Before sunrise on September 11, 2001, my rowing partner, Mary, and I, were already on the water for our morning workout. As darkness imperceptibly gave way to light, the bay was calm, the air was clear—an absolutely beautiful day dawned. We glided past herons and egrets, enjoying the quiet peace of Nature.
A couple of hours later, I was driving to a 10 a.m. meeting when I heard something on the car radio about a small plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City. By the time I reached my client’s office, all of her co-workers were standing around a radio. Both towers of the World Trade Center were hit, and the announcers were talking about a terrorist attack.
“What do you want to do?” I asked my client. Neither one of us knew the office protocol for terrorist attacks.
“I guess we’ll have the meeting,” she said.
So we did. But from the expansive plate glass windows in her conference room, I had a clear view of the flight paths into Atlantic City International Airport, which was about eight miles away, right in the middle of the busy Northeast corridor. Jet after jet was landing. None were taking off.
I rushed home after the meeting and turned on the television, shocked at the images that played over and over on the screen. A huge jet, loaded with fuel, crashing into the tallest building in New York. One tower fell, then the other. It was horrifying.
Was my family safe? One brother had an office in Lower Manhattan. My other brother was managing a construction project at Newark International Airport. My sister had flown to Hawaii a few days earlier. Gradually, when cell phone calls finally went through, I learned that my family was okay.
Thousands of other people weren’t so lucky.
Thousands of other people, through no fault of their own, had their lives ripped apart. People on their way to important destinations, people starting their day at work, were suddenly gone. The people who loved them were left to ask why.
Why did this happen? What had they done wrong? What did I do wrong? How am I going to survive?
They clung to hope, and then there was none.
I knew what that felt like.
A year earlier, I was forced to give up hope. I had been pursuing my $1.25 million judgment against my sociopathic ex-husband, James Montgomery. I was convinced I would find the money, and it would right my life that had been so wronged.
Before meeting my ex, I had been going to work every day, having fun when I could, and hoping, along the way, to make a romantic connection. James Montgomery presented himself as the love of my life. In truth, he was a terrorist who intentionally crashed into everything I had built, and brought it down.
I was outraged. I was an upstanding, responsible human being. I had done many things right and nothing wrong, yet my life was ripped to shreds.
I sought justice. The court said I was right, and the judge in my divorce awarded me everything that was taken from me—$227,000—plus $1 million in punitive damages. I pursued the money until 2000, when I had no choice but to admit failure. I was not going to recover what I had lost.
I collapsed. I raged. I demanded answers from God. What had I done to deserve this?
On September 11, 2001, and in the following traumatic days, I couldn’t breathe. I viscerally felt the nation’s collective horror. I knew the outrage, the confusion, the fear, the hope and then the hopelessness. I felt like I was reliving how my own life had crashed, magnified by a hundred, or perhaps a thousand.
A couple of weeks after the devastating tragedy, I wrote a poem. It was all I could do.
One Day In September
By Donna Andersen
Tuesday the eleventh dawns like any other day
Sunlight breaks the grayness as we row upon the bay
Herons, gulls and egrets barely glance as we glide by
They’re the creatures, at this hour, that rule the brightening sky
These mornings are a treasure, Mary and I agree
Ten o’clock my meeting is all scheduled to begin
Everyone is staring at a radio as I walk in
The peak of New York City has exploded into fire
Thick, black smoke is billowing from our economic spire
Do we work? Do we stop? Are they getting out?
Message light is blinking — where are you? Are you there?
Are your brothers in New York today? Is your sister in the air?
Cell phones are not working — have you seen the awful news?
What on earth is happening? Has anyone a clue?
Yes, the TV’s on, but I can’t absorb the scene
News uninterrupted, it’s bad and getting worse
Crash into the towers — the idea is so perverse
Ten thousand in each edifice had just begun their day
Now a pile of rubble — and all I can do is pray
Let there be survivors, please; God, we need you now
Jet slams into shining glass
The hundredth time today
Another angle, another shot
Let’s review that play
But this is not a game
Fires burning, twisted steel, it’s such an wrenching sight
Sweetheart, please come over, I can’t be alone tonight
Earlier this morning it was birds that ruled the sky
Now it’s raining jet fuel — why did they have to die?
All those lonely pillows in so many empty beds
Family and friends are safe, but I can’t catch my breath
Two degrees of separation keep me from knowing death
Mary’s childhood classmate was one who called his wife
From up above the fire, hoping vainly for his life
Never did I know him, yet still I feel the loss
Countless private tragedies just add to my distress
How can I stop crying, ease the tension in my chest?
My brothers at ground zero passed buckets hand to hand
The president promises that America will take a stand
I am just a writer, searching desperately for words
Holes punched in our confidence, life forever changed
But this I know from experience: Good can come from pain
Our hearts have been ripped open, yet open hearts can feel
Compassion for each other may be the gift of this ordeal
Pray it is a turning point in our human history
Search for justice underway
Portends a mourning dove
In the end, there’s love and fear
And fear is lack of love
Our caring may be our hope