A 9/11 Family Tale
Although I was there, I can’t tell you much about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that you don’t already know. After all, you had CNN; I only had my two eyes
and the prescription lenses I thankfully remembered to grab as I fled the apartment. Yes, I watched from a few blocks away as the towers fell, but without the benefit of a zoom lens or slow motion video (thank God for that — there was nothing that I saw I wished to see again or in greater detail).
Indeed, the overwhelming personal tragedies and the incredible acts of heroism have been recorded and retold. I cannot add to them. But I can tell you one story, a small one, about two brothers from Long Beach who found themselves that morning on opposite sides of a river.
A decade ago, my wife, Jackie, and I returned to Southern California from New York City, where we had lived for five years. I continued to make frequent business trips there. On the bright, clear morning of Sept. 11, I lazed sleepily in the apartment my company keeps in lower Manhattan.
I was alone. My brother, with whom I share the place when I come to New York, had an early plane to catch, and had left a couple of hours earlier. As I debated whether or not to get up and shower, he was sitting in the terminal at Newark Airport waiting for his Atlanta flight to be called. At the next gate, passengers lined up to board United Flight 93, bound for San Francisco. Randall casually watched them embark; he would be one of the last to see them alive.
Within minutes of the first attack, my building was evacuated. I stood in the park, 37 floors below my apartment window, with my eyes squinting against the sunlight, my heart racing, my mind recoiling, rejecting the evidence of my senses.
As the first tower fell, I was speaking with Jackie on my cell phone, reassuring her that I was alright, although she surely knew otherwise from the sound of my voice. I stood, a couple of hundred yards from the billowing smoke, trembling and terrorized. Randall watched helplessly from the airport, from which the towers were — had been — clearly visible.
Stunned, I began wandering the city, dazed and aimless. Randall, however, had the opposite reaction: he was galvanized, committed and determined to find a way back into Manhattan. His goal was to reach me and make sure I was OK.
Like me, Randall grew up in Long Beach, attended Jewish day school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom. Unlike me, though, he never left the neighborhood until the day I asked him to come work with me. Within a couple of weeks, he was setting up an apartment on Manhattan’s Chambers Street, learning the subway system and discovering ways to have videos and snack food delivered on demand via the Internet. By Sept. 11, my brother had been working with me for three years, spending about one week a month in Southern California and the rest of the time in New York City.
And so it was that morning, as about 8 million people worked desperately to leave Manhattan as quickly as possible, Randall focused his considerable ingenuity and sales ability on doing just the opposite.
The obstacles to reaching this goal were fairly considerable. Of course, all of the usual routes into Manhattan — subways, ferries and bridges — were closed. River traffic was warned away from the city’s many docks.
Randall, through a combination of persuasion, bribery and alert observation, finally reached Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Like our great-grandparents over a century earlier, he arrived on the island without a dime in his pocket. He set out on foot for SoHo, about 3 miles away, where he found me a couple hours later.
I was shaken, but fine. He was exhausted, but fine. I was relieved to have him with me. We spent the rest of the week together before finally coming home. Our flight was on Rosh Hashana; as Randall said at the time, “It’s not a problem. God is on vacation this week.”
Soon it will be Rosh Hashana again. The High Holiday prayerbook, the Machzor, includes the words “These things I will remember.” I carry hundreds of memories of Sept. 11, 2001, many of them terrifying that I would gladly be rid of. But I will also remember that somebody crossed a blockaded river and walked half the length of a city just to look in my eyes, to be reassured that I was OK.
E. Scott Menter is an Orange County technology consultant and writer. He currently serves as president of the Orange County chapter of the American Jewish Committee.