Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today

As I sit here and think of the 5th anniversary of 9/11/01, I still can't believe it happened.

I'd been looking forward to that day forever, because it was the first day of the Flyers training camp, an event which is always open to the public. I'd been downsized out of my job of 12 years a few months before, and I was depressed and looking forward to the resumption of the hockey season.

Actually, I had been a regular at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ for a week or two prior to that. There were players who were practicing together on their own, to prep themselves for training camp, and those practices were also open to the public.

As I got ready to leave for camp, I caught sight of a St. Christopher medal with an image of a hockey player on the front. Joe M. had given it to me a few birthdays prior to that day, and I'd worn it regularly up until a few months before (when I'd bought a necklace I particularly liked online, and realized that I couldn't wear both necklaces at once). This day, in honor of the start of hockey season, I decided to put the St. Christopher medal on. (St. Christopher is the legendary patron saint of travellers.) I figured it'd be my little way to state my hope for a safe, healthy season for all of our players.

So I got in the car for what I thought would be an ordinary drive to Voorhees, one I'd made multiple times over the course of the past weeks. And everything SEEMED normal, right until I got to I-295. Unlike my previous trips to the Skate Zone, THIS time I encountered a major traffic jam from the moment I came off the on-ramp and merged into the traffic on 295N. Oh, crud, this was just what I didn't want to see.

I stewed for a while as the traffic crawled, but after a few miles of inching along, I could stand it no more. I had to find out what was the matter, if I could. I switched from my usual FM station to KYW AM, our local news radio station. They have "Traffic on the Twos" (2 minutes after the hour, 12 minutes, 22 minutes, etc), so I figured that if there was some kind of accident on 295, they'd announce it.

As ill luck would have it, I tuned in at 8:43, JUST in time to hear the last sentence or so of the traffic report and its segue into the garden report.

"Freaking @#*$&#@$, I don't need a freaking garden report. I need to know what's the matter with 295! Aaaaarrrgh..."

Oh, well. There was nothing to do but stew in traffic for another nine minutes and wait for the next report at 8:52. What really had me aggravated was that I'd left in plenty of time to make the 15-mile drive and arrive at the rink at 9 AM, but it looked like I was going to be late anyway.

What I found out later is that at rush hour, 295 can abruptly get congested with commuter traffic, an instance which is not predictable nor is it necessarily caused by anything like a broken-down car or a fender bender. But at the time, I just sat there thinking a wide variety of imprecations against traffic jams.

At one point, in exasperation, I thought, "These have to be the nine longest minutes in the history of the world! Where is that @(#*$& traffic report?", and looked at my wristwatch. 8:51. Thank goodness, we're a minute away from the traffic report.

It never came. Seconds after I checked my watch, KYW broke into their reporting with live coverage from New York City. An airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers and the building was on fire. At the time, there were some reports that it was a small plane, like a commuter plane or a private plane, so my first thought was, "Oh, my God. Some poor pilot had a heart attack in the cockpit or something. How horrible for whoever was on the plane and whoever was in the building". Close upon that thought came, "Just what we don't need. An accident like this could inspire some malicious scumbag #&$% to do something similar on purpose."

As traffic continued creeping along on 295, the live radio coverage continued. A female reporter was describing how the fire was visibly spreading upward in the building from floor to floor. As I listened, the report triggered a thought process that, to this day, I flinch at remembering. First of all, as a person who'd worked in various tall buildings full of cubicles over the years, I could easily picture what it must have been like in that kind of environment. And it was unbearable to think that there were people who'd been sitting there, doing their jobs, who without warning had been transported a Hell on Earth. Understand that even in my worst nightmare I could never have imagined the real level of devastation that struck those buildings, not until I actually saw images on a television a while later. I was still operating under the premise that a SMALL plane had hit the building and started a fire.

As she described the fire, I was reminded, painfully, of the skyscraper fire that had happened in Philadelphia several years earlier. One Meridian Plaza caught fire late on a Saturday night, and the live reports showed the fire moving upward from floor to floor, inexorably, until it reached a floor where a sprinkler system went on and stopped its progress. Due to that tragedy, which caused the death of several Philly firefighters, laws were changes to require EVERY tall building to have sprinklers on every floor. One Meridian Plaza had not been legally required to install sprinklers on every floor; as a result, the loss of lives and property was far worse than it might have been. But the thing that stuck with me most (until the following morning, when I heard the reports that firefighters had died), was that as SOON as the sprinklers came on, the fire stopped spreading.

I thought, SURELY buildings the height of the Twin Towers must have been required to install sprinklers. They're just too tall for firefighters to easily reach the upper floors, and there'd have to be SOMEthing in place to control the spread of flames until emergency personnel could arrive.

So I sat in the car, already worked up because of the abysmal traffic conditions, and now listening to reports of an airplane crash and a spreading fire in the World Trade Center. The mental image of being in a cubicle farm in the midst of a huge explosion, and the memory of how our firemen died in One Meridian Plaza because of the lack of sprinklers, was getting me more and more upset. "WHY is the fire still spreading? Why haven't the sprinklers come on yet?" I couldn't bear to imagine what it must have been like to be in the building at that time, but at the same time, I couldn't get the hideous mental pictures out of my head. Now I recognize that what was going on in my head, and what was happening with my stress levels, was the precursor to an anxiety attack. But since I'd only knowingly suffered one of those in my entire life up to that point, I had no idea that that sort of biological event was about to take place.

The reporter on the radio continued to describe what she was seeing, and the fire continued to spread and worsen. By now, I had a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. "WHERE are those @#$*&ing sprinklers? This is unacceptable, that those things haven't come on yet! Didn't safety engineers learn ANYTHING from OUR fire in Philly?" By this point, I was so keyed up that I was shouting these things out loud at the radio.

Through my increasing level of distraction, I realized that I FINALLY was at the exit I needed and could exit the parking lot known as 295N. And as I pulled onto the off-ramp, still listening to the live radio report, the female reporter exclaimed, in a horrified voice, that a second plane had struck the other tower. THAT was the last straw -- if I'd been in borderline "anxiety attack" mode, I was in a full-blown anxiety attack now. Everything else literally stopped existing for a few seconds. I can't describe it any other way than that it seemed the world went temporarily blank. As I was in the process of driving a CAR at the time, I don't think I need to describe the level of danger this entailed.

There's a yield sign at the end of that off-ramp, and for good reason. The road it's leading onto is a busy one, and the off-ramp places you right in the traffic stream almost immediately. So if you're not attentive to oncoming traffic, you're likely to be broadsided.

As I nearly was by an oncoming truck. The mental white-out that I had for a few moments came just as I SHOULD have been yielding to traffic. Thank God, the driver of the large delivery truck was alert enough to jam his brakes. He missed slamming into the driver's side of my car by maybe ten inches, at most. If that truck had actually HIT my car, particularly the area of the car that it narrowly missed, I am positive that I would not be here today. That collision, had it happened, would surely have been a one-way ticket to meet my Maker.

If I'd been too worked up to safely operate a car before, that was NOTHING compared to the way I was feeling now. The traffic jam, the report of the first plane crash and spreading fire, the live report of the second plane crash, and the avoidance of a serious traffic accident by mere inches. This was the point where I realized, without doubt, that I was in fact having a full-fledged anxiety attack. Some part of my brain was aware that I was experiencing adrenaline-induced tunnel vision (a description of that biological phenomenon is here. Abruptly, I felt an immense, borderline-irrational-level need to be around other people. Actually, forget "borderline"... it was way beyond a normal urge to be in the same room with other human beings. I knew this on some levels, but overall, I was too upset to think straight. I absolutely HAD to get where people were, and I knew that the rink was a 4-mile drive away; my entire goal in life became "arrive at the arena as close to immediately as humanly possible". It was a straight shot down Rt. 561 from where I was, and thank God there was little to no traffic on THAT road because I sped through those four miles like a raving maniac. I was really pushing my luck with my guardian angel at that point, given the near-miss car accident I'd just avoided, but I couldn't help it.

Finally, by God's mercy, I arrived in one piece at the Skate Zone. I think it was about 9:15 or 9:20 by this point, and part of me was still ticked that I was late for the start of training camp. As I parked my car, grabbed my things, and hurried toward the building, I wondered if anyone in the arena had any clue about the horrific story that was unfolding in New York City. I was torn between needing to talk to someone about it, and not wanting to break the hideous news to someone who hadn't heard it yet.

The instant I entered the building, I realized two things. First, not only had the training session not begun yet, but there was no evidence of its imminent start. Second, every person in the VERY large group of fans in attendance was clustered in the lobby, grouped around the several TV screens which were broadcasting live news reports. Various individuals who saw me enter the building started telling me right away, "Airplanes hit the World Trade Center...". Each time, I told them that I'd heard what happened on my car radio, all the while thinking, "I guess I won't need to break awful news to anyone in HERE. They all know."

I called Mark at work, from my cell phone, to ask if he'd heard the news yet. He had. But I couldn't stay on the phone long because my battery was nearly out of power. Eventually, I picked a few familiar faces out of the large crowd, and stood next to THEM to watch the TV reports.

The timeline of what happened next is kind of a blur to me. I know that everyone remained in the lobby, watching the news, until we were informed that the players would soon be hitting the ice for training camp (over an hour after the originally scheduled start time). Then, nearly everyone tore their attention away from the televisions, and went into the rink on the Flyers' side of the building to watch the players. I did, too... my brain was pretty much overloaded by tragedy, and I was desperate to think about something else for a while. I knew that the horror stories would still be on TV in an hour, when the first part of the training drills was over.

I know that the fellow fan I was sitting with was an online friend of mine whose screen name is "Zeke". We watched the players on the ice, and I tried to take notes as best I could so I could post online about it later. My notes weren't as detailed as usual, though, because I was so distracted. I spent a lot of time looking at the drills without actually seeing much, and I suspect I had plenty of company among my fellow fans.

I remember praying that the players hadn't gotten the news yet. "Let them have one more hour of thinking that the world is a normal place". I should have realized, when the practice started as late as it did, that the reason for the delay was the players and coaches were watching the news, calling home, and in some cases trying to contact loved ones who lived worked near the scene of the attacks.

Over the course of the first segment of the practice, I spent most of the time watching the drills with Zeke. However, it's always pretty cold in the rink, and the cold bothers Zeke's back, so occasionally he'd go to the lobby for a few minutes to thaw out. Every time he came back, he had an item of news illustrating how conditions had deteriorated further. A plane had hit the Pentagon. One of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. Another plane had struck in PA and the OTHER tower had collapsed. By "collapsed", I mistakenly thought he meant that the buildings had separated at the point where the jets had struck them, and that the tops had somehow fallen down. If only that had been the case, instead of what really transpired! It really felt like every few minutes some new hideous thing was happening, and the question became, "When is this going to stop?"

When the first practice session was over, everyone gathered around the televisions in the lobby again. This was when I saw that the not just the tops of the towers, but the ENTIRE buildings had come down. I didn't think it was possible to feel more appalled than I'd already been all day, until I saw that. I was deeply troubled at having seen the second plane crash multiple times, and now at seeing the two buildings fall, because I realized that I was witnessing the moment that people were losing their lives. I felt like it was some kind of intrusion, somehow, and a total stranger had no right to watch them at a moment like that. I thought, "God rest their souls, I apologize to these people for watching what it's not my place to see. But we're all witnesses to this devastation and we'll all work to make sure it never happens again. That's the only way I can think of to make reparation for intruding on what should have been their privacy". (That prayer was reinforced later in the day, when I saw the appalling, heartbreaking video of people jumping from the widows of the World Trade Center. :o( )

Mind you, everyone was waiting desperately to find out WHERE in Pennsylvania that fourth plane had gone down. Philadelphia is right between New York and DC, so the first thought of just about everyone in the building was that it'd been on its way to strike some major landmark in Philadelphia.

Eventually, the announcment came out that the airplane had gone down not near Philadelphia, but near Pittsburgh, in the western part of the state. (Pittsburgh is about the same distance from Philly as Boston is, roughly 300 miles away, to give some idea of scale to my non-PA friends.) My immediate (and mistaken) impression was that Pittsburgh was actually the target, because I'm well aware that several very large banks have headquarters right in Pittsburgh. I figured that if the terrorists were hitting the World Trade Center, they might have been trying to cause additional financial disaster by destroying some bank headquarters. I could imagine that the destruction of a big bank's headquarters, or of the datacenter where its main computer system was housed, would cause an unspeakable mess for every part of that bank, right down to the branch level and the ATM system. Yes, offsite data backups would be able to be trucked in, and the computer system could eventually be restored to at or near its previous state. But the restoration process would be a full-blown nightmare, particularly if the actual COMPUTER was obliterated and they had nothing to restore the backups onto. Plus, any transactions that had taken place between the time of the last backup and the time of the computer's descruction would have to be recreated manually. Had all these things happened, I can only imagine the unholy amount of government-related paperwork that would be attendant upon the bank's attempts to restore their operations to their pre-disaster state from the ground up. I didn't want to think about it, but at the same time, I couldn't HELP thinking about it.

Speaking of things that I didn't want to think about: while most of the people in the building breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the airplane had not crashed in the Philadelphia region, I still had significant anxiety. The bank where I'd worked for 12 years, which I'd recently been downsized from, has *ITS* headquarters in Pittsburgh, and I knew numerous employees who worked out there (if only by their voices on the phone). I couldn't bear the thought that any of those former coworkers might have been hurt somehow. It felt like forever until the report finally came out explaining that Flight 93 had gone down in a field, not in an inhabited area. Thank GOD. God rest those people's souls, obviously, but at least the chance was greatly reduced of having additional casualties on the ground.

Eventually, we fans became aware that the second practice session was about to begin, this time in the rink on the Phantoms' side of the building. Again, we tore ourselves from the news reports and took our places in the bleachers to watch the goings-on. A second time, I did all I could to MAKE my distracted brain focus on the session well enough that I could take notes. I still don't know how I did it, but I actually did manage to come out of that day with coherent enough notes to post a report online later that night.

On a side note: once I posted the training camp reports from that day, I had to make SURE and do the same every day for the rest of that week. Newspapers and TV had diverted ALL their energy to covering the national tragedy for several days, and all pro sports events had been temporarily suspended. NHL training camps around the league were continuing, but as they weren't really sporting EVENTS, they were getting minimal-to-no coverage in the national and local media. My inbox was filling on a regular basis from people who read on the message boards where I posted the camp information I'd taken; they were asking me to continue to post my notes, as they were all in dire need of a distraction from the more somber news of the day. I couldn't blame them -- we ALL needed to Think About Something Else, even briefly, as the week progressed. But I digress.

When the second training session ended, it was early afternoon. Reports were that most employers in Center City, Philadelphia had sent their employees home for the day (understandable, since so many of them work in tall office buildings). Mark was among the people who'd been sent home early; I called home and found that he was already there. There were rumors that traffic jams were a problem everywhere, as workers around the area made a mass exodus from their places of employment and were clogging the roads. There were even some rumors that the bridges between NJ and Philadelphia were closed. Oh, crud, I needed the bridges to be closed like I needed a hole in the head. So I decided to wait around at the Skate Zone a while longer and watch TV in the lobby, to give the roads time to clear. I'd had my fill of traffic jams for the day, to put it mildly.

I was joined by Zeke and another fellow poster on the AOL Flyers board, whose nickname online was HotTub. Soon, another fellow AOLer arrived, whom I'll call "B". She lived and worked near the Skate Zone, and stopped by in the afternoon once she was finished working. We all watched the TVs in the lobby together. Then I realized that we had one more person with us watching the news; I recognized the Flyers' beat reporter from the Inquirer, Tim Panaccio. Tim P. knows both Zeke and HotTub, two fans whom I also know. Due to their acquaintance with him, I'd had the opportunity to speak with Tim P. a few times the week before, when the informal practices were taking place. I supposed he was taking the opportunity to watch the news with some familiar and (in my case) semi-familiar faces.

I couldn't help but think that this was a pretty interesting group of people to be chatting with, and that if we'd been watching ANYTHING other than the horrific tragedy that was on TV, it would have been pretty cool to be watching television with the lot of them. Maybe sometime, there'll be a practice at the Skate Zone when we can all stand around, watching and discussing something happy and upbeat.

Eventually, I decided that I'd given the rumored traffic jams long enough to clear up. I hadn't seen any evidence of traffic issues reported on TV, whenever the networks broke away for local coverage, nor had there been any mention of bridges between NJ and Philadelphia being closed. Moreover, the usual traffic patterns of commuters meant that I'd be heading in the opposite direction of the worst traffic; normally, the heavier traffic is going INTO the city at the beginning of the workday and LEAVING the city when people are going home. So I said my "See you later"s and "Take care"s, and left for home.

On my way back to Rt. 561, I passed an office building that has several flagpoles outside. They were displaying one US flag plus a few other kinds of flag, and all of them had been lowered to half-staff. There hadn't been any official national declaration of mourning yet, but this company had apparently decided not to wait until there was. I sighed, blessed myself, and agreed with them. Had I been in charge of any flag displays, I'd have done the same thing.

There's one other event that I can recall from that day. On my way home, I realized that my gas tank was nearly empty. I decided that the day had been difficult enough to bear without having to push my car home from New Jersey into the bargain, so I'd better stop and fill the tank. I pulled into the first gas station I encountered... with the WRONG side of my car facing the gas pump. I stil can't believe I did that. I'd had the car for ten years at that point, and I know darn well that my gas tank access is on the RIGHT side of the car. I hadn't made that error since the first time I pulled into a gas station with that car. I haven't made that mistake since, either. It's just one more example of what extreme distress can do to a person's thought processes.

Once I got home, Mark and I watched the news on TV together. Harmony, innocent little kitty that she was, of course had no idea why Meowmy and Paw were at home in the middle of the afternoon. All she knew was that her humans were home, and she liked it. I looked at her and said, "Harmony, you're so lucky you're a cat. You have no idea what's being shown on this TV. I wish *I* didn't know."

By the way... you know that St. Christopher medal I mentioned earlier? The Patron Saint of Travellers? Well, once I realized that I'd had it on at the time that I narrowly avoided a serious car accident, I decided to keep right on wearing. I've worn it every day since then.

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