Michael Ter Avest
I lived in Laurel and worked in Arlington. My daily commute was 90 minutes one-way: 30 minutes to drive to the Metro station and an hour on the train. The morning of Sept. 11, I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. My job was one I didn't like much, in an industry that was crumbling and that morning started like most mornings. I woke up full of doubt and concern. But I rode the train and I read my book and I moved through the crowds and I went upstairs to my cubicle like every day. I logged into my computer and also into a friend's MUSH (Multi User Shared Hallucination, is where that came from), where a bunch of us who used to be coworkers still "hung out" daily.
It wasn't a very social workplace—at least I didn't participate well there socially, usually keeping my head down and talking to my friends online. I generally arrived at the office by 9 a.m., so I got there not long after it first happened. The first I heard were murmurs, and people talking over the cubes, though I didn't hear anything specific. A plane had crashed, somewhere, was all I could pick out distinctly. Most people tried to pull up the major news web sites, but they were all swamped, timing out, unavailable. Instead, I looked to my friends on the MUSH. One of them was near a television at work. The television at my friend's workplace was on CNN, so he was frantically typing what was happening, and I just started reading out loud. My co-workers all stopped to listen to what I was saying. It felt, to me, like too much to absorb. When I first read about a plane hitting the World Trade Center, I thought of a small plane, a Cessna, going out of control in a freak gust of wind. But of course that wasn't it.
Our manager came out of his office and reminded us that there were televisions downstairs, in the lunch room, so most of us just left our desks and walked downstairs. I got downstairs and sat on the floor in front of one of the televisions just in time to watch the live coverage as the second tower fell. All the coverage was on the Twin Towers in New York for a long time, but eventually they also started showing footage of the Pentagon. My company had people there. As far as I know they were all OK, but no one knew that then. It was also not very far away from us, maybe three miles in a straight line.
I remember small moments. I remember sitting on the floor and watching the coverage of the fallen towers, and realizing my throat was dry, and then realizing that was because my mouth was open. My mouth just hung open, and I didn't remember opening it. Eventually I went back upstairs to find that "nonessential personnel" were dismissed for the day. I remember being very glad I was nonessential. I remember walking to the Metro station amid clouds of rumors. I remember groups of people pointing and saying, "If you walk down to that corner you can see the smoke!" I remember getting on that Metro train and that train being more crowded, and yet more quiet, than I could imagine. I remember everyone being polite, and quiet. Rumors were exchanged, but mostly people were friendly and nice. The entire federal government was trying to cram onto those trains, and we made as much room as we could. I remember smiling, moving out of the way. I remember a man with his seeing-eye dog, and the way people parted for him, as much as they could. I remember looking into the faces of the people on the train, wondering who would take charge in a crisis, what would happen if something happened on the subway like had happened in Tokyo. Or even just a tunnel collapse. I looked into the faces of everyone because I just didn't know what else to do.
I remember coming up, at last, at Greenbelt. The end of the line. I remember it was a bright, gorgeous, blue-sky-wonder of a day. I remember no planes in the sky and no horns honking, just people politely walking to their cars. Some trying to make cell phone calls, which was futile, but most just walking. Slowly. I remember nothing being right.