I recall calling Chris Matthew Sciabarra around the time September 11 happened. Like the best of New York, Chris was hyper, in fight-but-never-flight mode. That’s my Chris. And he has commemorated the attack on the greatest city in the world—was I overcome by patriotism when I visited New York!—his hometown, in the most personal way each year.
Fifteen years. It has been fifteen years since my city, the city of my birth, the city I still call home, was changed forever by an attack of unbearable madness.
New Yorkers were awakening to a beautiful late summer day; the cicadas were particularly loud, as they always are at this time of year, their songs echoing throughout a tranquil urban landscape. It had rained the night before—I remember that all too clearly, because I was scheduled to go to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees face off against the Boston Red Sox. They had already won three straight games—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—against their celebrated rivals, and we were going for a four-game sweep. But on September 10th, the Yankee game was rained out before it began. I had last seen the Twin Towers up close, driving a visiting friend back to Penn Station on the weekend before September 11th, as we craned our necks upward to see the tops of those remarkable buildings. No other opportunities presented themselves for me to drive passed the Towers again, for a week later, they would be no more.
Like many New York dog owners, my first order of business of the day was to walk my dog. When I walked outside with Blondie, I was stunned by how such a rainy Monday had given way to such a blazingly sunny, clear Tuesday morning, with a breathtakingly beautiful, virtually cloudless, blue sky. It was a working day, but also the day of highly contentious primary elections for the next mayor of the Big Apple. A heavy voter turnout was expected, for Rudy Giuliani was at the end of his two-term limit, and a new mayor would be elected to run City Hall, and to take over the political reins of a metropolis that had weathered the storms of high crime and urban blight over a controversial eight-year period of tumultuous social and cultural change across the political landscape. A heated mayoral race was shaping up in both of the major political parties; Michael Bloomberg would ultimately win the Republican Party nomination over Herman Badillo, and Mark Green would ultimately win the Democratic Party nomination over Fernando Ferrer. But because of the events that took place on the morning of September 11, 2001, the primaries would be postponed till September 25th. None of the Democratic candidates received a majority of the vote on that date, and it was not until October 11th that Mark Green beat Ferrer in a run-off; on November 6th, Green would be defeated by Bloomberg, who would eventually dispense with that two-term limit (a “one-time only” agreement with the City Council) and reign over the city for three terms.
Politics, politics, politics was on the minds of so many voters that morning. And since the polls opened at 6 a.m., many went to cast their votes before work. Some took their children to their first day of school. It was a godsend to be running late for those who worked in the Twin Towers, but who arrived at their destination after their typical 9 a.m. start. If the planes had struck an hour later, there may have been 50,000 people in the Towers. But two of the most iconic buildings in the world had already been struck. There was simply no workplace to enter anytime after 9:03 a.m.
Over the years, I had developed a habit of taping news events, in case I’d want to write about them. I remember especially taping the full twenty-four hours of coverage devoted to the New Year’s Eve millennium celebration, welcoming the year 2000, as broadcast on ABC television and hosted by Peter Jennings. There was no Y2K apocalypse; the Berlin Wall had fallen; the communist menace that was once the Soviet Union was a thing of the past. A new century, a new millennium, had arrived with a blast of optimism.
Nobody ever dreamed that in less than two years, that optimism would be crushed under the weight of domestic and foreign threats that had been growing underground for decades, awaiting for the right moments to spring forth.
As the early morning hours progressed, I was communicating with a friend on email. And uncharacteristically, even though I knew it was Primary Day, I was not watching “Good Morning America,” my morning show of choice on the ABC network. A little after 8:45 a.m., my sister called me from work; she was serving as Deputy Superintendent of High Schools at 110 Livingston Street, the headquarters of the New York City Board of Education (later renamed the NYC Department of Education, under Bloomberg). She told me that a plane had struck the North Tower of the Trade Center and I should turn on the TV. It must have been a terrible accident, we both reasoned.
I turned the TV on, and simultaneously grabbed the first VHS tape I could find. It was a tape that I had used only five days before this sun-drenched morning: a recording of the MTV Video Music Awards that aired on September 6, 2001. It was a particularly memorable night, held at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, because Michael Jackson made a surprise appearance in performance with *NSYNC of their song “Pop” [YouTube link]. Jackson was in town recording a special in honor of his 30th anniversary in the music industry, and that special, taped from Madison Square Garden on September 7th and September 10th, was later aired by CBS in November [full concert YouTube link], featuring a performance of “Dancing Machine” also with *NYSNC [YouTube link]. (MJ is one of the famous people who avoided death on 9/11; he was due to attend a WTC meeting that morning, but had overslept.) On the same video tape was a documentary feature that appeared a day or two after the MTV Video Music Awards. It was “Backstory,” a production of AMC—when that channel actually showed “American Movie Classics.” The feature told the story of the making of “An Affair to Remember,” a tear-jerker of a film, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. In retrospect, little irony was lost on me as I reached for this tape in preparation for this essay, for in that 1957 film, the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world, plays a key “role” in the unfolding plot events of the love story. The documentary reminds us how “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) had countless references to the Grant-Kerr classic.
In my reviewing of all the video tapes that I recorded of the news events of 2001 and beyond, I decided that, for the purposes of this year’s fifteenth anniversary, I would focus only on the September 11th coverage as it unfolded on my television, in the minute-by-minute all-day taping that I had archived for future reference. For this essay, then, I confine myself only to the television coverage that I watched from 8:45 a.m. until midnight on that tragic day.
And so, when I popped in that first tape of the dozens of tapes I own of the television coverage of the tragedy and its aftermath, I saw that as soon as the AMC “Backstory” concluded, a startling image suddenly appeared on the screen of a helicopter view of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which had eclipsed the Empire State Building of “An Affair to Remember” as one of the two tallest buildings in the world. The tower was billowing black smoke. I was immediately transported, as if by a Time Machine, back to that tragic morning, and I can relate here my thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout that day by following the timeline of what I witnessed on TV and on the streets of my hometown. …
… There’s more. Read Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s essay: “Remembering The World Trade Center: 15 Years Ago.”