My Father Is Still Alive

September 12, 2001
 



Until yesterday, my fatherís office was located on the north side of the 78th floor of One World Trade Center, the first tower to be hit. Had his office been located any higher in the building, he would be dead. I phoned him within the first minute of my seeing the news break on CNN. It was fortuitous that I had decided to switch the channel to watch the news, for I had become disinterested in the episode of a M.A.S.H. rerun that I was watching. I had already seen it a dozen times or so. My father had no idea what had happened. He and his co- workers were not terribly alarmed before I called. They knew something had happened, though, as they felt the building shake. At first, I figured the tower had been hit by one of the many small private planes that frequently fly up and down the Hudson River, often at altitudes substantially lower than the tops of the buildings. My father often remarked at how strange it was to be able to watch these planes fly below eye level. I wasn't particularly alarmed either, especially in light of how a similar event occurred years before when a B-25 bomber hit the Empire State Building at the 79th floor, causing relatively little damage.

No sooner had I hung up the phone with my father, when one of the CNN commentators reported that it might have been a Boeing 767. I immediately called him back to tell him. By that time, he and his co-workers had decided to leave the building. I actually delayed their departure by thirty seconds or so because my father had to return to his office to answer the phone. I went back to watching CNN. As I was watching, the silhouette of an airplane caught my eye coming into view from the right. I remember thinking that it was just someone in another one of those small planes flying by, probably there to gawk at the damaged building and the fire that was raging in the upper floors. Within seconds, a huge explosion occurred on the left side of the television screen. It was Two World Trade Center, the South Tower. I hadn't made the connection, but I was concerned that my father might just be reaching the floor opposite this fireball. Still, I was not terribly worried. The World Trade Center was invincible. February 26, 1993 proved it.

I didn't know what to be more afraid of - the burning of the building or my father having to climb down 78 flights of stairs. It had been only three weeks since he underwent cardiac surgery to place a stent in a previously grafted bypass. Somewhere in my mind, I hoped that he would die quickly, and prayed that he shouldn't be burned alive. I figured it might be too much to hope that the elevators would still be working. For some reason, though, I began to think and act as if everything would be alright, and that my father would call and come home that evening - just like always. This was not some sort of justified optimism, though. I don't think my mind would permit any other thoughts.

My father had just taken one step out the lobby exit, when he was literally blown back through the door by what must have been a hurricane-force wind. The South Tower had just at that moment collapsed. Lethal debris blew by him harmlessly, as he watched from the other side of the glass. Had he arrived at the door thirty seconds earlier - the thirty seconds I had delayed him with my second phone call - he would be dead.

By this time, I was already with my mother at my parents' house. It was difficult to know what to think, how to think, what to feel. I guess I am by nature a positive person. I began to develop a timeline in my mind, looking at my wrist-watch every few minutes as I monitored the events unfolding on the television screen. I knew the building. I had been in it or under it almost every day for several years. I had walked through the maze of unfinished corridors, ever-changing and partitioned by walls of hastily-erected green- painted plywood, as year by year they constructed the underground shopping mall and new subway stations. I approached the whole thing with a sort of logic based upon my knowledge of the buildings and their surroundings. As each minute passed, I became more and more positive that my father would make it. I still prayed that he would think to leave the area rather than remain near the building to watch what was going on a thousand feet over his head.

There reached a point in time when I predicted he would just be reaching the bottom of the building and on his way out. He was safe, as long as he would retreat to a location sufficiently far from the building to avoid the falling debris. I had in my mind an image of him standing across the street in the park on Liberty Street, or perhaps on Church Street near the coffee shop on the corner. This was far too close. However, I couldn't imagine that he would do anything different than what New Yorkers always do - watch.

Then something monstrous happened. A cloud of orange-brown smoke filled the air with explosive force. A panoramic view of downtown Manhattan showed it to be almost entirely lost in a cloud of what looked like dirt. I couldn't figure out what had happened. I couldn't believe that any kind of bomb could produce such an event. How can this be? I had to assume that it was indeed a bomb, though, because no other idea came to mind. What I couldn't figure out, though, was the color of the smoke. I couldn't account for it. There were no buildings in the area built of red bricks - at least, not for many years. I told my mother that I was now very much more worried about this new explosion than the events occurring above in the towers. If my father was indeed in the park or near the coffee shop, he would surely be dead.

As the cloud began to dissipate, it became horrifically evident that the South Tower was gone. It had imploded and collapsed to the ground. Now, I hoped that I underestimated the time that it takes to climb down 78 flights of stairs. Logically, I knew that if everything had gone just right, he could possibly still be alive. Logically, it WAS possible. I explained to my mother how things might have happened, and that Dad was still OK because he was probably still in the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. To have hope, and to relieve us of the hysteria that had been building up to a crescendo, we were counting on my father still being in the North Tower. We enjoyed several minutes of reprise. I remember my lungs filling completely with air as I sighed with relief. Then, right before our eyes, we watched in disbelief as the second tower, an icon of the indestructible and a mammoth of invincibility, collapsed like a house of cards into nothingness. In our minds and hearts, so went my father. My mother began to cry. I hugged her in solace with recognition of defeat and irreconcilable loss. Still, I hoped that somehow my father would emerge from this catastrophe unscathed. He always seems to land on his feet and beat the odds. We expect him to.

He did.

My father called from a hotel located several blocks uptown. There was no cell phone service. At the time, my mother was in the kitchen while I remained in the den. I continued to watch CNN while people were calling the house every few minutes - friends, family, co-workers. Suddenly, my mother began screaming hysterically. Without a doubt, it sounded as if she had just received confirmation that her husband - her soulmate - was dead and gone forever. But I knew better. Logic dictated to me that it was my father on the phone, for a confirmation of death so soon under the circumstances of tumult and disorganization surrounding the events was unlikely. I smiled with relief and my eyes filled with tears of joy, even before my mother stopped screaming and gave hint that it was indeed my father on the phone. It couldn't have been more than five minutes that passed before I fell into a chair, completely exhausted and limp, as the adrenaline quickly disappeared from my blood stream.

Thank God that today, my family and I are still living the lives that are familiar to us. I guess I just wanted to relate what it was like to be so close to such a disaster. We are so lucky. So very, very lucky.

My heart aches for all of you who were not as lucky as we were. I don't know what else I can say, except I'm sorry. I can grieve with you, because for a short while, I did.


Sincerely,
Scott