(Buffalo News, 15 September 2001)


by Bruce Jackson

A few minutes after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Diane and I called our older daughter Jessica, who works in a tall building in New York’s garment district. Her office is a safe distance away from the horror we had just watched on television, but who knew what was going to happen next? Like any parent with a child in New York that day, we were terrified.

Jessica said someone in her office had seen the second plane hit. I told her we were watching it on the kitchen tv with her sister, Rachel. We didn’t talk long. We were just checking in, saying hello and I love you and are you okay, the way parents and children do when bad things happen. The words didn’t matter so much as the fact of them.

When I next tried to call the phone lines were jammed, so I sent her an email. She replied a few minutes later:  “just saw the second tower collapse out the window. No words. totally unreal. the devastation. we heard people jumped out the windows. I am scared to be in manhattan right now.”

She called that night from a hotel. All the city’s bridges and tunnels had been closed, so she couldn’t get home to New Jersey. She told us that she’d been planning a trip to the World Trade Center observation deck later this month with Leah, the older of her two daughters. Leah had learned that you could see 45 miles in every direction from up there, which meant she could see to their house in New Jersey and beyond. Leah talked about the planned trip a lot, Jessie said. She was quiet for a moment, then said, “I keep wishing it was one of those dumb disaster movies that I could turn off and everything would be like it was. But it never will be.”

Tuesday evening, Jessie's husband Dean overheard Leah and her four-year-old sister Ali talking about playing World Trade Center. "How do you play that?" Dean asked them. "We're the World Trade Center and we fall down," Ali said. "I don't think that's such a good idea," Dean said. "It's okay, daddy," Leah said. "This time all the people get out."

Jessie managed to get home the next morning. She had been up most of the night, she said. “It got really bad about 3:30. I kept thinking about all those people. I kept seeing that building.”

At school Wednesday morning, Leah's teacher gave the kids seven vocabulary words and told them to pick one and use it in a sentence. Leah picked "luck." Her sentence was, "I'm lucky my mom doesn't work in the World Trade Center."

Leah  had questions, Jessie said. Leah had seen it all on television and she wanted to know why they did it.

How, Jessie asked,  do you explain to a seven-year-old why someone crashes an airplane into a tall building? How do you explain why someone is willing to kill himself, a planeload of people he doesn’t know, people in offices, children and their parents on the observation deck, looking 45 miles in every direction? How do you explain it to yourself?

I told Jessie I had no answer. She said she knew that.

“I don’t know anybody else who’s got it figured out either,” I said. I read her an email I got Tuesday night from Warren Bennis, former UB provost  who is teaching this term at Harvard’s Kennedy School. "Big panel this afternoon with all the resident pundits on hand. Interesting, but nobody I think understands that this event today pales all other singular events, at least in my lifetime."  Warren is 76. He remembers Pearl Harbor and he was an infantry lieutenant in the Battle of the Bulge.

Maybe eventually one of those “resident pundits” will make sense of this violence, but the most useful thing I’ve heard thus far is something Rachel said.

Rachel has a friend who works in Boston and had a meeting in LA on Tuesday. At the last minute his meeting was cancelled so he didn’t board his plane— the one that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. “He still has the ticket. He should pin it on the wall," Rachel said, "and every time he thinks his life is lousy he should look at it.”

(The Buffalo News op-ed piece was limited to 630 words; this text contains two paragraphs that were not in the published version.)

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson

bruce jackson homepage