Come on up for the rising
Com on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
She went back out with Courtney to finish the errands, radio on. I sat down. I watched. At some point they came home. I watched. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. You know what happened, you were there, too.
As the events unfolded, and one horror became another, I watched TV, mesmerized. What was there to say? I didn’t know anyone in New York back then. No one I knew was supposed to be flying anywhere from Boston or anywhere else. I knew no one in Washington D.C. back then. All I could do was watch. I’ll never forget the wide New York streets filled with firefighters walking toward the Twin Towers, and not long afterward, the first tower’s collapse. Soon, they went back to that street, and it was vacant but for the dust and the reporter (I feel like it was Anne Curry, but I might be wrong), and a few firefighters stumbling back, blood trickling down their faces, looking lost, vacant. I’ll never forget when the first tower fell, the way Matt Lauer interrupted a conversation he was having with Tom Brokaw to report that it appeared a piece of one of the towers had just fallen off. Even as it was happening, it seemed inconceivable that the entire building would come down.
I distinctly thought of people hiding in the bushes, waiting for unsuspecting passersby such as myself, my wife, my daughter, to come out and shoot us, or cut our throats.
I wish I could say I was surprised by the attacks, but I’d been hearing and reading reports all summer of Osama Bin Laden’s threats toward the United States. People seemed to think he was serious. On CNN, not two weeks or so before, I’d seen a special on the Taliban and Al Qaida, and I worried.
Nah, I thought. They’ll never get to us. They’ll never cause harm. Our government will be on top of it.
They’d tried before, though, right? Back in 1993. I remembered the people leaving the World Trade Center with their little soot mustaches after they’d blown up a van in the in parking garage.
But I knew, the law of averages dictated that sooner or later one of Them–the Outsider, the Enemy, the Ones Who Hated Us–would launch an attack and succeed. One needn’t be a rocket scientist to know that. Shit, one only had to pick up some of the Tom Clancy brick-turds to see that he thought it was plausible, and considering I learned how to operate a Russian submarine thanks to the 100 or so pages of The Hunt for Red October I could get through, that meant something. So how come our government wasn’t ready? It wasn’t like Oklahoma City where there was that “homegrown terrorist” who could possibly fly under the radar. This was from outside. Was it because George W. Bush had been in office for nine months and had taken several vacations already? Was it that the FBI, CIA, Clarice Starling, the JLA, JSA, and the Avengers weren’t talking to one another? What? How?
But it happened. The two planes into the Twin Towers. The plane into the Pentagon. The Towers destroyed. Fuckin’ destroyed. And the people. I remember watching the 9/11 Jumpers (as they have become known as) as they decided (some say, which I tend to agree with for most of the people) that they would not be taken, that they would go themselves. One last Fuck You to the People Who Did This. There was also the plane down in the field in Pennsylvania, reportedly passengers who decided to thwart the terrorists themselves, “Let’s roll.”
The horrors. I cried many times that day. At one point, Courtney asked, “Daddy, why are you crying?”
“Because some bad men did some terrible things,” I told her.
She didn’t understand. I looked into her deep, brown eyes, at her chubby little cheeks. She was so smart. So beautiful. How could I explain this to a three-year-old? How did I explain it to her as she got older? Why did I need to? Because. The world had changed. We had changed.
At least for that day.
I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
On the bed where you used to sleep
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to an empty sky
That afternoon I checked the mail. In the front hall was an envelope without a stamp from the Bristol County Sherriff’s Department. It was an eviction notice. We realized why the new landlord hadn’t cashed the last few rent payments. The motherfucker. I wish my ex and I had had enough brains back then to cancel those uncashed checks. The fucker would’ve deserved that. But the letter seemed rather insignificant compared to the events that had transpired that morning. After all, we were safe. Our friends were safe.
Courtney and I went to my parents with the radio on. We watched the news at my parents. At eight, I picked up my wife and went home. I watched more. My wife and Courtney went to bed. I stayed up watching the news. How could I sleep when there might be more of Them out there? I heard silence outside. The planes going and leaving the New Bedford Regional Airport, a place my father used to bring me with a bag from the nearby McDonald’s to watch planes take off and land, were grounded.
I turned off the TV and went to bed at one o’clock that night.
The days and weeks following are a blur of the surreal and the tragic.. On September 12th, I remember seeing on the TV something going down in Boston at the Prudential Center and the Westin Hotel and watching it. What I didn’t know then was that I may have caught a glimpse of my future-wife in the crowd. Pamela worked at Copley Place in Boston and was on lunch when the buildings were evacuated. Of course, it was nothing. Same thing happened on a train. I eventually finished American Gods and began the second collaboration of Stephen King and Peter Straub, Black House, which came out days after the terrorist attacks. I soon hit my own corridor of death during this period as people I knew lost grandparents and parents. I had surgery in November. One of my best friends disappeared as he married a woman who hated me and didn’t want him doing anything with anyone. There was good, though, too. My best friend met his future wife.
Ten years passed. A lot has happened to me. I went back to college, my writing career truly began, my marriage dissolved, I fell in love and fell out of it, I met Pamela and fell in love (this time for good) and moved to Boston until the economy dived and she lost her job. I began working at a school, first as a sub, then as a teaching assistant, and finally as a teacher. A lot has happened to this country. Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to wage war on a country that had no ties to the tragedy. We found ourselves embroiled in two wars, siphoning out money at a ridiculous rate and he was re-elected to do more damage that even the smarter, wiser new President is having a difficult time fixing. Our economy nosedived. A lot has happened to this world. Many countries that were allies fell to the wayside between 2003 and 2009, some still haven’t answered our calls. War has torn up the Middle East and terms like sleeper cells, Al Queda, and many others have become part of the world’s lexicon.
You know, you’ve been there. In light of what went down in New York and D.C. that day, it seems ridiculous recounting what I went through as I’ve struggled through this memoir.
Why does it matter what you were doing? I think. You were at home with a three-year-old, you were safe.
But I didn’t know that. On that day, no one knew that. As far as anyone was concerned, there were more and varied attacks looming. My job as a writer is to capture a moment and relate it. To tell the truth. That’s what I’ve done. As the 10th anniversary of that tragic day has arrived, I don’t see what the problem is in talking about it, in relating where we were. The documentaries fascinate me. I sit in tears watching them, not wanting to continue, unable to turn away. Some of the stories I’ve heard are burned into my gray matter just as the events of that day are. I’m fascinated by it, I’m horrified by it, I’m saddened by it.
But in the midst of all that tragedy, I’m inspired by the stories of the people who survived, by the people who helped them and died helping others, and by the people who faced courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable horror.
They rose up and survived. And if they can beat that, then we can beat anything.
On September 13th, 2001, around seven o’clock, I heard the familiar buzz outside. My heartbeat quickened. A sound I’d heard all my life except for the previous two days seemed alien, menacing. I went to the window. A twin engine plane flew in toward New Bedford Regional Airport.
Tears came to my eyes. I smiled.
The sky was empty no more.
Lyrics to “Into the Fire”, “The Rising”, and “Empty Sky” written by Bruce Springsteen and appear on The Rising (Columbia, 2002).