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We were driving past Manhattan, on our way back from a wedding and whirlwind trip of the Northeast.
I looked over at the Island, at the Twin Towers, then turned to my then-girlfriend and uttered words I now can’t forget.
“Isn’t it strange to think some terrorists tried to blow them up?”
It was September 2nd, 2001.
Nine days later, I laid in bed tossing and turning. My phone would not stop ringing. I kept asking myself why my girlfriend would be calling me so darn early in the morning. I knew she was on a business trip, and she knew I had worked late the night before.
I finally got out of bed, and went to my answering machine.
“You have 8 new messages.”
I hit play.
“Chris, call the station, there has been a major terrorist attack.” Click.
I didn’t listen to the following messages, picked up the phone, and called the station in Seattle where I was working at the time. I didn’t bother to turn on the television. My boss answered.
“Hey it’s Chris, Gillian left a message about a major terrorist attack or something?”
“Have you turned on a tv?”
I still remember what he said next.
“Well, let me put it this way. The World Trade Center no longer exists.”
As I scrambled to shave, shower, and head out the door, I hit play again.
“They’ve cancelled our business trip.”
“Disneyworld is closed.”
“The airport is closed. I don’t know what to do.”
My girlfriend, who would later become my wife, was in Orlando for a nationwide conference. It was immediately cancelled, and she and her colleagues sat at an empty theme park wondering what just happened to our country, and what it would mean for her to get home.
I went off to Sea-Tac airport. I can still remember looking out at the parked planes, and then walking through the concourse. At that point, it was still unclear what exactly had happened, and some people were still milling around as if their flight might take off at some point in the day.
I can remember looking at a monitor in one of the airport lounges, and that’s when I saw it: the first tower falling to the ground.
My jaw dropped. I stood next to other reporters in silence.
Blame was quick. I would later hear someone utter the first of what became a trend in the days to come: slurs about Arab-Americans and people of Middle Eastern descent.
We then went up to the parking garage at Sea-Tac to do live reports about the situation, and when the FAA may reopen the airport. It was only day one. Nobody knew what was in store.
I got a call from my girlfriend. “No one can get a hold of Amy.”
I just saw our family friend Amy a couple weeks prior. She’s a photographer in New York City, and had an office in one of the Twin Towers. The loss of the cell towers, and communication lines, which once stood at the top of the buildings made communication difficult for several hours.
I called my friend and colleague Peter Alexander, a now NBC correspondent, who I worked with at the time. He was also having trouble getting a hold of some people he knew in New York.
As I stared into the September sky, filled with unknowns, Peter said to me, “It makes me just want to be with my family and hug the ones you love.”
It crossed my mind at one point, about whether Disneyworld, of all places, was safe.
The hours dragged on, and it was clear the FAA was not going to open any airport soon.
“Welcome to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport…”
I heard the recording repeatedly over the next 48 hours. It echoed through the airport concourse, which became my second home in the next few days. Sea-Tac turned into a ghost town. No vendors. No travelers. It was just media, and a few employees.
I can remember heading up an escalator, and at one point, an older woman was in front of me. She turned around and said, “Kind of makes you feel like the last person on the face of the earth, huh?”
While juggling the story from Sea-Tac, my phone continued to ring.
“We got a hold of Amy,” my girlfriend told me, “She overslept, and was driving into work and noticed the first tower burning. But she can’t get a hold of several of her friends.” She never did.
Neither did a co-worker, named Steve, who tried for days to get a hold of his brother Sergio.
Sergio was a firefighter, who responded to the call at the WTC. In the days after, Sergio’s name would pop up on a New York City registry of first responders who were alive. I remember excitedly pointing at a web page, and telling Steve he’d been found.
“He still hasn’t called.”
Sergio was never seen again.
On September 14th, my then girlfriend called me. “We heard they’re going to open up the airport, and resume flights.”
I looked out at an empty Sea-Tac, and told her “when this engine gets going again, it’s going to take a while to get to full speed. You should think about driving.”
And she did.
The next day, she and her colleagues rented a minivan in Orlando, went to a nearby Wal-Mart, bought a bunch of chips and movies, and started driving west.
She saw the Florida panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, before finally arriving in San Diego. It was a journey that took a little more than 24 hours. By the time she got to Southern California, the FAA had opened the airspace. She and a co-worker were able to jump on one of the first flights back to Seattle.
She returned to a city, which in my mind, was deeply affected by the events 3,000 miles away.
Friends, who may not have been the most patriotic, were suddenly wearing flag pins and singing the national anthem.
Local baseball fans, caught up in the successful Mariners season of 2001, were standing in unison to sing God Bless America.
No one complained about airport security.
In the months that followed, we saw our local troops go off to war. Many people, who were just spending one weekend a month in the reserves, found themselves gone for far longer.
9/11, in my mind, changed the tenor of our conversation.
Prior to the date, we saw protests and riots in the streets of Seattle. Earlier in the year, a group of thugs tore apart Pioneer Square during the Mardi Gras riots. WTO was still fresh in our minds.
But after 9/11, at least in Seattle, that kind of activity ended.
We had more pressing issues to discuss.