Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Gift: A Reflection on the 15th Anniversary of September 11

For my entire working career on Wall Street, I had risen before 5:00 am and been at my desk by 7:00 am. In January of 2001, I joined Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center on the 105th floor of the North Tower. Soon the disquieting tendency of the building to pitch and sway on windy days, as well as the spectacle of planes flying at eye level up and down the Hudson River became routine. 

During the first week of September 2001, the chairman of the firm informed me that he wanted me to work his hours. This would mean starting at roughly 9:00 am and staying well into the evening. Tuesday, September 11th will be the first day for this new, and completely unfamiliar, working schedule.

Old habits die hard, so that morning I’m wide awake at 5:00 am. I toss and turn, and try to force myself to stay in bed until I hear my sons, (two and five years old at the time), stomping around upstairs at their usual wake-up time of 6:00 am. Finally, I give up wanting for them and begin getting ready for work.

At 7:00 am, I’m dressed and ready to leave and there is still no evidence of life in the house. Every day for the past 25 years, I would have already been at my desk by this time. My commuting plan was to leave home at 8:00 am so that I could maximize my time with the boys and still get to my desk by 9:00 am. Today and from here on, I would not be home from work before the boys were in bed, so mornings would be the only time I would see them during weekdays. However, the boys were still sleeping, the house was quiet, and the bottom floor deserted as my wife was still asleep as well. But I’m ready to get on with it and fidgety about not being in the office already, and there is no sign that the boys are stirring upstairs.

I looked at my watch. Then time seems to stands still as I ponder my course: leave now or wait for the boys to wake? I wanted to go, but there was a voice whispering to me, “Don’t leave yet, you won’t see them tonight.” A couple of minutes later, I hear the noises of which all parents are familiar: pitter-pattering, flushing toilets, bickering, and thundering footfalls down the stairs.

By 8:00 am when the boys left for school, I had been through a three-hour long battle between the forces of “leaving for work,” and those of “waiting for the boys.” Then more delays getting to the office. I had to stop for gas. Then I got stuck in a long line of cars behind a school bus which seemed to stop at every house. When I finally got to the Interstate, traffic was at a crawl because vacations and summer were over. The I made more a poor choice in picking a toll booth lane. After that, someone had a flat tire on the Newark Bay Bridge which caused an another huge backup. Capping off a commute where everything went wrong, I hit every single stop light on the way to my parking garage. 

By the time I reached my destination on the Hudson River, I was highly agitated. As I pulled into the garage, I glanced up at the Twin Towers; they loomed back. I am rarely late for anything and have never been late for work. It was about 8:45 am, and it seemed that I would be in the office by 9:00 am after all. 

As I walked outside and away from the garage, I noticed clusters of people pointing skyward. From a blackened gouge of twisted metal about 2/3rds of the way to the top of my building, smoke poured. I overheard people talking about a small plane that hit the building. From the windows of my office on the 105th floor, flames licked at the sky. 

It was clear that anyone above the gouge was in trouble. The impact was a direct hit on the cafeteria so that people getting their morning coffee would have seen the plane coming directly at them. I tried to call my wife to let her know that I was not in the building, but the cell lines were already jammed. The at 9:03, I heard the whine of a jet engine. What I witnessed is the now familiar shot of the second plane striking the South Tower. I braced myself for a huge explosion, but it was more like the “pop” of a balloon.

Until this time people were milling around in groups watching the smoke pour from the first hit and speculating on the cause. Now everyone scattered. I ran into the subway station to the World Trade Center, believing that I should be there to help. What I encountered was a mob of humanity streaming out of the tunnel and shouting that the station was filling up with smoke. The pandemonium on the street was right out of Hollywood: people running in the streets, cars driving on the sidewalks. Some people just stared skyward. I left my car in the garage and walked to the Hoboken train station because I did not think I could drive after what I saw. 

The trains were packed, but orderly, and the passengers were quiet. One man sitting across from me said it was a terrorist attack. It seems incredible now, but I didn’t believe anyone could do such a thing. From the train I witnessed the South Tower fall to a mournful keening sound from the passengers. Then someone reported that the Pentagon was hit. Shortly afterward, a plane had flown into the ground somewhere in Pennsylvania. I remember saying to the man who had the terrible insight, “We’ll find there were heroes on that plane.”

At the time I did not recognize the consequences of the path I chose that morning. It the years afterward I was able to appreciate the rare gift of seeing all the little steps that God used to keep me out of the Tower. When the world doesn’t make sense, that gift provides faith that he has a plan. Today, whenever I recall that pivotal moment in the kitchen, it sweeps me right back to that those steps that morning. I’m often asked about the other path on Sept. 11. My answer is that I do not fear what could have been. Faith gives me courage for the path I am on.

 

timheaton.Tim Heaton is an Ole Miss Alumnus from Southaven, Mississippi who supports The Flagship in a variety of public relations efforts. He is a contributing writer to HottyToddy.com and actively volunteers his technical, database and social media expertise to several community service organizations in his current home in Morristown, New Jersey and his home state of Mississippi. He has been awarded over a dozen US Patents in technology and is also a published author, chef and physical fitness enthusiast. Tim may be reached at tim.h.heaton@gmail.com.

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