I cannot start the story where I want to start it, because I have to start it where everyone else who was there starts it. It’s how we calibrate our positions, time-stamped and geo-coordinated to the precise moments and exact locations where each of us was standing when we looked up to see it.
The story of that day always starts with the colour of the sky. It was blue.
You know it was blue. You’ve seen it yourself, looking on a screen. But not like I saw it, looking up.
The meteorological term for it is “severe clear”: a phrase used by pilots to describe unlimited visibility. A bone-shaking summer storm had swept through overnight. It didn’t destroy. It cleaned. It took with it every molecule of smog, every speck of dirt, and every grain of pollen. In its wake, it left a shining city on a hill that was flawless, bathed in warm late summer air, under a sky so indescribably and deeply blue that people, including me, stopped on the pavement to look up at it.
You have to remember that. That the day was beautiful. That the day was absolutely, uncannily beautiful.
So much so that everyone started their day with a little smile on their face, the one you show when you’ve had one of those little reminders the universe occasionally gives you that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your inbox.
That is how we calibrate ourselves, those of us who were there, by starting the day back on the pavement, looking up, with not a greater care in the world than taking in the colour of the sky. We will always have that.
And so having calibrated, I can now start the story where I want to start it, which was ten minutes later, sitting at my desk in my office, doing my morning routine (good mornings, coffee, inbox, calendar, skimming the news, examining the in-trays) ahead of the proper start of the work day.
It was ten to nine in the morning.
A colleague popped through my door to deliver her daily payload of office drama. And this morning was no different:
“Hey. I don’t know what’s going on, but I just heard that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”
I’m a visual person – I think in imagery, and Monty Python imagery at that – so in my head, I pictured one of those stubby little learner planes, or maybe one of those little tourist sightseeing planes, half smushed into an office window with its backside sticking out as if to say “uh, a little help here?”
I pointed Internet Explorer to msnbc dot com, as I did.
It was not a little learner plane.
I was at my desk in my office in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood of Washington DC, about a mile from the White House, about two miles from the Capitol, and about two and a half miles from the Pentagon.
In 2001, there was no live TV over the internet. There was no cable connection in the office to watch TV. There was no social media, no smartphones, no apps. (I didn’t even have a dumb mobile phone yet.) There was web 1.0, email, and landlines. Some people had radios in their offices.
But that was it.
I did not know it, but I was in an information vacuum. So was everyone on the planet.
But for me, it also meant that I did not know that I was in a blast zone.
And so what ensued over the next forty-five minutes, I learned about by refreshing the browser on every news site imaginable and by phoning my then-partner, who was at home in front of the TV, from my office landline.
That probably seems incredible to you, and it would be, if you were judging what was possible in 2001 by what is possible in 2023.
But that was our norm.
I was not going through this alone: all of my colleagues were going through the same thing in their own offices. I remember how they all reacted that morning, each in their own ways, some good, some bad. Their stories are not mine to share. Suffice to say, there were people trying reach their loved ones on overloaded cellular networks that were failing. That’s a lot to see people going through.
Whatever their (and my) reactions were,
And then I learned that a plane had gone down two and a half miles away.
And then all the major news networks began to report – erroneously, as it turned out, but every one of them reported it – that car bombs had gone off at the State Department and on Capitol Hill. For our office, which dealt with the former Soviet Union, the State Department was our turf.
And that became the first thing I learned under the bluest sky:
the fog of war is a thing. You’re going to hear information that just isn’t true. It’s not malice, it’s not calculated disinformation, and it’s not deliberate. It’s real life playing out in real time. Real life is messy. You have to think about how you’re reacting to it.
And now every team in the company was doing headcounts. Is everyone there? Is everyone here? Who’s not here?
We didn’t know what we didn’t know.
And then the first tower fell.
If you think that all of this is something that you, yourself, at the age of 23, would bear stoically and calmly, one hour and ten minutes into the world ending in real-time, you are wrong.
I knew to remove myself from the office at that point: I was not going to help my team in any way.
Because that was the second thing I learned under the bluest sky:
when it’s all going down, you don’t have to be anyone’s hero, but you’d better not become anyone’s problem.
Well, that and I wanted to be at home for the end.
So I dashed home, which was a two minute walk within within Dupont. (ah, your early twenties.)
My then-partner was pacing in front of the television, spewing racist bile about killing all the Arabs.
How was it still only just past ten AM.
As the second tower fell, I did a strange thing. I reached my hand out to catch it. We had a cheeky cat that liked to climb our shelves and knock things off, and I got good at catching them, reflexively. So that’s what I did, reflexively. I tried to catch it in my hand.
For her part, the cat was in her happy place on our flat’s front windowsill, which faced south, the direction of things that were targets. And I remember thinking:
“I’d better get her off of there in case the windows blow in.”
As if putting her anywhere else would have made a damn bit of difference to her or to us if they did, but your brain does funny things as the world is ending.
Because here’s the third thing I learned under the bluest sky:
when it all goes down, you don’t know that it’s over.
We had no reason to think it was over. In fact, the assumption on the street was that the morning was just the first strike, and that what was coming next would make the morning look like a rehearsal.
When history is happening to you, there isn’t a Wikipedia page telling you the exact time that it’s going to end. You have to figure it out yourself.
Because now there were Air Force fighters strafing the city centre, patrolling it to protect it, and us, possibly by destroying it, and us. There were orders to shoot down any other planes, even at the cost of all the civilians on and under them.
If you choose to live and work near the White House, you accept that your everyday life is going to involve a certain amount of logistical whimsy. On that morning, you accepted that you were collateral damage in an impending and inevitable death.
There is no way to describe how passively and easily and quickly I accepted that fact.
We all did.
And yet, I bolted to the supermarket to get bottled water because I thought the water might get cut off in the second strike. That’s what they would do, right?
(Later on I was able to laugh at the fact that I went to Whole Foods Market during the end of the world. You should have seen what other Whole Foods Market people were buying during the end of the world.)
Around late afternoon the panic started wearing off as the second strike never happened. We thought it safe to leave the flat.
We adored our building concierge, an elderly Black man who thought he’d seen it all, and spent some time keeping him company in his tiny front desk hutch, where he was watching NBC on a rabbit-eared television. It seemed an odd day for anyone to be left alone.
I remembered the roof. Our building had a rooftop lounge area. I used to chill out up there on a sun lounger, watching planes and imagining where they were going. I made my way up there, frankly grateful to have some me-time.
I looked southwest.
I could see the smoke still rising off the Pentagon. It was white and puffy now, eight hours into the firefight, rather than black and billowing. But it was still there, so close. Two more seconds’ flight could easily have taken it to us.
I then had a moment of clarity like I’ve never felt at any other time in my life. My brain and the city and the world were all a confused mess, but what I thought still came to me as certainly as anything I’ve ever known:
And that was the final thing I learned under the bluest sky.
I somehow knew that the response – the way the world responded socially, politically, and militarily – would be the way we lost everything we had.
I wasn’t wrong.
Even then, I understood that what defines you isn’t the incident that happens to you, but the way you carry yourself in response.
Of all the things I learned that day, I’ve had to reference that one the most.
In the evening we learned that another plane had been bound for another part of the city two seconds’ flight away, but the passengers on board had forced it down to save the Capitol.
A very different life later, I thought of them on January 6.
We went to bed around 2 AM, after struggling to figure out how on earth one went to bed on a day like that.
In the morning I got up. (Right, I’m up. I’m not dead. This is progress.) I went to the office and we all got back to work.
That part, at least, wasn’t even a question.
At midday we attended a special prayer service at St Matt’s. The cathedral was packed, standing room only. For the cardinal, it was the kind of day his entire life had led towards: his homily was strong and true, and his words delivered kindness and comfort.
And yet, halfway through a sentence, he broke his prepared notes, and tilted his head, and speaking not as the cardinal but as himself in his broad Noo Yawk accent, he barely got the words out: “My nephew, Joey, he’s a firefighter, and they don’t know where he is. They can’t find him.”
For some reason, I never forgot him breaking character.
They found Joey in The Pile in the winter. Joey had died a hero.
And now I thank the cardinal’s God that Joey never lived to know who and what his uncle really was, and what he’d done to a lot of young men.
I didn’t know it, and the sky wasn’t blue anymore, but many years down the road, that day would still have one more lesson to teach me.
For those of us who were there, it was 22 years ago, and it was yesterday. It will always be yesterday. I don’t want it to ever not be yesterday.
And I wonder if that’s why I chose to write about it this year: I can see how far away yesterday has become. It’s pulling away from me.
Maybe I want to pull it back.
Maybe it’s because I was 23 when it happened, which means I’ve now lived as much of my life in the world it created as I had lived in the world before.
Maybe it’s because I now have professional colleagues who were babies when it happened. Babies!
Maybe it’s because I work in the venn diagram of policy and technology which was a very different thing well before yesterday, when I began it, than it is now: my starting point is the the start, and yesterday is not even the middle. And in that line of work, maybe it’s because I understand the need for connection, communication, and information, well, a bit more painfully than others.
Or maybe it’s because, in an surprisingly cathartic exercise, I’ve now narrated what I’ve written above to my own kid, who was learning about it in school, and had no idea that the day turned out to be yet another thing I’d been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt through.
(Let’s not talk about how it feels to be a bona fide historical artefact.)
And in that light, maybe it’s because it’s only recently occurred to me that yesterday is one of many things I’ve shrugged off as just another thing that I went through. Seriously, it’s not even in the top five worst days of my life.
And maybe, instead of shrugging it off, I should start giving myself a little more credit for that, and for everything else too.
When I was telling the story of that day to my kid, I found myself telling her how it took me years to stop being anxious about one thing, and it wasn’t crashing planes or second strikes or car bombs.
I got anxious at blue skies.
The sight of those things, oh my, instant elevated heart rate and panic.
I worked on it, a lot, and they stopped scaring me.
Whenever I’m looking up at blue skies now, usually from my quiet garden cottage, which Google tells me is 3,420 miles away from Dupont, or as last week, on a bright and cloudless day over Parliament, I see them as different skies. They’re safe skies. They’re okay.
I’ve come to understand that the bluest sky there ever was wasn’t just a meteorological phenomenon. It was particular to that one moment and that one location.
Sure, blue skies happen again, every day, all the time. But they’re not that sky. They never will be. No one will ever see a blue sky like that again, including me.
I can live with that.