9/11 – Empty Sky


It was a pretty September day. The concrete in the city had finally let go of the heat it had retained for months, so that a cool breeze could at last be felt even at the corner of Courtland and Piedmont.

I was at Georgia State University, and the managing editor of the Signal newspaper on campus. This was a big year for us. We’d begun printing our first color front pages in years, and we’d just launched our first Web site.

At the newspaper office, I was the first one in, and set about opening the shop. I rolled the phones off voicemail, booted up the banks of computers, jimmied the lock on the editor-in-chief’s office and turned on her television.

I sat at one of the Apple G4 computers, clicking through my e-mail when one of the sports writers came in. Strike that – the sports writer. Our sports department consisted of the Martz boys – twin brothers who liked writing about sports and designing their pages, but didn’t like playing with others. (For that year, if you were an aspiring sports journalist at Georgia State, you were out of luck unless you were willing to take whatever one of the Martz boys would give you, which wasn’t much.)

I don’t remember much about this guy, except that he was insufferable. Really, he talked all the time about things no one cared about. I can’t even remember what he talked about. That’s what I thought of him. Still alone in the office, I finally told him he’d have to excuse himself because I had to go to class and I’d have to lock up the office until another editor arrived. He picked up his bag and began to leave.

“By the way,” he said, “did you hear that someone crashed into the World Trade Center?”

“A truck?” I asked.

“No, just a plane,” he said.

“Oh. Probably one of those tourist planes got a little too eager,” I said.

He agreed, and left. I grabbed my back and locked the door. Down the hall from our newspaper office on campus was a television lounge. It was usually empty. It was also where a lot of homeless people went to watch TV and sleep. Students didn’t use it much.

This morning, it was packed.

Windows from the lounge looked out on the hall. I stopped and looked through them at the television. There was a gaping hole in the side of one of the towers, billowing black smoke and flames. “Damn,” I thought. “Helluva’ tourist plane.”

My timing was dead on. As I watched, just about to leave for class, the second plane hit. It wasn’t a single-engine tourist plane like I’d thought. It was a big, shiny jetliner that exploded on impact.

My view was obscured by everyone in the lounge jumping to their feet at once. Words like “Jesus!” and “shit!” and “holy Jesus shit!” filled the halls.

This was different.

I went back to the newspaper office and unlocked the door. I’d left the television on in the editor-in-chief’s office, but oddly had it tuned to one of the only channels that wasn’t broadcasting from the roof of a building overlooking the World Trade Center. One click fixed that.

I got on the horn and started calling folks. Something I’d remarked about before was the oddly high number of New Yorkers I had on my newspaper staff at the time. I liked them, because they were true urbanites. I’d grown up on an old farm; the city was strange to me. I surrounded myself with people who considered Woodruff Park to be “woods.” These were people who drove down alleys and cut through parking decks when you rode with them as part of their drive home, and didn’t consider this strange at all.

I opened up our phone lines for our writers to phone relatives in New York, since the cell phone system was jammed with calls and landlines were the only way to place a call. Web sites for news outlets were crashing, and somehow people were finding our site for Atlanta news. We began aggregating info from the television and what Web sites we could reach. A newspaper was making images of the scene available for college papers to use, and we were using them liberally. So far as I know, our newspaper’s Web site has never recorded more hits in a day. CNN went down, but ours stood strong.

One of our arts and entertainment writers – himself a former interim editor-in-chief of the paper along with being a former United States Marine was using one of the phones to call his old service buddies. He and about 10 other former Marines left right from the newspaper office to re-enlist.

I missed that first class of the day, but went to another before the university decided it prudent to cancel classes the rest of the day. I really wanted to go to the next class, because it was Professor Herb’s global studies class.

Professor Herb was sort of a red-headed Irish guy. He was Catholic, I remember – or had been at one point, anyway. And he was a pretty funny lecturer. I’d had him before for a class and enjoyed it. But Professor Herb’s true area of expertise was the Middle East. He’d worked for oil companies after he earned his Ph.D. in Middle East affairs. His wife was from the Middle East, and he’d lived there for years while working for the oil companies before returning to academia.

Professor Herb, I thought, would probably have something interesting to say this morning.

He came in and immediately distributed a new syllabus. While the towers quaked and fell, he was redesigning his global studies class. The lessons he’d planned to teach were no longer relevant.

We sat in a vast and nearly vacant lecture hall that morning in the General Classroom building. It was a tall building, and suddenly everyone within earshot of a television or radio was suddenly terrified of tall buildings.

That morning, Professor Herb taught us all about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. We learned about the things we’d done that made people in that region hate us, and about how many in the region still liked us or, at least, were indifferent to us. We learned about what happened after they blew up the U.S.S. Cole, about how governments there had provided implicit support for al-Qaida, and that if we were going to war with anyone, it’d be the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that wars in Afghanistan are damned near impossible to win because there’s nothing good to bomb.

There were only about six or seven of us in class that morning, but the class still managed to run over. Understanding the unique character of the moment, none of us were going to pass up the opportunity to have an audience with such a scholar on this very morning.

Later that day, out of class and after classes had been cancelled and we’d bolted the newspaper office door shut (the editor-in-chief never showed up – we finally reached her on her cell phone, getting the hell out of town – and we had sent our Webmaster home to keep the site going from there), I stood in Library Plaza on campus and listened. It was silent. The city was deserted. Even the planes – the roar of which was constant – were gone. There was no traffic, no horns blaring. I could even hear the traffic lights click as they switched from red to green. Jason Hanes, a dear old friend and college chum, and I stood on a pedestrian bridge connecting the plaza to another classroom building and starred down the desolate street below and said nothing.

We then drove to the Webmaster’s house up in Gwinnett County, near Beaver Ruin Road. The highways be then were being used sparsely as well. The electric signs over the highway that usually would have advised how long you could expect it to take you to go from one exit to another instead displayed “National Emergency – All Air Traffic Suspended – No Airport Service Available.”

At the Webmaster’s house, we watched the war begin. The Northern Alliance, which had been battling the Taliban for years anyway, suddenly were getting feisty. Rockets were being fired in Afghanistan, and CNN was airing the beginning live. So was Fox, but it was the same feed that CNN was showing, except they tried – poorly – to superimpose the Fox logo over CNN’s.

I didn’t lose anyone close to me that day. No one I knew worked in the Pentagon, the World Trade Center or was even on a plane that day. What happened was terrifying. The radio stations all carried 24-hour news broadcasts instead of music. I will not forget watching Aaron Brown, who was new to CNN, perched on a rooftop overlooking the disaster in New York, undertaking the macabre task of calling play-by-play for the end of the world. That’s when I began going to sleep with the television on, tuned to CNN, needing to watch the world revolve in real time.

Still, I remain haunted, more than anything, by the sky that day, silent as death. My parents’ house was in the path of planes that circled Hartsfield International Airport, and the sound of aircraft was constant. The memory of stepping outside and hearing that eerie quiet sticks with me.

I had the decal of an American flag in the back window of my Bonneville on Sept. 10. I do not always agree with the things my nation does, but I have always been proud and blessed to be one of its citizens. Still, every year, I make a point of listening to Bruce Springsteen’s haunting tribute to that day, his album “The Rising.” And I cry like a baby.

I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to the empty sky
— Bruce Springsteen, “Empty Sky”


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