Reaction to September 11, 2001 (9/11)

Yesterday, someone whacked the biggest kid in the yard in the back of the head with a 2×4. And now he’s very, very angry.

Yesterday morning, for me, was of little consequence when I got up. I was tired, mostly due to jet lag. The temperature was 5 degrees. I checked the Weather Channel at 6:43am MST for an update. Just as all hell was beginning to break loose in New York.

Oblivious to all that, I resumed my morning pattern of dressing, shaving, brushing teeth, and heading off to work. I walked — using my scooter, although faster, is a little awkward in pants. Even without headphones, I heard nothing out of the ordinary. To me, it was a cool, overcast morning. Perfectly normal.

Arriving at work around 7:30, I logged in, started reading email, and looked at my daily miscellany of comics. Completely unaware that anything else was going on. Just before 8:00, I headed downstairs to get my breakfast, still holding to my daily schedule. Everything seemed normal — no news, no hints.

As I climbed back up the stairs, I ran into a conversation that involved two planes hitting two towers. My immediate thoughts were small single-engine aircraft hitting electrical towers — a rare, but nonetheless believable scenario. Then Evelyn, our HR manager, mentioned something about the World Trade Center.

Returning to my computer, I tried to log onto cnn.com. No response — it was overloaded. I tried cbc.ca. It, too, would not respond to my requests. Then I got the globeandmail.ca — the first news was … well, it was unbelievable. News started to fly around the room with fantastic speed — those of us just finding out were obtaining new bits of information from those who already knew. Commercial jets colliding with both towers of the World Trade Center.

My first impression, like many people, was of disbelief. It didn’t make sense. From initial reports and accounts, it seemed like a hoax — a very well engineered prank by a bunch of hackers that had caught mainstream media off-guard. But as I kept hunting around, things didn’t seem so perfect — especially when I found my first image at the Houston Chronicle’s website. A fireball erupting from the side of the south tower. Reality slowly began to sink in.

More and more people arrived, some already knowing what had happened, some unaware and succumbing to shock. Work ground to a halt as people started to talk amongst themselves, try to get information from websites, and listen to radio broadcasts.

The Pentagon had been hit; part of it was collapsing. One of the World Trade Center towers collapsed from the damage. People were jumping from windows, some on fire, some (presumably) out of sheer desperation. Another plane crashed in a lonely corn field in rural Pennsylvania. The second World Trade Center tower crumbled. Death toll estimates were going as high as 50,000.

I couldn’t stop the shivers running up and down my spine.

Many of us gathered in the Met — the only meeting room with a video device — to watch an online broadcast of the BBC to learn anything we didn’t already know. Our company president, one of our lead Art Directors, and one of our business people were in New York. We had an office in New York. We didn’t know what their status was. Thirty minutes later, a phone call from a cell phone let us know that our comrades were okay, albeit stranded in Manhattan.

Work resumed slowly, and remained slow for the remainder of the day. Some people were able to concentrate, but most couldn’t. Meetings, no matter the subject, spent more time discussing the tragedy in New York than how much budget to allocate for next year (that meeting had to be taken off-site so it could be completed) or how to fix a particular problem for a client.

The day was pockmarked with bits of news and endless emails of links to images and video of the crashes. Cnn.com slowly came back up over the course of the day, its site stripped of all the basic essentials of text and the most simple of images. Even globeandmail.ca and cbc.ca had to redesign their sites to remove extraneous items.

I somehow managed to forge through the day, leaving around 7:00pm. I walked home quickly, wanting to get the most up-to-date information from the news. Downtown Calgary was mostly deserted. Flags were being flown at half-staff. Even the venerable Starbucks at the corner of 8th Ave. and 4th St. SW bore a sign saying it would be closed due to the tragic events, and would reopen Wednesday.

Almost every channel ran news feeds — either their own, or CNN’s. Commercial-free, and constantly reporting on new events, running footage from earlier in the day, or gathering commentary from experts and laymen alike. Although I had seen some of the video of the crashes and collapses throughout the day, nothing prepared me for the full clarity of watching a Boeing 767-200ER accelerate and arc effortlessly into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

We think of skyscrapers as huge, hulking, and nigh-invulnerable edifices, able to take the most punishing abuse. They’re built with modern materials, armed with the most high-tech devices. As I watched as United Airlines flight 175 slipping into the south tower’s structure like a rock thrown into a pond, I found myself feeling less and less safe in my own apartment.

I find little truly shocks me. This did, far more than I ever could have imagined.

Until nearly 12:30am, I flipped between CBC, Global National, ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, trying to learn all that I could, see what really transpired. Part of me wished I had been in New York — not to experience the horror first-hand, but to help. Part of me wished I could erase it from human history — I can only imagine how children must have to deal with such an unspeakable act, and how their parents will have to explain it.

One of the many phrases that was regularly quoted by many people about yesterday was: “It was like a movie.” And that is possibly the single best description for something so surreal. Something so strange, so odd, and so utterly horrific. Because only in a movie would we consider something as terrible as we witnessed yesterday.

That sentiment was echoed by others. One American, quoted on one of the hundreds of web pages I read yesterday, said: “This showed us that we are truly vulnerable.” Rex Murphy, commentator for the CBC, had a similar thought: We are as open to global terrorism as any other part of the world.

This is a belief that has been engrained in Western Civilization, and most strongly in North America. We, as Canadians, could look at the United States and say that their arrogance was what set them up — poking noses where they’re not wanted, saying what’s on their mind even if the rest of the world doesn’t care, showing up at the world’s doorstep with their fancy weapons dictating politics. But we in Canada were equally as shocked. As Rex Murphy pointed out, we are no longer mere spectators — as much as the American psyche was shaken to the ground, so was the Canadian belief that we, too, are invulnerable. We are as exposed and defenceless as a newborn baby to someone determined enough to do us harm.

Other newscasters had their comments, thoughts, and concerns. By the time I headed to bed, tired even from the beginning of the day (let alone the rest of the day’s events), the comments were becoming more incoherent, more strained, and weary. Peter Jennings was out of energy, and fidgeting in his seat. Dan Rather looked 10 years older. Even Peter Mansbridge looked like he was trying to pull another 30-hour marathon in front of the camera.

We praise our media for bringing us the most recent news as quickly as possible. Yesterday, someone put that desire to their advantage to shock a continent. I know I shall have a hard time forgetting what I saw. The media, however, is what we wanted, and up-to-the-minute horror is what we got. A chalkboard sign out in front of Darby O’Gills, a pub just down the block from where I live, put it best in three simple words:

We have CNN.

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