Posts from October, 2011


My 9/11 Story

            For reasons which will become apparent, my 9/11 story starts a month before the tragedy.  My friends Patty and Andrew Freedman had invited me to their beautiful home  in New London, CT for a couple days.  The house (I joked that it looked like Snow White’s cottage on steroids), on the Pequot River, was quite close to the O’Neill Festival and the Freedmans had invited several people to spend a few days to see readings at that prestigious theatrical enclave. I think it must have been during the week, as Bruce didn’t come along.

            While there, Patty and Andrew introduced me to their neighbor, Ruth McCourt.  She was a lovely lass from Ireland (in her 30s, I’d say) who had married an older life-long resident of New London.  She still had her native accent and we spent an hour talking while our hosts did other things.  She obviously adored her 4 year old daughter, Juliana.  They’d just returned from riding in Vermont and Ruth proudly shared photos of Juliana’s first time on horseback. And Ruth was excited because her best friend and she were planning to take the girl to Disneyland in a few weeks – their last chance to do so before she started school the next year.

            Ruth was also friends with Katherine Hepburn’s family.  An Irish connection?  Whatever – she was telling me how Katherine was in very bad shape at the time.  We just had a really good gab.

            After she left, Patty told me Ruth’s husband, who had been to dinner there the night before, had recently been diagnosed with very serious cancer and wasn’t expected to live for more than a few months.  Very sad, especially as their daughter was so young.  He was a couple decades older than Ruth (or at least looked that way, maybe the cancer made him look older than he was).

            On September 8th, Bruce and I departed for a long-planned trip to Italy, our first visit there.  We had left our contractor, a Russian-Asian guy named Chingis, in charge of renovating our bathroom and kitchen.  We trusted him and he assured us the work would be finished when we returned.  What a good plan, we thought – missing all the messy construction and coming back from a wonderful vacation to newly renovated digs!

We landed in Rome on the 9th.  Around 4 p.m. on the 11th, we were lost in the old Jewish Quarter, looking for a cocktail lounge recommended in one of my guide books.  We were on a narrow street and the only other people around were two very well-dressed American women.  We knew they were Americans because one’s cell phone rang and she answered.  She turned to her friend and said, “He’s saying two planes hit the World Trade Center.”  And her friend just kind of gave a sneer, “Like that could happen.”  I think we were just staring at them, open-mouthed, because they looked at us like, “What are you looking at?”

            So we continued down the street, saying, “Could that be true?”  The fact that they had said two planes seemed particularly odd – we could appreciate how in a freak accident a Cessna or some other small craft might crash into one of the buildings.  But two?

            We gave up trying to find the cocktail lounge and came to the piazza in front of the Pantheon.  A lot of the surrounding restaurants had tables out in the piazza so we found one and ordered drinks.  Then I went inside to find a bathroom.  As I was coming out I heard another American woman say, “World Trade Center.”  I stopped and said, “So it’s true?” And she said, “Yes, two planes hit the Trade Center – people are jumping out of the windows, another hit the Pentagon and there’s another one apparently headed toward Washington.”

            I found Bruce and told him what I’d heard.  Needless to say we were freaking out and desperate to find out something, anything.  Unlike New York where every bar and hotel has a TV, not so in Rome.  And we were looking.  We ended up going back to our hotel where we got one television channel in Italian.  They were covering the story and we heard, “Now we’ll go to our CNN affiliate” in English.  They cut to them and then started translating what they were saying into Italian, not allowing us to hear.  Of course, e-mail and phone calls were not going through.  We went to bed that night knowing that the first tower had fallen, but not the second.

            The next day we were able to get a bit more news – the International Herald Tribune – for one.  We were scheduled to take a train to Florence, pick up a rental car and drive to Lucca.  And we proceeded with that plan.  I left Bruce at the train station in Florence with our luggage and went to get the car.  At the rental agency there were several Americans in line.  They’d been out in the countryside and none of them had heard anything about what was going on.  When I told them the Trade Center had been hit and all air-space above America was shut down they looked at me like I was out of my mind.  But then another American came in and confirmed what I had said.

            I got the car, picked up Bruce and we drove to Lucca – a wonderful walled city, birthplace of Puccini and Verdi, not more than an hour away.  As we checked in and they noticed we were from New York City, we were overwhelmed with sympathy from all around.  And this continued for the next week and a half of our trip.  Boy did W blow all that good will in the weeks and months to come.

            While we were still registering, the woman behind the desk said, “There’s a call for you.”  Luckily we’d given our itinerary to several people and our dear friend Glen was calling.  We were so happy to hear from a New Yorker.  Glen, who loves the City beyond words, was in tears, trying to fill us in on all that was going on.

            From then on, all our hotels got an English version of CNN and it was hard to tear ourselves away from the TV and go out and see Italy.  We couldn’t have gotten home if we’d wanted to.  We met so many Americans whose flights had been cancelled – one couple whose plane was half-way across the Atlantic and then had to turn around.

            About meeting Americans – Bruce and I tend to keep pretty much to ourselves when traveling.  We’re not big on striking up conversations with strangers.  But that sure changed this trip. Whenever we heard other Americans we were instantly asking what they knew, where they’d been when they found out.  Of course, us being New Yorkers always elicited lots of sympathy and concern.

            I managed to call my phone machine and it had shut down because people were calling from all over the world to check on me.  I know a lot of people and, of course, they know I live in the City, but not many knew that we live about as far away as it’s possible to get from the WTC and still be on the island of Manhattan.  When we’d stop at an internet café, we’d find our mail boxes overflowing with messages to see if we were okay.  Of course, when my answering machine wasn’t picking up people started freaking.  We spent hours trying to answer them all.

            We met one young couple from Seattle who had been in a really rural area.  They stopped in some kind of store and the owner, who spoke no English recognized that they were American and started trying to tell them what had happened in sign language.  Somehow they figured out that at least one of the World Trade Center buildings had fallen. 

            In spite of everything, we did have a lovely trip.  And by the end of it, flights were being restored.  Plus nobody was flying, so we didn’t have trouble getting home.  But coming into the City and seeing the hole in the skyline where the Trade Towers had been was really upsetting.

            Also, though we had checked in with Chingis by phone and he’d said they were having a lot of trouble, we really didn’t have any idea.  Of course they had all sorts of issues – their truck not being allowed into the City, their suppliers not operating, etc.  So the demolition was complete, but the renovation had hardly started, so our apartment was not habitable and wouldn’t be for at least a week.  Glen and Gino kindly took us in.

            On one of our return flights, we had received a complimentary copy of the British tabloid magazine Hello.  It had a feature about UK citizens who had died on 9/11.  I skimmed it and kept it.

            Then a couple weeks after we returned I heard from Patty Freedman, asking if I remembered her neighbor Ruth McCourt?  Of course I did.  We’d had such a nice talk.  Patty then told me that Ruth and her daughter were on the first plane to hit the towers – the trip to Disneyland.  Apparently her friend wanted to fly stand-by to save money and was on the other plane to hit the towers.  Plus, Ruth’s brother was in a meeting at the Trade Center but on a lower floor and he got out.

            I went back to my copy of Hello and there was a full-page picture of Ruth.  It was an older photo, she had a different hair-cut and I’d glanced at it when I skimmed the magazine on the plane but hadn’t read the names or registered that it was Ruth.  Her poor husband – Juliana’s father — a terrible cancer diagnosis and then this.  Just one of so many sad stories but a particularly poignant one I think.

            This may sound weird, but we were a bit sorry not to have been here on 9/11 and the days following.  Because New York City is never more inspiring than when its citizens come together in adversity.  And this was maybe the biggest adversity of our life-times.  Even two weeks after the tragedy occurred, there was still a sense of unity that was palpable.  And such a sense of support the world-over for New York City.

posted by bill on October 8, 2011, at 8:30 am | filed under news | no comments »