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A Slice of Empty Blue

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/12/2001

I was half-dressed and drinking tea, in my suburban-Washington apartment when my wife called from Capitol Hill with the news. I couldn't understand it. She had to repeat it all, while I flipped on the TV and watched the slow-motion replay: the right-hand tower smoldering, the airplane crossing behind it, the explosion on the left. Then came the Pentagon, burning, and the rumors--car bomb at the State Department, fire on the Mall, a blast at the West Wing. "Come home," I said.

Every piece of white marble, every place crowds gather, was perilous. The Capitol was in peril. I tuned in the AM-radio news, kept watching TV. It was a double kamikaze hijacking. It was a triple kamikaze hijacking. My wife rang back: "I'm coming home."

The news washed in, on radio and TV. I dialed and redialed the phone, fighting busy circuits, calling my parents. I e-mailed New Yorkers. My mother-in-law called. I told her what there was to tell: "She's fine. She's on her way."--not knowing if either was true anymore. The TV played and replayed the plane crash. The radio churned through the reports, as only AM news radio can, confirming and denying. The highways I take to work were closed. Or were they open? More planes were in the air, in unknown numbers.

I brewed more tea. The sun shone on the cream-colored high-rise across the complex, shone on the pond and the willow tree. Birds flickered by the windows. Our mortgage agent called to confirm the price on the house that we had, just the day before, agreed to buy--which had seemed like a profound and daunting thing to do.

The phone rang again. It was a telemarketer. I started ranting: "Do you have any idea what's going on? We're under massive terrorist attack. Thousands of people are dead. The phone circuits are jammed. What do you think you're doing? Stop it! Stop calling. People need those phones."

"If I stop calling," he said, "I lose my job."

I sat on the floor and watched the towers collapse. One of my old roommates, I learned later, was watching them from his office window by the river in New Jersey. He saw the second plane hit; he saw people jumping to escape the fire. I flipped around the channels, looking at different angles.

We are immune in America, by birthright. We civilians don't get killed. This has been something of a character flaw, in the eyes of places like China or Russia. Some small number of people--say, 168--do die in violence, and we call it "incomprehensible" and "devastating." We bewail our lost innocence. Then we turn innocent again, in time for the next one.

My wife got home. I heard her footsteps, the door opened, and the danger rushed back outside, but not far. We ate lunch in front of the TV, an audience once again, seeing things happening somewhere else and to other people.

On TV, Rudy Giuliani was striding through the ravaged streets, stepping to a podium to address his public. I had never had a kind thought for Giuliani, but I suddenly, painfully, yearned for him to keep talking. This mayor, I thought, would die for his city. Not that the dead people had a choice.

The news settled into repetition. I leafed through a 2-day-old New York Times magazine. There was an ad with a picture of the Twin Towers, which made me wince.

The Twin Towers are gone. I know, you're not supposed to care about mere buildings, not when human lives are lost. But every time I saw old footage of the towers, I felt my guts twist. Who knew what Pearl Harbor looked like before it got blown up? Everybody recognizes those two buildings, huge and square and clean against the sky. They were just being completed the year I was born; this, taller than anything before, was the future the world dreamed of then.

Now the second tower was falling again, on tape, vanishing in a column of dust and smoke. One spike of its frame kept standing as the wind, blowing steadily, pulled the dust away. A slice of empty blue appeared, where there was no tower anymore. Where there was nothing anymore at all.

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