The Before and AFTER 9/11 - My Personal Story

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On September 10th, 2001, I wrote this in my journal:

"I was walking to my car this morning when I felt a cool shift in the air, bring about little goosebumps on my arms. I smelled September.

Suddenly I was back in Midwest City Oklahoma and my mom was calling me in the house to set the dinner table. Our green and white checkered curtains above the sink that she made herself were so vivid to me. And the quirky table with the matching vinyl chairs that left their swirl pattern on the backs of my legs were almost real enough to touch. I remembered it all in a split second – the backdrop of my childhood on Willowbrook Drive.  And with the memory came such a longing to go back – just for one dinner.


I thought about what I would say to me as an eight-year-old. Knowing what I know now, would I look into her overly lashed brown eyes and give her a good dose of the Truth?  Would I name the people she should not trust, the people who would hurt her? Should I tell her to forget about Jr. High and High School and College as being the places she would find self worth? Should I beg her to be more cautious about the boys and men who are capable of breaking her heart? And still, would I give her a list of people she should spend more time with – Grandma Ruby K, her big sister, Alice, Grandpa and her namesake, Grandma Rene? If I had one night with eight-year-old me, what would I do with that precious time?

At that age, I was, by most accounts, completely innocent. I did all the things that kids do and I took the time to know what September smelled like. As I sit here now thinking about it, I guess I might’ve been happy. So I can’t help but wonder if maybe I would reveal nothing to Penny Rene age 8 if I saw her. Maybe what I would be wiser to do is ask her what her favorite book is, what she likes about her big brother, what’s her mom’s specialty dish, and  - Isn’t Grandma Rene funny? And I would ask her what she wants to be when she grows up.  


Sigh…. Lately, when everybody looks so tired and my pen feels like a toothpick hurled at my giant ego, I cannot help but miss that innocence. Today I have been trying to remember how all my big dreams of being a writer began. One little girl in her Robin Egg Blue room, with a shelf full of books that would all be read and a pine cone tree hideaway across the street where she could find some peace. It was a good time."

Ten years ago I was employed by Deutsche Bank in the Custody Operations Training Department for the Americas. That is to say that my home office was in Nashville, TN and my clients, DB employees, were in Nashville, Jersey City and Manhattan. It was a job that, were it not for the friendship with my boss, Dave Hoerman, I would have hated. My 30th birthday just two months earlier had hit me hard. I was not who I thought I would be at that time in my life. I longed for a drastic change in the country and worse, I felt something was on the horizon and had told Dave as much. 

My saving grace was NYC. Nearly every two weeks, Dave and I flew to NJ/NYC  for classes that we had arranged for DB employees. We often flew into Newark on Sunday night for Monday morning classes. But this time we didn't go because the week prior Dave came down with an unusual virus after swimming in the Delaware Bay. He was admitted to the hospital and the doctors suggested to him that he got sick from something dumped there. 

So, on 9/11/2001, I was not in NYC. I was at work, alone on the 2nd floor of my office in Nashville. I had the whole floor to myself, in fact, as the only offices on that floor were mine and Dave’s, along with a large open room we used for computer based classes.  A class was scheduled for 9:30 there in Nashville for 9:30 and I was printing out my sign in sheet when the phone rang. It was Dave and his voice was shaking. He told me to get to a TV and that the WTC had been hit by a plane. 

A large percentage of employees at our Nashville site were transfers from our NY and NJ locations, so it was no small scene when I walked into a conference room on the floor below me with a TV broadcasting the live feed of the first tower burning. People were entering and exiting the room quickly, putting cell phones to their ears. I knew they were calling relatives and friends in the WTC or at our building across the street at what is known as the Bankers Trust Building but had actually been bought by DB. Hardly anyone was getting through. 

Much of what happened that morning with me is a bit blurry. I too went in and out of the conference room. I know I was standing there watching live when the 2nd plane hit. I remember the shrieks of some women in the room. I remember making eye contact with on of our VPs who spent as much time in NYC as he did in Nashville. I know I went back upstairs, called Dave and we agreed to cancel classes. I know that at least two people showed up for the class and I sent them back to their desks to wait for further instructions. I called my parents to tell them I was not in NYC. There was talk of evacuating our building because financial institutions were a target. 

When the third plane hit the pentagon, I was standing in front of the TV in that conference room. At that moment, it seemed anything was possible. Survival instinct kicked in. I quickly walked back to my desk and called Dave. I told him I was leaving the building and he encouraged me to do so. I grabbed my purse and my keys and headed for the parking lot. As I passed Deb, my favorite security guard, I told her that if anyone was looking for me, I went home. There were two thoughts in my head as I walked to my car.

“If this is an attack on America’s financial institutions, please let this building be evacuated.”

“If there’s a chance I might die soon, I am damn sure not going to die in a bank.”

I called my friend Laurie, who had made my third move  to Nashville with me in 2000. I had to be near someone who cared about me, someone who knew what I knew. Someone from Oklahoma. I asked if there was a TV there at Portland Brew where she was working and she said yes. I drove there and watched things unfold in between calling Dave to make sure a my co-workers were accounted for. At one point, the only person from our training team had not been confirmed alive yet was Adam Girard whose office was in the Bankers Trust building. I’ll never forget his name because of this, though he was found safe several hours later. I remember nothing else from that day or the week immediately following. Not where I slept at night or how. Not what any newsperson said. Not my conversation with my parents or the friends who called to check on me. I was even dating someone at the time; yet I remember nothing he said to me.

This is the part where I don’t want to be accused of making more of my story than what there is. But I also have to be careful not to make less of what it is too.

Less than two weeks after all air travel had stood still, I boarded a plane for a previously scheduled holiday in Romania. My first night in Bucharest there were loud explosions near the building where I was sleeping. I stood on my bed, confused, trying to see out the window, waiting for someone to come to my room to tell me to evacuate. When no one did, I opted to believe that what I heard were fireworks but I still got little sleep. For the next ten days, with the help of my dear friend Gabi Popa, I evaluated myself, my nation, my education, my everything, while my romantic relationship with a man back in Nashville expired. In fact, on the way home from the Hartsdel International airport we broke up. For the first time in my life, I lashed out at the man during the break up. Before, I strictly ended all my relationships with the appearances of serenity, confidence even. Those days were over.

As soon as we could, Dave and I returned to NY. All our training computers had been taken over by NY employees, now literally crammed in the Jersey City office. We lost our training room and all our supplies. The Bankers Trust Building had taken a major hit from one of the towers falling into it and was closed never to be re-opened. 


We looked for the way to start over. But we also walked around the site. That’s when something shifted in me and I think in him too. Because we realized how close we came, we understood the impact.

Our regular hotel, the Embassy Suites  on North End Avenue (Now the Conrad NY) was closed due to debris so we stayed near Times Square. When I got to my room, I opened my window and surveyed what had become known as Ground Zero. We walked nearest to the site as we could get. Stuck in my memory is Dave’s face that day; his reaction to the destruction and the smell. He commented that I seemed unfazed and the truth is, I was somewhat. Because of the Murrah Building Bombing in 1995, I was not jolted immediately by I saw that day. I brought a handkerchief, covered my mouth and nose and waited out Dave’s shock. People were taking pictures and Dave asked me if I was going to do the same. I couldn’t. 

Sometime during that walk is when I learned that the Strawberry retail store and Borders Books had burned down as a result of the towers crashing. We also took a ferry ride to NYC from NJ. As we came round to dock we stared at the skyline. It was confusing for me without the towers as reference. No one on the open ferry spoke. We just stared at the blank spaces in the sky. I could not make sense of the view of the Atrium from Harborside and then realized it was covered in debris.  That was when it changed me. A slow rise of anxiety that stays with me today. 

Though I had been to NYC several times before this attack, I hardly left the financial district. So, all I knew of NY was covered in that cloud of debris. Every person I knew was connected to it. 


That morning on 9/11 there is a good chance that I would have been in a small coffee shop inside the atrium. Dave may or may not have been with me. He might have left me at the cafe and been walking toward the WTC to catch the path train or headed into our building there in NY, labeled above as the Bankers Trust building. I cannot imagine that I would have gone anywhere without knowing where Dave was. At that time he was more than my boss. He was a mentor and a close friend with a wife and young children at home.  I would have not known where to go except back to the underground path or the ferry. The ferries were overwhelmed, so the chances are, with the towers burning, I would have stayed put, maybe walked outside to get phone reception. 

Like many, many people, by some stroke of... well, what, I don’t know, I simply was not where I was supposed to be and because of that, my story is palatable. Palatable to you.

But for me, telling my story isn't so simple. There are three  events in my life that made me who I am. But 9/11 is the one I never mention. It’s the conversation that, for 10 years, I have spoke  about in general terms to anyone who has asked because saying what it is to me seemed like talking to the sky. Like pissing in the wind.  To a New Yorker or a NJ resident, our experiences don’t align. While similar to what happened in OKC, the magnitude is incomparable. The timing of 9/11 in my life was precision, an imprint on me far greater than I felt was polite for me to say.

Like many, many others, my 9/11 story didn’t end there. 

After 9/11 I couldn’t continue working for Deutsche Bank. A sense of urgency took over. If the April 19 OKC bomb took away my sense of safety, then 9/11 obliterated my willingness to stand idly, hoping my life would “become” noteworthy. While I was brought up to be a cautious, guarded person, I had little practical life experience. My need to be true to myself often overcame my need for security.   

After that I was sloppy with many decisions, figuring “How much worse can it really get anyway?” Turns out, things got much worse. After quitting DB the following February 2001 I made a rather quick decision to move to Birmingham and take the position of Director of Development for AIDS Alabama. I was looking for purpose. My inward motto was that I cannot be part of the Problem. I must be in the Solution or die trying.  Being completely unqualified for the job, however, I quit just three months later and returned to Nashville. From that point on I took a series of low paying, low stress jobs and barely survived the financial crisis I created for myself. My dating relationships, wether serious or recreational, all came to “logical” ends. Everyone fell into one category or another. Solution? No? Well, then...

The most surprising issue that came to the surface for me after 9/11 was the very thing that sustained many people during the years that followed. Religion. Faith.  I could not wrap my mind around the God factor. No part of what anyone said in relating God to September 11, 2001 made any sense to me. I tried. For a very long time I stuck to what I was taught in the sanctuaries of Oklahoma. But in the summer of 2002, clarity struck like lightening. In the years since, it has been near impossible to define what I do believe, but I was sure of what I did NOT believe. I no longer believe in an “active” God. I don’t believe in the Bible. I don’t believe in Christianity or the correctness of any religion. Though I give credit to unified energy being incredibly powerful, I do not believe in the traditional “power of prayer”. I also don’t believe that those who do embrace those things are any less intelligent, capable or wonderful than I did twenty years ago. That’s the part that’s hard to communicate as an Agnostic. 

California was my last stop in my wandering journey after 9/11. Most of you know the story from there, where I met Mike, how we were surprised with the conception of our daughter, our love and our growing family. Immediate responsibilities took over, for sure.  But what you may not know is that the terrorism that day ten years ago made an extreme impact on my life. To be honest, it wasn’t until this year, as the tenth anniversary approached, that I let myself look at the photos and old journals and considered how it changed me. I was surprised to discover how it blanketed my decisions, altered my beliefs and yes, changed my personality.

When people talk about that day, they talk about the victims. The dead, the families. It’s either “I can’t imagine” or unfortunately, you can imagine. I don’t know where I fit into that and it bothers me quite a bit. I made a lot of promises to myself in the weeks and months after 9/11. I traveled more. I verbalize my love for people. I try to have more Yes instead of No in my life. I work hard to live what I say. And when I fail, I must say, it hurts more, because of my constant worry that time will run out. I still have plans that sprouted during that time and continue to nag at me. I feel a huge sense of guilt for what I haven’t done and I fear that whatever I do will never be enough.

It's got be be some wicked twist of fate that I married a man from Middletown, NJ. For the last five years we have lived here in NJ. My children consider NYC to be the fun place we go with all the buildings. It's where we go for our anniversary, Holiday shopping, picnics in Central Park. It's where Mike works, commuting there daily. One might think this is the worst place for us to be this time of year. There are constant reminders, memorials everywhere. While it can be difficult at times, the reality of the past does not create within us the specific fear of dying. More so, it has created the fear of it all being over before we've lived enough, said enough, done enough to make things better for everyone.

Last June I spoke with Dave on the phone. We hadn’t talked in several years but with the anniversary approaching, I needed desperately to connect with someone who might understand how I felt. It was a brief conversation but when I hung up, I realized my hands were shaking. That’s the mark that day left on me. Unreasonable urgency to live, to do right, a sometimes embarrassing desperation to be honest with myself and others.  

Perhaps I have taken it too far. Would the families of those that died say so? Would the soldiers who signed up to serve right after because they wanted to defend my freedom say not to let it affect me? I’m sure there are others who feel as I do but I have never spoke to those people. I have trouble enough socializing without throwing 9/11 dramatics into the mix. 

This year was the first year that I watched any anniversary coverage, that I read any victims stories. It's not that I wanted to forget. It was that that day already took up so much space in me, it already brought me so much pain. But I guess that by publishing this account of how it all affected my life is my attempt to not forget the other victims because that would be the worst thing of all. Worse still it would be for us to stand idly by as wars continue and watch more people die. 

I do not know what the grand answer is or if there is just one answer.  But the pressure in my chest tells me to continue on, in my own meandering, fallible way, if need be, and strive to be part of the Solution. If I learned anything ten years ago, it's that we are all connected. No one lives alone. No one dies alone. And we cannot ever truly recover from horrible events like 9/11 until we respect each other and put forth more effort in reaching out rather than wallowing in our anger, however justified it may be.

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