Thirteen years ago today, it was my day off and I was sleeping in. I was woken up by the telephone ringing at around 8:55. It was my brother Neil.
“Turn on the TV” he said, “A plane just hit the Trade Center Tower”
My brain was foggy. I wasn’t sure what day it was, what time it was and what planet I was on. What was he talking about? Then I remembered, he worked at the World Trade Center.
“What? When? Now? Are you okay? Was it your building?” I asked quickly
“I’m okay. No, wasn’t my building. I was just sitting by the fountain and just came inside when it hit. Dude, it was so fucking loud you won’t believe. Debris came raining down where I was sitting. Some scary shit. Got to go. Talk to you later, we have to back up the systems” he hung up.
I knew exactly where he was talking about. I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye. I visited those buildings so many times, sat at that large round marble fountain, water cascading quietly along its cold stone surface, with a large bronze globe atop its center. I was in those buildings so many times, up on the 104th floor of Tower Two where my brother worked and up on the observation deck looking out to the whole of New York City. I turned on the TV to see that Tower One was burning, fire leaping out of a hole in the side of the building that was in the silhouette of a jet, fueled by the gas tanks a fully loaded trans continental Jet.
I sat there watching the TV and breathed a sigh of relief as I remembered that my brother was no longer working in Tower Two. He was now in Building Seven. His company moved out of Tower Two when the WTC had the truck bomb in the 90s and into the third tallest building on the WTC compound. It was the only building of the WTC that was actually across the street from the complex. Then the second plane hit Tower Two, and I knew it was no accident I panicked inside. What the hell was going on? Who was doing this, and more importantly, was Niel safe? Was he getting out? Did he get out?
I called him back, and he answered.
“Are you okay?” I asked quickly
“Yeah. We’re backing up everything and then we are getting out of here. I’ll call you when I am on the road. Talk to you later.” he said and hung up quickly.
We were never in the habit of saying “I love you”. We were close, but no one in my family ever expressed their feelings in words. And there I sat, listening to the dial tone, thinking I should have said those three little words that seem so hard for everyone to say.
My wife and stayed transfixed to the TV, and then the unbelievable happened. The first tower fell. My wife gasped and I wanted to yell at the TV, to shout out to everyone to run, run as fast as you can. And then I remembered the layout of the WTC, and my brother’s building was far enough from the tower that fell. There was the tower, Building 6, Vesey St and then his building, the infamous building 7.
“Do you think he got out okay?” My wife asked. I looked at her and said nothing. I wanted to say yes, but I couldn’t. The words would not form. I picked up the phone again and I called Neil’s cell phone and there it was, the three electronic tones and the dreaded recording telling me that all circuits were busy and that I should try my call again later. I tried again. And again. And again. The damned woman’s voice! It would take me years not cringe at the sound of that recording anytime I heard it. I called my sister-in-law, Elizabeth and asked her if she heard from Neil. I could hear the terror in her voice. She was confused and scared. She could barely talk. She told me didn’t hear from him, she had to go and hung up.
It was now 10:30 and the second tower came down, and then I thought I heard something about building seven being totally engulfed in flames. How? I could not understand it. Building seven was far enough from the tower that fell. Wasn’t it? But it was on fire and nobody knew where Neil was. I didn’t know what to think.
We stayed there, sitting, watching, listening to all the theories and stories coming out. The horror of the people that were able to get out and see people falling all around them. I was scared. I was really scared. I kept trying Neil’s cell phone, but nothing. Just those three tones and the recording.
Then sometime around 2:00pm my phone rang and it was Elizabeth telling me that Neil was safe. He got out and was walking up the West Side Highway when the first building fell. He was far enough away, but still too close. His building eventually came down after five that afternoon, a mystery and the center of a huge conspiracy theory.
Neil was alive, but he has never been the same since then. He was changed by the whole thing, being there, witnessing the terror and horror of it all in person. I always remember him as funny, and he still is, but only with me from what I am told. When I go to visit, we talk and laugh and goof around for hours. We laugh so hard that sometimes Neil would literally fall to the floor with hysterics.
Everyone tells me privately that that only happens with me. When he is not with me he is a different person, serious, contemplative, and sometimes angry. And I see that side of him surface sometimes when we are together, but only for a few seconds, and then he is the old Neil I knew, my big brother that always made me laugh and made sure that I was fine, that protected me from bullies in school, and the brother that would buy me little toys and leave it next to my bed when I napped as a child.
Is he putting on a show just for me and not the rest of the world? Is he being a big brother deep down and trying to protect me as some subconscious level from his demons? Or is it that when we get together he gets to just be his old self and be happy and funny and enjoy life? I don’t know, but all I know is he gets to be happy when I go there and that is enough for me.
If anything at all could be said to come from that horrible day is that now when ever we see each other we hug hello, we hug goodbye and we say that we love each other. We both have a new appreciation for every minute we have together. And I hold a greater appreciation for everything in my life.