I feel a little like Forrest Gump. If you saw the movie, the simple-minded Forrest had an uncanny ability to be present at every major world event. I was not visiting New York during 9/11 so the parallel isn’t exactly straight, but my husband, F.X., had just arrived in Manhattan a day earlier.
I had talked to F.X. on 9/10 and all seemed well. He was staying in mid-Manhattan at the Edison Hotel, having traveled to New York on business.
The phone rang early the morning of September 11 and I answered it, expecting a wake-up call from my husband. My brother-in-law Joe, F.X.’s oldest brother, said hello and immediately asked me if F.X. was OK. “Yes, of course,” I replied. “Why?”
“Because two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said.
The last time I had visited New York had been in college so I had little understanding of Manhattan geography. I knew F.X. had a meeting that morning, but I did not know where. When I told Joe that F.X. was staying in Midtown, he concluded that F.X. was probably not in danger.
I hung up and began shaking violently. My three-year-old daughter slept soundly in F.X.’s spot, next to me in bed. I called for my son and turned on the TV. The news unfolded in front of me and I became distraught, jarring my little daughter awake. I dialed F.X.’s cell phone number repeatedly to no avail. “All circuits are busy,” droned the operator. F.X. also carried a pager so I tried paging him, over and over and over again. My children gathered close to me, sensing my fear and began to cry and call for Daddy. I tried to be strong, but failed miserably.
About a half hour later in what seemed like an eternity, F.X. miraculously got through to me on his cell phone and explained that he was about four and a half miles removed from this enormous catastrophe. Once I heard from my husband, my children recovered instantly and went about their business. My two older stepchildren called in a desperate panic and I vowed to them that their Dad was safe. I had recovered my adult self and appeared in control again, even though I really did not feel that way.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, F.X. was able to call me and report on events. He observed thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers retreating from downtown on foot covered in debris and soot, like refugees from a war. His meetings were obviously cancelled, which left him with nothing to do and nowhere to go. He walked the streets, visiting a nearby fire house and offering condolences. He talked to me on the phone as he ventured closer to the Financial District and began coughing and choking on the toxic, putrid air.
I urged him to turn back, get in a car since planes weren’t flying and come home. I worried about biological warfare. My overactive mind went crazy with endless and lethal possibilities.
F.X. remained calm and resolved to wait it out until the planes resumed flying. He connected with friends, Tom Rocca and John Meyer, who also were stranded in New York on business. They kept each other company for a day and then attempted to board a plane at JFK on Thursday to return home when the airports presumably had opened.
Machine gun-toting National Guardsmen ran security that day. A trip to the bathroom turned into a police lineup with suspicious riflemen poised to fire over one false move. Several hours later, the F.B.I. arrested the co-pilot and the flight was cancelled. The scheduled take-off had evolved into a snare to smoke out more suspects.
This final experience convinced F.X. and his friends to rent a car and flee New York. I’ll never forget when he called me for the umpteenth time that week and reported that he had crossed the George Washington Bridge and had merged onto Interstate 80 West heading home. I had held it together once I knew F.X. seemed safe, but my sense of relief at his departure from New York was palpable.
He and Tommy and John rented a blue Ford LTD, slapped an American flag on the side window, and drove 1,600 miles straight in 25 hours, landing in Denver where the airport had just re-opened. Wheedling their way onto the first flight out of Denver to San Francisco the next morning, F.X. and his friends made it home safely on Saturday morning.
My son had a scheduled soccer game at Larsen Park on 19th Avenue in San Francisco at 10 a.m., which F.X. was determined to attend and he did. Our family felt overwhelmed and lucky and grateful and deliriously happy that F.X. had finally come home to us from work.
Tragically, 2,977 people did not receive this same consideration on 9/11.