Less than half an hour into the tragedy, and the picture was becoming startingly clear: there was no other explanation than the one that seemed obvious but nonsensical: that two planes had been purposely hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. The drone of Matt, Katie and their cadre of eyewitnesses and correspondents continued on as I got Melinda her breakfast, changed her and dressed her and tried to interest her in her favorite toys. The same crazy pictures filled the screen, already becoming less bizarre with the familiarity of them: the two towers, the black smoke filling the blue sky, the orange of flames sometimes coming into focus.
It felt similar to me to the coverage of the Columbine shooting two years prior, or to the Oklahoma City bombing before that. A horrible, horrible tragedy, but something very far removed from me and my experience. I’d sat on my sofa two years ago watching as those poor children were evacuated from their school; I’d just moved from Michigan to Oklahoma that year, and so I was home during the day to see the coverage. The coverage started to stall into discussions with so called experts who used to work for the government and a rehashing of the events ad nauseum that were still less than an hour old. I found myself able to tear myself away from the television to do the dishes, to do a quick email check (no word yet about Marni) and to try and put some sense of normalcy into the this crazy day.
And then suddenly, just as had happened nearly an hour prior, the voices on the television changed. Jim Miklaszewski, their Pentagon correspondent, called in to the programming talking of an explosion, a blast, and his voice had that shaky quality of someone who is in shock. Katie Couric advised him to “be careful” as he offered to find out what he could about what had just happened at the Pentagon. In less than a minute, pictures came across the screen of smoke filling the air above the military complex.
I ran to the phone and called R at work. He answered on the second ring. “Are you watching?” he asked. Of course he already knew the answer; I hardly ever called him during the day at work because I knew how busy he was.
“Yes,” I choked into the phone.
“We’re in lockdown here. I can’t leave.” His voice was firm, but worried.
“What? Why?” I could hear the hysteria in my voice.
“We manufacture military equipment here. No one knows what is happening, but if there are attacks happening against the US military, we could be a target.”
“Oh,” I said in a far away voice. I could feel deep, deep panic rising in my chest.
“Don’t worry. It’s just a precaution, there isn’t any indication that anything will happen here.”
“There wasn’t any indication that anything would happen anywhere today.” I tried to remind myself to breathe. I had to stay calm. My hand went to my belly and unconsciously started to pat it.
“True,” R agreed, his voice trying for practicality.
“What should I do?” I wondered aloud, not really expecting an answer.
“Are the schools closing early or anything?”
“I haven’t heard anything. Do you think I should just go get Zach?” I thought of my son, who I’d sent off to school just three hours ago. When the world was safe. In that land that we would always think of as Before.
“Honestly, no. The best thing for him to do is to be at school where they are trying to keep everything low key and routine. If he comes home now, he’ll just watch the coverage all day with you and freak out like you are right now.”
“You can’t tell me you’re not freaked out by all of this,” I chided.
“Of course I am, but I’m just telling you that probably the best and safest place for him to be right now is at school. Just stay home, play with the girlie and try to take it easy. You can’t let yourself get too upset right now.”
I sighed, glancing over at the TV. The level of panic in the voices of the correspondents was palpable. “The FAA has banned all takeoffs at all airports across America,” said Tom Brokaw. This was no longer just in New York, or just in DC. This was here, this was everywhere.
“I hear you,” I answered, trying to modulate my voice.
“I’ll be near the phone all day, and I’ll leave as soon as I can,” R tried to reassure me.
“OK,” I whispered as I hung up the phone.
It was not OK.