Measuring the half-life of Sept. 11

Fifteen years ago today, I was on the sidewalk in lower Manhattan when the first plane flew over me, too low, the noise reverberating in the canyon of skyscrapers. I was working as a newspaper reporter in Stamford, Conn., just over the New York state line. But on that day, Sept. 11, 2001, I had been called for jury duty in lower Manhattan.

I heard the impact but couldn’t see the towers. People a few yards away began pointing skyward, and when I got to the corner, I could see a huge black hole at the top of one of the towers, smoke billowing out and debris falling from the sky in the bright morning sun like pieces of confetti.

Minutes later, the second plane slammed into the other Twin Tower. Within seconds, my wonder turned to fear and police appeared to push the crowds north. As I walked, I passed groups of people huddled around cars with radios blasting out news reports that other planes were unaccounted for — more attacks could be coming.

I had my reporter’s notebook in my bag and I took it out and started interviewing people as we walked. As I began to take notes, I calmed down, easing into the familiar task. A man standing on Canal Street looking back toward the burning towers — they hadn’t yet collapsed — told me he was a standup comedian, and then he said, “I know comedy, and this isn’t comedy. I know this isn’t comedy.” On a day when the world seemed suddenly incomprehensible, it was as if the only way he could make sense of it was to say that it was nothing like anything he knew.

This is what we do — we try to make sense of the events that define us, often by framing the chaos against our known worlds. For the past decade and a half, that morning in New York — and Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Penn. — has had an oversized influence on the stories we have told ourselves and the actions we have taken — personally and politically — in this nation and in others. Practically since that day, the United States has been at war, with others and with itself. The thousands of lives lost that day were only the beginning of the years of death, displacement and suffering that continue to this day with no sign of end.

It is a story with enduring global significance, but on that day and in the months that followed I experienced it as mostly a local story. My job was immediately consumed with covering the dozens of families in our community that had lost people in the attacks.

One widow in particular became a friend, but our first meeting was rough. A few days after the planes hit the towers, I visited Beverly Eckert at her Stamford home to hear her describe her last moments talking on the phone with her husband Sean Rooney, who was on the 104th floor of the South Tower. The plane had crashed below him, blocking any chance of escape and filling his offices with smoke. They kept talking until he lost the ability to breathe, and as she told her story, my hands started to tremble too much for me to continue taking notes, and I broke down and began sobbing. She took my hands in hers and held them until I stopped shaking.

I felt awful and the most human I have ever felt covering a story. As much as it helps most of the time for reporters to try to get out of the way when they tell stories, the truth is we are part of the world too, part of communities affected by powerful issues. Even though it’s sometimes convenient to pretend we’re not, we’re all human, and no one surrenders that when they’re issued press passes. I left New York eight months later, relieved and slightly guilt-ridden to be leaving the city that was still in shock and mourning. It had been a stressful few months, during which every subway ride, public event or stroll down a crowded sidewalk was never free of dark thoughts of “What if?” The city’s nerves were frayed, as were mine.

The following September, for the first anniversary, I was in Marin working for the Independent Journal.

The plane that crashed in Shanksville — Flight 93 — had been bound for San Francisco. I had moved across the country, but here the devastation of 9/11 was a local story as well. I fell into my old beat, sitting in living rooms hearing stories of loved ones lost and wrecked lives.

I spent a few afternoons in San Rafael with Jack Grandcolas, whose wife Lauren had died on Flight 93. She was pregnant with their first child and was supposed to have been on a later flight that day, but had switched to get home earlier.

When I met him, Jack was working, along with Lauren’s family, to establish a birthing room in her name at Marin General Hospital, where she had planned to give birth, and creating a memorial plaza for her in downtown San Rafael.

Fourteen years ago, Jack told me he was trying to figure out how to move forward a year after Lauren’s death. “It takes all that you have together and all that you’re ever going to have together away,” he said. “So you are kind of put on a new path. And you can either sit on that path and look backward or you can start walking down it and try to focus forward.”

In the years after Sean’s death, Beverly Eckert became one of the leading advocates for the families of 9/11 as well as for the humane treatment of terror suspects. She was co-chairwoman of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee and spoke before Congress to urge lawmakers to adopt the findings of the 9/11 Committee. She made those years easier and better for many families. We kept in touch for a few years, and she was always warm and hopeful in her correspondences with me.

In February 2009, Beverly died in a plane crash while traveling home to Buffalo to mark what would have been Sean’s 58th birthday and to start a scholarship in his name.

A week earlier, she had met President Barack Obama with other victims’ families to discuss the treatment of terrorism suspects. Obama said the day after her death, “Beverly lost her husband on 9/11 and became a tireless advocate for those families whose lives were forever changed on that September day …. She was an inspiration to me and to so many others.”

Five years ago, just a month before the 10-year anniversary, I moved back east, to New Jersey. I commuted into New York daily, the train window framing the New York skyline, still shocking to me for the absence of the two towers at the southern tip.

I wrote a remembrance for my former newspaper in Stamford to mark the occasion. I remembered Jack Grandcolas’ hopeful wish nine years earlier that he would be able to “focus forward” in the years to come, and I hoped the families who had opened their lives to me had found some peace in the ensuring years.

I wrote then, “I hope the last decade has been good and kind to most of them, that they have been able to, as Jack says, ‘focus forward,’ and that the years have brought the families many new reasons to be glad.” I wrote, adding, “This was not the case, I can’t help thinking, for Beverly.”

And here we are, now, 15 years later. I have nothing new to add to those sentiments. I still don’t know what it all means. Marking time in these 10- and five-year increments does, I suppose, distance us from the moment. The repeated remembrances sever us in some meaningful way from who we were then. Whether this is good or bad is hard to say; it’s likely both, and neither.

Tracing the half-life of grief from 9/11 is a tricky equation, in some respects the years have lessened the pain and in other ways they have seemed to only compound it.

Last year, I finally threw out the box of newspapers that I had saved from that September day a decade and a half ago. I had moved with it seven times over the prior 14 years, including three times across the country. I don’t know why I was finally ready to part with the stack of old newsprint — some threshold of time had been crossed, maybe. It had been long enough, perhaps, to realize they were doing me no good in the corner of my office.

One newspaper cover from that terrible month stands out in my memory above all others. It wasn’t the most shocking, ghastly or gruesome cover. (No, it wasn’t the San Francisco Examiner’s infamous “Bastards” headline from day after.) It wasn’t one with the burning towers or people covered in soot and ash. It was perhaps the most gentle one, almost whimsical — all the more wrenching for its soft cheer during a truly cheerless time.

The Village Voice cover featured a hand holding up a tourist postcard of the Twin Towers against a the lower Manhattan skyline just so the postcard towers lined up exactly with the place, just weeks earlier, they used to occupy. The smoke from the collapsed buildings billowed uptown behind the postcard. It was a perfect vision — a fantasy of time travel at a moment when we all wished we could rewind the clock — the world reordered, put back in place, just how it could never be again.

The headline, in four heartbreaking words addressing the now vanished towers, said all there was to say: “Wish You Were Here.”

I don’t want to end there, on what I’ve thrown away regarding 9/11. After 15 years so many feelings and images have not faded. That day changed me. I still distrust crowded places and ever since have had a visceral aversion to loud noises. I flinch at most depictions of violence. The world seemed a darker place on that day, and that’s a feeling I have never shaken. Through my reporting that day and in the months after, I also met people that amazed me, their courage and generosity in the face of such horror expanded my faith and admiration for the good in people.

When Lauren Grandcolas knew her plane wasn’t going to make it that Tuesday morning, Jack was still asleep in their San Rafael home with the phone ringer turned off. After he woke and heard about the attacks, he assumed her flight was cancelled. But Lauren’s sister called to tell him she had caught an earlier flight. It was then, Jack told me, that he noticed he had a new message.

“Jack, can you hear me, sweetie? Pick up. OK. I just wanted to tell you I love you. There is a little problem with the plane. I’m totally fine. I just love you more than anything, know that. I’m fine and comfortable for now. I love you. Please tell my family I love them, too. Goodbye, Honey.”

That message, which Jack kept all these years to continue to hear her voice, is now part of the memorial in Shanksville. That recording remains the most harrowing testament I can imagine to what was lost on that day.

The years moving away from Sept. 11, 2001, has not been a story, for me anyway, of how loss leads to something greater, about overcoming and becoming stronger. This is a story about how loss is diminishment — and about how, maybe, by recognizing that, we may be able to better take care of and love each other.

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