Remembering 9/11, And A Bicycle

No matter what else goes on this Friday, the shadow of a Tuesday weekday 19 years ago — September 11, 2001 — hangs over us all. 

That horrible day changed our lives forever. We know it now — and we sensed it then.

Here’s what I wrote 3 days later — September 14, 2001 — in my Westport News “Woog’s World” column.

It was a bit past noon on Tuesday, the Tuesday that will change all of our lives forever.

Fifty miles from Westport smoke billowed from what, just hours before, was the World Trade Center.

A number of Westporters once worked there. The twin towers were never particularly beautiful, but in their own way they were majestic. Whether driving past them on the New Jersey Turnpike, flying near them coming in to the airport, or taking out-of-town friends or relatives to the top, we took a certain amount of pride in them.

We’re Westporters, but in a way we’re also New Yorkers. The World Trade Center symbolized that, though we live in suburban Connecticut, we all feel in some way connected to the most exciting, glamorous, powerful city in the world.

And now that same city was under attack. From the largest McMansion to the most modest Westport home, men and women frantically tried to make contact with spouses, relatives and friends who work in downtown Manhattan.

The iconic 9/11 photo was taken by Westport’s Spencer Platt. He lived near the Twin Towers on that awful morning.

At Staples High School, teenagers who grew up thinking the worst thing that can happen is wearing the wrong shirt or shoes, were engaged in a similar quest.

Many of their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers work in New York. Many others knew loved ones who were flying that morning, or in Washington, or somewhere else that might possibly become the next city under siege.

Meanwhile, on Whitney Street, a pretty young woman dressed in her best late-summer clothes rode a bicycle down the road.

It was, after all, a beautiful day. Along the East Coast there was not a cloud n the sky — not, that is, unless you count the clouds filled with flames, dust and debris erupting from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

It was a perfect day to ride a bicycle, unless of course you were terrified you had lost a loved one, were glued to a television set wherever you could find one, or were so overwhelmed by grief and rage and fright and confusion because you had no idea what was next for America that riding a bicycle was absolutely the furthest thing from your mind.

On the other hand, perhaps riding a bicycle was exactly the right reaction. Perhaps doing something so innocent, so routine, so life-affirming, was just was some of us should have been doing.

If tragedy teaches us anything, it is that human beings react to stress in a variety of ways. Who is to say that riding a bicycle is not the perfect way to tell Osama bin Laden, or whoever turns out to be responsible for these dastardly deeds, that America’s spirit will not be broken?

But I could not have ridden a bicycle down the road on Tuesday. I sat, transfixed, devouring the television coverage of events that, in their own way, may turn out to be as transforming for this world as Pearl Harbor was nearly 60 years earlier.

I could not bear to watch what I was seeing, but neither could I tear myself away. Each time I saw the gaping holes in those two towers, every time I saw those enormous symbols of strength and power and (even in these economically shaky times) American prosperity crumble in upon themselves like a silly disaster movie, the scene was more surreal than the previous time.

Life will be equally surreal for all of us for a long time to come.

I wondered, as I watched the video shots of the jet planes slam into the World Trade Center over and over and over again, what must have been going through each passenger’s mind.

Like many Westporters, I fly often. Like most I grumble about the delays and crowded planes, but like them too I feel a secret, unspoken thrill every time the sky is clear, the air is blue and the scenery terrific. Tuesday was that kind of day.

For the rest of my life, I suspect, flying will never be the same. And the increased security we will face at every airport, on each plane, is only part of what I fear.

So much remains to be sorted out. We will hear, in the days to come, of Westporters who have lost family members and friends in the World Trade Center. We will hear too of those who have lost their jobs when their companies collapsed, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the terrorism.

Sherwood Island State Park is the site of Connecticut’s official 9/11 Memorial.(Photo/David Squires)

We will drive along the New Jersey Turnpike, or stand on a particular street in Manhattan, perhaps even take out-of-town guests to gaze at the landmark we will come to call “the place the twin towers used to be.”

Our casual grocery store and soccer sideline conversations will be filled with stories: who was where when the terror first hit, and what happened in the hours after.

Our newspapers and airwaves will be clogged with experts trying to explain — though that will never be possible — what it all means for us, in the short term and long term, as individuals and a society.

Our world has already changed, in ways that will take years, if not decades, to understand. We are nowhere close to comprehending the meaning of all this.

The world will go on, of course. Our planet will continue to spin; men and women will continue to commute to New York, and pretty women in Westport will continue to ride bicycles down Whitney Street.

At the same time, sadly, none of that will ever be the same.

10 responses to “Remembering 9/11, And A Bicycle

  1. On 9/11, I was teaching TV Production in the TV Studio at Staples High School, when my oldest daughter called during class – not something she would typically do – and told me to turn on the TV. In the Staples TV studio, we had the only TV set in the school at the time. We watched in horror. It is a day like my high school day of the Kennedy assassination that is burned into my memory.

    Years later I contacted the 911 memorial organization to see if I could find out the names of Staples graduates who had perished on 9/11. They could not help me as privacy was a major concern for the families involved.

    In the Staples High School lobby there is a plaque in memory of those who died in World War II. As a Staples teacher, I always thought it would be appropriate to put up a plaque listing the Staples students who perished on 9/11. I had one of those students in class, Keith Coleman, one of two Westport brothers who perished that day. As a retired teacher, I regret that I was not able to help have a plaque installed for these students. I still wish there was some way we could do it.

  2. Charlie Stoebe (SHS '04)

    I was in Mr. Honeycutt’s class that morning. I will never forget those moments.

  3. A Beautiful and poignant piece for then and now Dan. No one ever believed such acts of horror could take place in our country and in two of our greatest cities, Washington and New York. Like previous generations who awoke on December 7th, 1941 to the attack on Pearl Harbor, they like us could tell you exactly where they were standing when these events took place. Our world and theirs changed so dramatically after these moments.

    Today we are living in a new time of what we used to think of as a science fiction movie plot , the world of a contagious virus impacting everything we do compounded by a divided nation not able to come together with the right energy and policy to defeat this new enemy.

    Let’s hope we can find our way through this maze as well and come back to a world where we can among other things hug again.

  4. As you’ve said, we all have 9/11 stories. The month before, I had taken my 12 year old granddaughter to the Statue of Liberty Park, She was a budding photographer and took pictures of the entire ‘trip’ including the Twin Towers which loomed close that day. When 9/11 occurred, and she heard what
    happened, she sent us all photos she had taken including a majestic view of the Towers from the ferry. In that moment, she grew up.

    The son of a friend who worked for Goldman Sachs was in the habit of phoning ing his mother every MORNING from work to greet her day. At the instant the horror occurred, he phoned her to say ‘goodbye. ‘ His remains were never found.

    And on and on. We will never forget.

  5. In Remembrance

  6. Out of this most unspeakable horror came the most overwhelming outpouring of duty, strength, empathy, kindness, love and connection. It’s so hard to look at how we treat each other today, how careless we can be with each other’s pain and fears, and how focused we have become on protecting our own self-interest at the expense of others, and not believe that we HAVE forgotten. I can only imagine what it’s like to have one’s very personal loss not only made public, but be reduced by some to what feels, especially in this current climate of division, to be a meaningless hashtag. Hopefully we can get back to a place, as a country, where we honor those families who gave everything by living the values that came so naturally then, when we looked past our differences, met each other with empathy rather than judgment, and selflessly rushed in to help where there was need. (Fully aware that I’m preaching to members of the proverbial choir, whom I am grateful to call neighbors.)

  7. Raymond Wilhelm

    An unforgettable event that haunts like the Kennedy assassination. I was in my office on Hudson street, one mile away, when the second tower came down. Gruesome and nimaginably terrible.
    Now when we see a New York movie on TV, we get excited to get a glimpse of the towers. “Look, look” we say. Then we seem to quiet down. It’s hard to remember, and impossible to forget.
    Bless all who perished then, in the aftermath, and those who will lose their lives for having responded at that critical time.

  8. I was in my office in midtown on a high floor and had a clear view. I saw the first tower come down with my own eyes and decided I did not need to watch anymore. A few hours later, I walked to the Metro North station at 125th St. All along Park Avenue, there were parents scurrying home with their children holding their hands no matter the age. At 125th, there was an older Metro North employee with a megaphone on the platform, calmly telling people that all trains would make all stops.There was man completely covered in white soot who was essentially catatonic. Someone held his face and asked him where he lived, “Larchmont” he said. “Who is going to Larchmont?” said the guy who had inquired. After a positive response, the fellow Larchmont resident took the guy covered in soot by the hand and led him to the train.Small moments, indelibly etched in my memory.

  9. Dan you captured it and just 3 days after the event…most of us were just in a surreal daze at that point, but you had the presence of mind to think about the impact and so accurately forecast what was to be. Very impressive.

  10. Thanks for sharing this piece. We will all never forget where we were on that day. That year. Thanks for always having the words