It was a normal September morning.
I dressed my children, my 7-year-old son and his 4-year-old twin brother and sister, for school that had just restarted. Lunches were packed, backpacks stuffed, hair combed and teeth brushed.
We walked the two blocks to the school complex under dazzling blue skies, so clear that they looked unreal. Then I came back home to take a nap before heading in to work. It was my normal routine.
Then the phone rang. It was my mother. “I think you need to get to work. Something just hit the World Trade Center,” she said. I was The New York Times’ graphics director at the time. Our form of journalism was to explain the news with maps, charts and diagrams. Plane crashes and damaged buildings were a staple of those explanations.
I turned on the television, and there was smoke coming from one of the buildings. My first thought was that one of the many small Cessna-like planes that buzz around the cities had crashed into the building. My second thought was, “How are they going to repair that?”
I rushed to get dressed and dashed to the subway station. (I still believe that my train was the last on my line allowed into Manhattan that day.) For a brief stretch of track, the train emerged and traveled above ground. When it did, there were gasps and shrieking. The passengers all pressed themselves against the windows on the tower side of the train.
I could see the gaping hole clearly. A Cessna hadn’t done this. The train went back underground. The passengers talked nervously among themselves. Soon, the train arrived at my stop, Times Square, and I dashed up the stairs and into the maelstrom of tourists.
I was making a beeline for The Times’ building when I heard another gasp, this time from thousands of people. I turned, and on the Jumbotron affixed to the building where the New Year’s Eve ball is dropped, I could see that the other tower had been hit. That was not an accident. My stomach dropped.
I turned and ran faster toward The Times. What was happening? How could two separate planes hit the two separate towers? Nothing was making sense. I was numb. I ran to my department. Some of my people were there. They were all waiting to hear my plan. I didn’t really have one.
I knew that we needed to find out what kind of planes had hit the buildings and their flight path on approach. We also needed architectural drawings of the towers, and hopefully be put in contact with someone who helped design it. Everyone scrambled to make calls.
One woman in my department called to ask if I wanted her to go the World Trade Center buildings to see what information she might be able to gather from first responders. I said yes.
Then, the unimaginable happened, then was shown again, and then again. The first of the two towers collapsed. We stood watching the television screen in disbelief. How many people were in that building? The loss of life was inconceivable.
My mind, however, was on the woman I had told to go to the site. There was no way to reach her. Was she OK? Her husband called. “Have you heard from her?” he asked. No, I said. He called back, it seemed, every hour on the hour. It was my job to repeat no. (She said that when the building fell, someone thankfully pushed her into a neighboring building. She walked back across the Brooklyn Bridge, like many others who were covered in ash like ghostly apparitions.)
Of all the ghastly images from that day, one struck me most: It was what looked like birds at the top of one of the towers. They weren’t. People were jumping to certain death. What must that decision have been like? Fire at your back, no help on the way. Jump or burn. Thinking about it to this day chills my skin.
One man in the department broke down crying. His mother worked at the World Trade Center. He wasn’t sure if she was in the building or not. I told him to go home. His pain was personal. The rest of us would have to work through our shock and grief for the sake of millions of others depending on us to make sense of this. That’s journalism.
But then the other tower collapsed. Then a plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Then a plane crashed in Pennsylvania. There seemed no way to make a coverage plan because there was no way to fully get our arms around what was going on and when it would end. Further complicating things, the phone lines where overwhelmed. It felt like only one out of every 10 calls was getting out.
This was going to require that we work well into the night. But, what about my children? What was I going to do? The babysitter called in the early afternoon to say that she had retrieved them from school (which had closed early) and that she could stay as long as needed. She was my personal hero that day. The bus got caught in a massive traffic jam. She got off and walked across Brooklyn to reach my children. She stayed with them late into the night, leaving her own children with her husband.
We finally finished up that night, providing the public with as much information and explanations as we could provide, and I made my way home. My recollection is that it was after midnight when I arrived. The babysitter was still watching the news in disbelief.
I went into my children’s rooms and woke them. I felt like I had a need to say something. I told them that some bad men had done a bad thing, but that everything was going to be OK. I could grant no assurances that what I was saying was true. In fact, I knew as I was saying it that the world had been irrevocably altered.
Charles M. Blow is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.