The morning when normal ended: A personal account of September 11
Author of the 2012 bestseller ‘The Expats’, Chris Pavone’s latest thriller ‘The Paris Diversion’ takes place in the French capital as it faces multiple terror attacks. Eighteen years on, the New Yorker recalls the horror of 9/11 and its aftermath, and how it has informed his writing…
On 10 September 2001, I went to bed with a stuffy head, and took a decongestant. So on the 11th I awoke late, groggy. My wife had already left for work. Our dog kept me company while I shaved and showered, dressed and caffeinated. I was aiming to leave for the office by a quarter to nine.
I was one minute late.
So it was 8.46am when I bent to say goodbye to Charlie Brown, and off to the side some fast movement caught my eye, with a whirr-whoosh that sounded like a cartoon version of an incoming missile, some disaster about to befall Wile E Coyote. I spun my head to the window where the noise had shot by, but I saw nothing. I stood up. I turned to the south. That’s when I saw.
This was not a great apartment. But one corner of the loft was lined with huge windows that faced the Hudson River to the west, and the World Trade Centre just a couple of blocks to the south. The view was breathtaking, the immensity of the towers filling your field of vision. Sometimes I’d just sit and stare at the towers, awestruck.
Now, at 8.47 on a Tuesday morning, I was staring at a hole in one of the buildings.
I immediately called my wife, told her, “I think the World Trade Centre just got hit by a missile.” I turned on the television, which was at first reporting nothing definitive, but the situation was definitely alarming. I was still staring out the window, listening to nothing on the TV, when the second plane hit. The fireball briefly looked like it was never going to stop expanding, it would engulf me. I flinched away, nearly toppled over my chair.
Now we knew that New York was being attacked. But was that attack finished? Or were these planes just the first two salvos of a massive bombardment, an invasion of the country, the end of the world as we know it?
I definitely didn’t want to go outside. Our home was surrounded by high-value targets – City Hall, Wall Street, both the New York and the American Stock Exchanges, the Federal Building, every level of government and finance, the main switching station for transatlantic and East Coast telephone calls, big bridges and long tunnels, all this crucial infrastructure was right out the door. Back in college in the 1980s, I’d taken a poli-sci class called War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, and one of our assignments was to determine the single spot in the entire world that could do the most damage – human fatalities, economic disruption, political upheaval – with a modest-sized nuclear device. Everyone in the class came up with the same answer: that spot was right here. It was demonstrable; it was math.
What was I going to do? I definitely wasn’t going to the office. But should I be behaving as if the city was being invaded? What would that behaviour look like?
I started to notice pieces of building falling off a tower, one bit after another, from the very top. This didn’t make sense, I didn’t see any damage up there. So I looked more carefully. Those were not bits of building. Those were people. They were jumping off the roof, a thousand feet in the sky.
When the south tower began to collapse, for the briefest second it wasn’t obvious to me what was happening, then I understood, but it still wasn’t thoroughly clear how exactly the building was going to fall, or how much of it, or in what direction, and if that tower fell over like a lumberjacked tree, and tipped my way, it would land on me.
The immense cloud of dust and debris came hurtling towards me, a terrifying mass containing... what? Girders, I-beams, mammoth chunks of concrete, who the hell knew, maybe the entire collapsing building was in that cloud – was that cloud – headed my way at a hundred miles an hour, two hundred, who could tell? So I picked up Charlie Brown and fled from whatever was going to come crashing through the window, through the walls, through the roof. I shut us in the dark of the windowless bathroom.
I thought: I might be about to die. Right now.
When the debris cloud hit, the building shivered, and I heard a small crash, like someone had dropped a wineglass at a party. Was this the last noise I’d ever hear? I waited, my hands shaking as I stroked the dog, my heart racing...
After a few seconds of nothing, I opened the door.
I hadn’t turned on any lights that morning, because it was a spectacularly beautiful day, as usual for that time of year; I have since come to think of it as 11 September weather. But now the rooms were almost completely dark in the blackout of that cloud. I couldn’t see anything out the windows, just thick dark greyness pushing up against the glass, like Stephen King’s fog. I turned on lights. The sound of shattering glass? That was a picture that had been shaken off the wall.
I couldn’t even see the building across the street, 40ft away. But the cloud slowly dispersed until finally I could dimly make out the World Trade Centre site, where there was now only one Twin Tower. Was there really nothing left?
Just a few minutes later, the other building came down. How did I not see that coming?
I eventually went downstairs, outside, to reconnaissance. It was slow-motion chaos out there, shell-shocked people staggering through the mess, papers fluttering in the sky, everything under a thick coat of ash, like fresh snow. The only thing that seemed to be happening quickly were the sirens, they were wailing from every direction, fast-moving vehicles somewhere I couldn’t see. I found a policeman, who told me I should prepare to leave, the electricity was going to be turned off, the gas, the water too, all for safety. My building was going to be evacuated. The whole neighbourhood.
So in the middle of the afternoon, I left home carrying a single change of clothing, and basic toiletries, and a couple of meals for Charlie Brown. My dog and I trudged through the ash across City Hall Park, up and over the Brooklyn Bridge, from which I couldn’t stop turning back to look over my shoulders, where there were no Twin Towers left at all.
It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t step back into our home for two weeks, and even then it was only a brief visit on a grim Sunday, accompanied by a police escort who was there to make sure we didn’t stay, or stick around too long. Also the cop was there to enter every home before the residents, to look around quickly for anything horrifying that might have come hurtling through a window. I heard that people had found body parts.
My wife and dog and I were living with relatives uptown, in a spare bedroom. Indefinitely.
We were finally allowed to move home in mid-October. Our neighbourhood had become the Frozen Zone, spanning a few blocks in every direction from Ground Zero, penned in by thousands of feet of newly erected chain link patrolled by National Guardsmen in battle fatigues and helmets carrying assault rifles, militarised checkpoints, we had to present ID to prove our residency, our identity. The local school had been repurposed as a staging area for a rescue effort that never rescued a single person; then for the recovery, the cleanup.
The thing that’s impossible to understand if you weren’t there was the smell. Those massive piles of rubble – what was left of two tremendous buildings, each more than a quarter-mile tall – those piles were on fire for one hundred days, acrid clouds of smoke that weren’t fully extinguished until mid-December. The stench was sickening. The sounds of the earth-movers constant. The stadium lights glared all through the night, every night. The armoured vehicles and uniformed men, weapons everywhere: a warzone.
But by 13 September I’d returned to work. I was 33 years old, married but childless, a moment in life when nothing seems as important as career. So of course I went back to work. But my publishing house’s office building was threatened with bomb scares every few days, we needed to evacuate and wander around Midtown, anxiously awaiting the all-clear. Eventually we stopped believing, we stopped leaving, even while anthrax attacks were invading other media offices in the neighbourhood, killing other people who walked these very same streets, people who could have been me. Everyone jumped every time a truck rumbled by. I never slept through the night, and repeatedly injured myself in the kitchen, knife cuts, burns. At the time, I didn’t recognise PTSD. I just knew my hands and arms were covered in wounds.
What was coming next? We were all convinced it was something.
In New York, especially down in the Frozen Zone, 11 September lasted a very long time. The terror seemed permanent. It wasn’t.
Fifteen years later, I rarely thought about terrorism anymore; it became something that happened somewhere else. But then I went to one of those somewhere elses: Paris, still reeling from its own series of brutal terror attacks, a city with soldiers everywhere, bomb-sniffing dogs, everything suffused with tension, fear. This felt so familiar, this felt exactly like New York after 9/11, this new category of historical moment: a global metropolis sieged by terror.
Not only did this remind me of 2001, it also reminded me of something that had become a constant part of my recent life: suspense novels, which I’d started writing in 2009. The beautiful foreign setting. The definite sense that something bad was going to happen, but the fundamental uncertainty about what exactly that bad thing would be, to whom, and why, and when. Is it now? What should I do? Should I be acting as if this is a life-and-death situation?
This all defined my experience of 9/11 and its aftermath, the uncertainty and confusion and mistaken assumptions – was that a missile, is the fireball going to engulf me, will the building fall on me, are there really bombs in the office, or anthrax, was that sound an explosion or a car backfiring, why the hell am I bleeding all the time?
This is a terrifying way to live. That’s the point, isn’t it? That’s what terrorism is, that’s what it accomplishes.
This is also what a certain type of suspense novel can do.
Ever since 9/11, it had dwelt in the back of my mind that I’d someday write a novel that revolved around a terrorist event. But I didn’t want to write the expected novel, with the expected villains, the expected heroes; I don’t want to write the expected anything.
That someday was right now. The something that was happening next in Paris wasn’t an explosion, it was something much more mundane: I was going to write that terrorism novel, right now. I took my laptop to a café on the rue de Grenelle, opened a new file, and started work immediately, a story that begins on an autumn Tuesday morning at a quarter to nine, when normal ends.