September 11, 2001
It is an ordinary September afternoon. The phone rings. It must be a commercial call. I leave my laundry in the machine and reluctantly pick up the receiver.
“Hello, Ma?” It is a dear voice from across the Atlantic. Why is she calling during office hours?
“Runi? Are you okay? Aren’t you in office?”
“I am okay, Ma. Have you watched the news?”
“No, I was doing some laundry.”
“Before you watch the news, I want you to know that I am fine.”
“One of the towers of the World Trade Centre is in flames! Wait, the second tower too!”
“Where are you?” The ground under my feet seems to shake
“In my office, standing by the window, watching it happen,” her voice breaks.
“Runi, don’t hang up, I am switching on the TV.”
I hear words: ‘Twin Towers hit… planes… accident… enemy attack…’
“Are you in danger? Can the fire spread to your office?”
“No, we are quite far. The towers are, I mean, were very tall and visible. They are collapsing. I can’t believe what I am seeing! It’s a nightmare!,” she’s almost screaming.
“Can you go home now?”
“Don’t know. I’ll call back.”
I wait. My mind is in a turmoil. The unthinkable has happened. How could it?
The phone rings. My husband is calling from his office.
“Have you watched the news? Did Runi call?” his voice is shaky, he is breathless.
“She is okay, she called from her office.”
“What a relief! Is she going home?”
“I don’t know.”
“I am coming home. Try not to panic.”
I wait, I pray, and then pace up and down. My husband returns. I try to make some coffee. It spills. We wait.
After an eternity, she calls again.
“The office is in turmoil. Nobody knows what to do. Where can one be safe? This will bring Manhattan to a standstill. I can’t see any buses. I don’t think I can go back home to Hoboken. The Holland tunnel might close.”
“Can you stay in a friend’s place in Manhattan?
“I don’t know… yes, Andrea lives in midtown. She works in my building. I’ll talk to her.”
“Do that and call again please. We love you dearest.”
“I love you too. If you don’t get a call, assume I am at…” the phone gets cut.
The news spreads quickly. Friends call.
“Have you heard from your daughter? Is she alright?” they ask.
We are glued to the TV, watching the scene of devastation being shown again and again. CNN’s breaking news is focused on the Twin Towers, with horrifying visuals of the towers burning and collapsing. The second plane hits, smoke and fire tear down the second tower. It ripples, buckles and falls. Smoke covers the sky. Streams people are running away from the vicinity. We hear sirens of ambulances and police cars rushing to the site. Firefighters and healthcare workers are on an around the clock rescue operation.
Hundreds of people work in those two buildings. Many must have died, and many more badly injured. It can’t bear thinking.
I dial Runi’s number repeatedly, but it won’t connect.
How could this happen, we ask ourselves, watching the footage of the blazing towers.
The mystery begins to unravel. Four planes had been hijacked! Two had crashed into the Twin Towers, the third crashed into Pentagon, and the fourth in a field in Pennsylvania. The evidence points to a terrorist attack.
We sit by the phone, waiting. But Runi doesn’t call. The phone connection to New York is out. We try to stay calm. The situation must be under control there. But is it? At least the fire hasn’t spread. But Runi? Did she reach her friend’s place? Is she stuck somewhere in a dismal, unsafe area of the mega city? Would there be reprisals? Suppose a riot breaks out?
Sleep eludes us. The next morning, to our great relief, she calls.
“I am staying in my friend’s place until the transport systems are back on a more normal schedule.”
“We are so very thankful that you are safe.”
“I have two close friends who worked in one of the towers. I don’t know what happened to them,” her voice breaks as she sobs.
“Maybe they were lucky. It is too early to know. Try not to think about it.”
Between bouts of sobbing, she says, “I will call you again later. Don’t worry about me. I am safe and unhurt.”
Thankfully, we are able to stay in touch with her after that.
I remember taking the ferry with Runi from Hoboken, across the Hudson River to the World Trade Center last summer. We had spent a pleasant summer evening walking by the river front, eating ice cream, watching people jogging, cycling, roller skating, rushing home from work, and the lit windows of the Twin Towers where people had been working late.
The Twin Towers are a heap of rubble now.
A few days later, I receive an email from Runi:
I can’t really describe what it is like here, except to say that this bustling city is quiet. We are constantly listening for sirens – a good thing, because it means they are finding survivors.
The area south of 14th street is barricaded, and Union Square is full of people waiting. Red cross workers are distributing food and water, and every time a fireman, cop or Emergency Medical Service worker walks by everyone stands up and cheers. The park is like a big shrine with candles and flowers and hundreds of hand-written notes.
Then there are those looking for their loved ones. They walk up and down the streets with photos and leaflets, stopping everyone who passes by to ask if they have seen the person. You look, because that is all you can do, and then tell them that you are sorry but no, you have not.
I am fortunate that my child was not working in either of twin towers, that she was not visiting her friends there, that she was safe. Many were not so lucky. Three thousand people died, including most of those working in the towers, firefighters, tourists, passengers and crews of the planes, and some who were just passing by.
I did not know then that the implications of this event would be far reaching, enduring, and that it would touch all of us.
Sunanda Krishnamurty lives in Geneva. She is a writer with several publications to her credit. She has also published translations in English of works of Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra and Bankimchandra.
Featured image: CC/Flickr/Anthony Quintano