To this day, I have no idea why I did it, because I never ever do. I turned on the TV in my home office in Austin early that morning. I must have been avoiding getting some work done. I never turn on the TV early in the morning. Not back then, not ever. I still don’t. I hate noise in the morning.
My live-in girlfriend had just gone to the back of the house to the guest room, to take a shower in the guest room bathroom. We had a water pressure issue in the main bathroom back then.
So for whatever reason, I turned in my office chair, and clicked the TV on with the remote. CNN came on, and it appeared that just that moment they’d switched from whatever normal programming they’d had, to special coverage from New York. Something had happened to one of the Twin Towers.
Within a moment, they had a camera trained on the tower, and at first they were discussing how “a small plane” had slammed into it. A few minutes more, and they were chatting via telephone with a cheerful receptionist who was at that moment in that burning tower, many floors lower than the flames. You could hear the sound of alarms in the background from the receptionist’s end of the call. She didn’t know much, but she was there, and was happy to cheerfully provide CNN’s anchor desk with all that she knew, as she continued to sit at her desk, not yet bothering to grab her purse and evacuate the building following the “small plane’s” impact. Finally, whoever was in the anchor chair thanked her for her time, and suggested she should probably move along with joining other building occupants in the evacuation.
In the years since, I always wondered what happened to that woman. Whether she made it. If she regretted those lost minutes chatting with the news people. If she ever realized the gravity of her situation before it was too late.
Reality was slow to sink in during those first minutes. It was slow to sink in at the CNN anchor desk, and it was slow to sink in with me, as I sat in my office in Austin watching. But the smoke plume from that “small plane” was just too much to minimize. The folks at the anchor desk were beginning to have their doubts as well. I stood up, went to the back of my house, and hollered at my girlfriend to get out of the shower right now and come see this.
She was bewildered, but in a moment she joined me on my office sofa to watch, wearing only a towel.
“Is this an accident, or is this terrorism,” she asked?
“I don’t know,” I replied. But the words weren’t even out of my mouth before the second airliner hit the other tower, right before our eyes, on live television.
“It’s a terrorist attack.”
We sat glued to the TV as the bad news and rumors, some ultimately true, others not, were stacked high. Rumors there were other airplanes. Rumors that another was on its way to Washington, D.C. Then the Pentagon was hit. Something about a crash in Pennsylvania. Rumors of other airplanes unaccounted for, from San Francisco to London.
At that moment in time, nobody knew how far this went, or where this ended. How many airplanes had been hijacked? How many targets had evil people chosen? How many Americans would die that day?
My girlfriend’s boss called, to announce that he had decided it would be business as usual in the law office where they worked, which was immediately across the street from both the Texas Capitol and the Governor’s mansion. The same state Capitol and Governor’s mansion which, until recently, had been the home and office of the current President, George W. Bush. I was furious with her boss. For all we knew, the Texas Capitol complex could be another target – it would certainly be an attractive one symbolically, having recently been vacated by the President the terrorists hated more than anybody.
My girlfriend and I were both in stunned silence as I drove her to work, now listening to live coverage on the car radio. We’d seen the first of the towers fall on live TV, before we left my house. We heard the second of the twin towers fall via my radio while we were on the lower deck of I-35. I will always remember the exact spot on that road.
On my way home, the streets of Austin were virtually empty and silent. I thought about that woman as I drove, sitting in her office, delaying her escape while on the phone with CNN.
13 years on, I still do.