My then-husband dropped me off at the company's office. It was still dark. I waited for everyone to arrive. I wrote my name on a sign-in sheet and clocked in. I stood in a building stacked with carpet and wallpaper samples in the pre-dawn hours, drinking Diet Pepsi and milling around among strangers. There was nowhere to sit except the curb outside, which is where I went and smoked a cigarette, alone.
I overheard a woman's voice from an interior office say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My mind reached for a vague recollection that some years prior someone had crashed their little Cessna-type plane into one of those buildings. Well, that's sad, I thought...some poor soul. Within a few minutes all the expected workers had arrived and we were piled into a van. I sat next to a red-haired man I'd never seen before in the back seat of a van full of people I'd never laid eyes on before - the people I referred to for a long time after, as "the people with no souls".
The radio was on in the van. The sun was rising over the Sierra Nevada Range, its first rays peeking through a window moving southbound on Hwy 70, when it began to dawn on me that this plane crash was a bigger deal than I had thought. It was not a Cessna. The air escaped me when they announced a second jumbo jet had crashed into the second tower.This was no freak accident. From that moment on, I realized the world would never be the same.
We were still in the van, heading south, when we heard about the Pentagon. And there was another plane...still flying. Dread clouded my mind. I turned to that fellow on my left and asked him what the date was. "It's the eleventh."
"Nine, one, one," I said, "How strange." The horrible irony was lost on no one, with the exception possibly, of the folks in that van. The world was ending, or so it seemed, and I was in a van with strangers, heading to a first day on a new job. I felt worse than alone. I had no cell phone in those days. My kids were in school by that hour. I had no one to hug or cry with, no one to talk to. I rode in silence, trying not to cry, not wanting to cry in a van full of strangers. Finally, the driver and his front seat companion announced that they'd heard enough and were switching to Bob and Tom. For the rest of the drive we listened to crude humor and rock music. 9/11 didn't exist for Bob and Tom.
I was numb when we arrived at the job. Model homes became vanity in those hours in a van. Decorating, ridiculous. We were putting ribbons around bath towels and fake books in fake libraries. We were setting up teepee beds in Indian themed children's rooms, while real children, real parents, real families were dying. I went through the motions, trapped in an existence that had become surreal. About an hour into the work, a manager came through the unit where I was working: "Hey, I've been talking to some folks at the main office. They've got a TV in there and are all upset. They think you all might be upset and need to go home. So does anyone want to go home? I've asked everyone else in the other units and they just want to stay here and work. What about you?" So, there it was. It was up to me, the stranger on her first day, apparently the only one who wanted to be home with her family. To my regret, I said nothing.
"Fine, we'll stay then."
It was 6:30 in the evening at a Round Table Pizza, sitting with the people with no souls when I finally saw a television. It would be another two hours before I could hold my children and finally weep.
I have seen that red-haired fellow on several occasions since then, but have never struck up a conversation. I'm not sure he remembers me. But I'll never forget him. He was who I sat next to on Sept. 11, 2001. And in all fairness to him, I think it was his first day on that job, too. In all fairness to the rest of them, I'm sure they really did have their own souls to deal with.
A lot changed after that day. It was a few years before I would put my kids on a plane to visit their dad. Instead I drove them the 500 miles for every visit. My then-husband was in law enforcement, so I was privy to all the strange rumors, like local farmers being offered large sums of cash by "middle-eastern" types in exchange for lessons in flying crop-dusters; the calls to inspect backpacks or unusual objects with protruding wires; threats of various kinds at local dams and landmarks. White powder anywhere brought fears of anthrax. Low-flying aircraft unnerved us - even here in the west. It could happen anywhere after all. Cars backfiring or balloons popping had us all jumping out of our skins. And then there were the sniper attacks which left no one feeling safe, even to pump their gas. In those early months an entire nation was openly wounded and defensive. It seemed as if hell had broken loose. In a way, it had.
I'm thankful to God and every human involved in preventing such devastation from reoccurring. Many mistakes and misjudgments have been made, to be sure. But we humans are a race of sinners. We are flawed, and so are all our best intentions. I'm thankful that the world did not end that day. I was not ready to face my Creator and Judge. I'm thankful for every day longer we have on this earth, because each day is another day of mercy and hope extended to sinners like us.
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." John 6:36-40