The morning of September 11, 2001, began like any other. I awoke at 9:45 to the insistent ringing of my alarm clock. Slow to react and turn it off, I had, as usual, spent the previous night studying and procrastinating until about 3 a.m., so now I lay in bed, hoping that if I ignored the beeping long enough, it might just stop.
Suddenly there was a brief, loud banging on my door. Uh-oh, I thought, How long has this alarm been ringing? Getting out of bed, I turned off the alarm and got ready for the shower, but as I stepped outside my room, I was confronted by a visibly distressed William, a friend who lives on the same floor. "Chris," he said, "are you seeing what's happening?" Still half-asleep, I muttered that I hadn't and then was led to Andre's room next door, where a handful of people were staring at the image of the smoldering World Trade Center towers on the television. "A plane hit the World Trade Center," William explained. "No one knows what's going on."
I stared at the screen in disbelief. "I hope my Dad is okay," I mumbled.
William, unaware that my father worked in One World Trade Center, looked at me and said, "Me, too."
The images seemed familiar. I remembered turning on the television back in 1993, when the World Trade Center had been bombed, and watching the firemen and rescue teams flood lower Manhattan and lead injured office workers out of the area. I was only ten years old then, so I hadn't really felt the gravity of these images. Sure, my dad worked there--but so what? As an attorney for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he'd worked at the World Trade Center every day I could remember, and he always came home at around 6:30 p.m., and no matter what was on TV I knew that day couldn't be any different. And sure enough, on that terrible evening in February 1993, he came home, as always. Now as I stood in my bathrobe in Andre's doorway, watching and listening, I no longer had the naivete of youthful innocence. I knew what terrorism was and I knew what tragedy was. But nothing could prepare me for how they felt.
My instincts took over. I returned to my room to call my mother at her office in New Jersey. She would comfort me and tell me that Dad was okay.
"Hello?" It was her.
"Mom, is Dad okay?"
"Well, we don't know."
My heart sank. I could think of nothing to say.
"You know your father usually doesn't leave until around 8:30, so I don't think he was there yet."
I glanced at the alarm clock. 9:55. We tried to reassure each other that he was probably in the subway, as he always was at that time. My mother didn't have a television in her office, so I relayed all the information I could from CNN. Frantically I tried to gain more information from the Internet, but I couldn't get any Web pages to load. On CNN, the image of two burning towers gradually became less and less clear. The blood drained from my face as I realized what had happened. "Oh God, Mom, one of the towers collapsed. It's completely gone." All we could do was hold onto the telephone in utter silence and ponder the immensity of what was happening.
A minute later, my mother broke the silence. "Chris, hold on, there's another call. It might be Daddy."
I waited for what seemed like an eternity.
"Chris?" She came back on the line crying--she was crying! Oh, my God, why? "It was Dad. He's okay."
"Mom!‚" I yelled, "then why are you crying?"
"I don't know."
Not knowing what else to do, we both began to laugh and cry a little. We kept talking. I kept watching TV, comforted by the knowledge that my mother had spoken to my father, who'd said he'd never made it to his office. We didn't know that One World Trade Center was about to collapse.
Realizing that I still hadn't showered and had class at 10:30, I said good-bye to my mother, agreeing to check in with her again after my class.
Walking around campus that day was a surreal experience. It was a day when you realize that you are living in a historic moment. A day that, without question, will become a story for future generations. A day when you become aware of how fleeting all our lives truly are.
On my way to that first class--which ended up getting canceled--I began to notice something strange: the absence of loud noises. Not that the campus was silent--lots of kids were walking to and from their classes and dorms--but there was no running, no laughter, no jovial discussions. It was as if people were afraid that the vibrations of their voices might knock down the precariously teetering south tower. People passed each other with solemn, expressionless faces, some quietly asking, "Have you heard?"
As I walked past the main Green and down George Street, I noticed a girl approaching me from the opposite direction. As she approached, I saw that she was on a cell phone and tears were streaming down her face. She cried, unashamed, pleading into the phone: "I need to know if he's okay. I need to know if he's okay." She screamed this into the phone, over and over again. I wanted to grab her and hug her. I wanted to tell her that my Dad worked there, and that he was okay, that everyone would be okay. But I knew I couldn't. In fact, I couldn't even look at this girl. The tears were already welling up in my eyes, and so I just stared at the ground in front of me as I passed her. After that I couldn't hold back tears either, and I ran back to my dorm.
After my mother assured me that my father was still okay, I spent the rest of the day contacting friends from home--my family lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan--and making sure that everyone I knew was all right. I talked to more people from my high school that Tuesday than I did at my graduation. Throughout the day I received instant messages from old friends euphemistically asking, "How are things?" To which I replied that Dad was fine, and how was everything on their end? Fortunately, all my friends and their immediate families were okay.
Over the next few days I was struck by how my professors and classmates were reacting to the attacks. There seemed to be no one way of dealing with what had happened, no "typical" Brown discussion. My history professor, a native of Israel and an expert on twentieth-century genocides, began class by saying that he felt the best thing to do was to go on with his lecture as planned. He explained that Israel has long been the target of terrorist attacks and that in his experience the best thing to do afterward is to subvert the goal of creating terror by minimizing the disruption in one's life. By conducting class he was taking a defiant stand. Similarly, in my cognitive science class the professor asked that we begin with a moment of silence, then he said that he, too, wanted to try and proceed with class.
My political science professor, on the other hand, was visibly more shaken. "I know I usually open the class asking, 'How is everyone?'" he said, "but if you're like me you probably don't know what to think right now, so I won't be asking that question today.‚" He then explained that he was open to discussing anything today: "I'm prepared to talk about what happened yesterday or to go on with our normal lesson. Whatever you guys feel would be most helpful to you right now. Any ideas?" A few students asked to talk about the attack. The first one who spoke said he was concerned that President Bush and his "hawkish advisers" would plunge our country into a bloody, unnecessary, and unending war. Another student worried that we might immediately launch a retaliatory strike without clear proof of who had attacked us. I sat there silently, astonished that these were the first concerns in the minds of my classmates. My own thoughts were on how to best ensure that an attack like this never happened again. Our professor, meanwhile, sat in silence, carefully listening to all these views.
Halfway through the class another student said: "I sort of understand people's desire to strike back, but I feel like people are letting their emotions get the best of them and they're not thinking clearly. If we just start bombing Afghanistan, what's that going to accomplish? We're just going to kill a lot of innocent civilians." I almost raised my hand to tell him that thousands of innocent civilians had been killed, and they were from my hometown. I resented the idea that he was reducing the sentiments of those considering some kind of military response as illogical and emotionally charged. I was thinking clearly, but I knew there was nothing I could say at that point to change his mind.
Although my classes varied in how they dealt with the tragedies, all had one thing in common. All my professors said that if for any reason we felt we couldn't participate or remain in class, we were free to leave. They pledged to do whatever was necessary to help us catch up. Rarely do we students see our professors in a capacity other than as teachers; for every one of them to acknowledge that there are sometimes things more important than the "facts and figures" was truly moving.
Now, weeks after the attacks, I am struck most of all by the simple absence of those World Trade Center towers. Those towers that I had so often visited were gone, obliterated. My father's office number, 435-6880, which I had memorized as a child, now meant absolutely nothing. This was the number I had called to inform my father I had lost my first tooth and to tell him I had passed my driving test. I had dialed it to tell him the good news the day I'd gotten into Brown. But if you call it now, you hear a chilling recording: "Due to the emergency in the area you are calling, your call cannot be completed at this time. Please try your call later."
Chris Senio is a political-science concentrator.
By Ron Senio '66
Then There Was Nothing There
By Ron Senio ’66
I left for the office later than usual on the morning of September 11. About halfway through the subway trip downtown, I noticed a delay at each stop for what we were told was "police activity" at the World Trade Center station. At Canal Street, three stops north of the trade center, a passenger carrying a portable radio entered the subway car and announced that a plane had hit one of the towers. At the next stop, Franklin Street, someone on the platform shouted that two planes had hit the towers. I got off the train, rushed up the stairs, and joined hundreds of people standing in the middle of West Broadway looking to the south. The sight of a black scar across the fa√ßade of the north tower and the huge plume of black smoke billowing from the south tower left me numb. For a moment I considered walking down to the complex to see if I could help, but police officers were prohibiting all southbound movement.
After trying to absorb the enormity of what was happening, I decided I needed to reach my wife, Judy, at her office in New Jersey to let her know I was all right. Cell phones were not
working; I had neither a phone card nor enough change for a pay phone, and I had no confidence that in my stunned condition I could figure out how to place a collect call. I found the end of the shortest line at a bank of pay phones, out of the towers' line of sight. After an agonizingly long wait, I called one of our family's closest friends at her midtown office, begging her secretary to connect me with her. In those seemingly endless moments before my friend's voice came on the line, I could hear people screaming nearby as they watched Two World Trade Center collapse. Finally, our friend got on the line and put me on hold as she called Judy. Chris, it turned out, was on Judy's other line.
Police then ushered us all north, warning that the north tower was also about to collapse. In a horrifying moment I will never forget, the television mast atop the north tower seemed to sway, pitch slightly backward, and descend into an enormous cloud. Then there was nothing there. I worked in One World Trade Center, the north tower, for fifteen years. As a real estate attorney for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, I drafted and negotiated leases for space in the trade center complex. Like the tens of thousands of people who worked there, I felt the towers' existence in a personal way; they had ceased to be mere buildings. Of about 2,000 Port Authority employees who worked in the trade center, we lost seventy-four, exactly half of whom were police officers. Four of the thirty-seven civilian Port Authority people lost were from the law department. One was a close colleague of mine, whose memorial service I attended just today, the same day I write these words.