Every year since I wrote the following story, I have posted it on or near Sept. 11. It is a fictional account of a very real event. I'm not asking for any critique, I just want people to read it. I hope it moves you to read it as much as it did me to write it.
If this is inappropriate, I will pull it down.
All Fall Down
Whenever I look back on that morning, I can't help but laugh. Not a hearty laugh, like I've just heard a good joke. More like a sad, ironic laugh.
For years, my wife told me that my coffee addiction was going to kill me. Every morning for the last six years of our marriage she'd tell me that, and I'd laugh and tell her she was full of it. Then I'd kiss her and be off to work. Like clockwork, every morning.
That morning, however, I think my addiction saved my life.
I was running late. I knew I wasn't going to make it to the office by 8:30, not with New York traffic like it was. So, I called my boss and offered to stop at a local Starbuck's as penance. You know, pick up some coffee, pick up morale. He said that would be fine as long as I didn't make a habit of it. I laughed and assured him I wouldn't.
One java fix and six more in tow later and I was back on track. I smiled at the lobby attendants as I crossed the threshold, daring a glance at my watch. 8:44. I wasn't too late, and I came bearing caffeine, so I wasn't in too much trouble either. The express elevator doors opened and I crowded in with several others. What should have been a normal ride up to the sky deck, to switch to a local, was cut abruptly short as the elevator and, I found out later, the whole of the building was rocked by what I first thought was an earthquake. But earthquakes don't happen in Manhattan.
The elevator doors opened, spilling us out onto the sky deck several floors below where I had to be. I pressed the button on the local and found it unresponsive. I looked at my watch again. 8:47. I could hike it, but I definitely wouldn't be there by nine.
That's when I heard the television. "Oh my God, oh my God! Something's crashed in Manhattan." It seems even in their darkest hour, Americans turn to the god of television to guide their paths. People were hovering around the set so close that I couldn't see those in farthest. I could barely hear the newscasters. I made my way to the stairs just as somebody closest to the television screamed.
The stairwell was already filling with smoke and the sounds of people screaming. I abandoned the coffee, leaving it on a trash can, out of the way so it didn't get knocked over and cause a hazard. I grabbed a man's collar and pulled him from the stairs. "What happened?" I asked, but his responses were laced with terror. A plane, smoke, fire, some floor below my office. He pulled himself from my grasp and fell back into the flood of people spiraling down the stairs. Even as I backed onto the main floor, it was already starting to clear. I did not truly appreciate the term 'mob mentality' until that moment, when I found myself in the midst of a mob that is scared for its collective life.
I was too stunned to go anywhere. I turned my attention to the television, to see if the great god had any answers for me. I watched in horror as the second plane slammed into the South Tower, with an appropriate "Oh fuck!" from Matt Lauer that still makes me laugh that sad laugh even today. As if in a trance, I looked out one of the many windows around the sky deck and I saw the ball of flame and smoke blow by. Slowly, almost mechanically, I walked over, resting my forehead against the cool glass. Below I could see people scurrying from the building, rats deserting a sinking ship, almost.
A man fell by the window. It took me a moment to comprehend that I'd just seen a human being falling from more than ninety stories up. My first thought was Oh my God, he's falling! He's going to die! Another man fell, though everything froze for an instant as his eyes seemed to find mine. John Kimbrough. He was the closest thing to a best friend I had. I had worked with him for more than ten years, before we even moved to the Trade Center. I thought there would be a look of fear on his face, but I was shocked to see only relief. They're not falling, I thought, they're jumping. Heaven help us, they're jumping! I closed my eyes against the tears as I thought of how I was going to tell his wife Marsha and Lauren, their 3-year-old. What, for that matter, was I going to tell my own wife?
I quickly realized that I needed to hurry if I was going to make it out myself. The floor was all but deserted, the last stragglers trying to push their way into the already cramped stairwell. Down we went, circling endlessly it seemed as we tried to escape what was sure to be a mass grave. Ironically, the farther down we got, the easier it was to move, as the slower and less fit tarried behind.
And then, something startling happened. As I was pushing to the front, trying desperately to save my own skin, I saw them, in their fire-retardant suits and masks and air tanks. I saw them in their bright blue uniforms, and bright white shirts, FDNY and NYPD emblazoned proudly for the world to see. I saw them, as I was running away from danger, running instead toward it, knowing that there were still more of us inside who could not make it out alone.
I could see, too, the determination in their faces; men and women who, by their own will, would hold up the world so that one might yet live. They knew that they could not save us all. They knew that they could not even save themselves. But they knew, too, that we did not have to die alone.
I made it into the lobby of Tower One just in time to see the cloud of debris pouring down from what had been Tower Two. I was well outside the later-named Ground Zero when Tower One finally joined his brother. All around me I could hear the cries of those that had lost loved ones, or those that were looking, hoping, praying that they would be found. Before that day, I had never seen, could not comprehend, a fireman crying. As the tears rolled down his ash-stained cheeks, a part of me wanted to fault him, to consider him less a man. Yet, I knew, not only was that thought not true, he was a greater man than I could ever hope to be at that moment.
I look back on that day, on those images, and I cry myself. So many people lost someone that day; mothers, brothers, fathers, sisters, sons, daughters, even friends and strangers. That is why I am here. Some call it a 'war on terror' but I call it vengeance for innocent blood shed in the name of jihad. I may not run into burning buildings, or chase down criminals, but when it gets down to it, Afghani caves and Riker's Island don't seem that far removed. In the end, they all answer to God.