by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
The Americas Revealed honors the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 Terrorist Attack on the World Trade Center.
It was exactly this moment, 19 long years ago, that I first realized that something might be terribly wrong. I had known Beth for two years. She was a Historic Preservation consultant in Boston. I was a Historic Preservation Architect living north of Atlanta. She was recently separated, when she first emailed me with a technical question about one of the buildings I had restored. More emails were sent with technical questions mixed in with subtle personal questions that only women know how to say.
When we both realized that I was single, and that she was about to be “legal,” the emails became more personal. However, the distance between us kept the conversation limited to a friendly basis only. I assumed that she was dating around. I went through some short term dating flings myself. The email exchanges would be more sporadic during those times, then heat up when both of us were sitting home alone.
By the summer of 2001, Beth became convinced that I really was single and really not living with someone. Her divorce had been finalized. She was a free woman. That change in status was confirmed by several late night, steamy telephone calls. She was suspicious that I had “someone on the side” and couldn’t figure out why I was not tied down. I finally convinced her that the problem was not mine, but the women available where I lived. There was too much difference in values, education and world outlook
In August, Beth called me on my birthday and announced that after attending a conference in Atlanta in late September, she wanted to spend several days with me . . . perhaps go camping. It we got along, she suggested that I could come up to New England for Thanksgiving and I could spend a week with her in Boston. She promised that we would have Thanksgiving Dinner in Plymouth Plantation with her historical society.
The morning that changed everyone’s lives
Normally, I never watch television in the daytime, but my sister happened to be visiting in Atlanta that week. She called me at 8:45 AM and said, “Turn on the TV, Bubba! A jet has struck the World Trade Center. You just won’t believe the scene. It is surrealistic”
A month earlier my sister had called me to say she was flying to Atlanta on 9/11. I don’t know why, but I immediately responded that she shouldn’t fly on 9/11 because there was going to be bad terrorism involving airliners. Sis flew in on the 10th instead. It turns out that knives were found hidden under the seats of the Delta flight she would have taken on the 11th.
Believing the report from my old friend, Katie Couric that a small commuter plane had struck the top of the north tower, I went into the bathroom to shave and shower. In the shower, as usual, I laid out my plan for the day, and mentally went through a design change for a plaza I was designing for Smyrna, GA. Just as I stepped out the bathroom, rubbing the last shower water off my back, I glanced at the television screen. There was a brief glimpse of a jetliner on the right of the screen and then a great ball of fire.
“My Lord . . . this is a terrorist attack.” I had no TV cable connection, so I connected to the internet, to see if there was more information from CNN. To my shock, there were several emails from Beth, begging me to write back. She was not in Boston. She was in New York City – staying at the World Trade Center Hotel! She was supposed to be at a meeting on the 74th floor of the North Tower right now, but her mother had called to discuss the personal problems of her brother. The call had saved her life.
She IM’ed me as soon as she saw that I was online. She was using a laptop in her hotel room. The messages repeatedly stated that she said she had to talk to me, if she was going to survive the day emotionally. Could she call me?
Almost immediately the phone rang after I messaged her with a definite affirmative. We talked – well mostly I listened as she described the scene of horror that was only seen at a distance on TV. She said that people were jumping out of windows of the towers. She wept over and over, “My friends are up there. My friends are up there!” She eventually took control of her emotions and observed that the fires in both towers seemed to be getting “worse and worse.”
Soon thereafter, she watched several of her colleagues die as the first tower collapsed She could only gulp. I watched the apocalyptic scene on the television screen. Within seconds there was an exploding sound on her end. She screamed and said that a steel beam struck the exterior wall of her hotel room and shattered a window. She screamed again and then became incoherent for a minute or so.
Beth told me that all she could see now was a surrealistic white cloud of dust with flares of flames and blinking fire truck lights dimly glowing in the fiery miasma. She said, “Oh my God, Richard. This is a vision of hell. I can not describe in any other way.”
Then, the alarms went off in her hotel. I could hear them. She shouted that she had to get out now! She said that she would call me again as soon as she was safe. Her last words on the cellular phone were, “Richard, I can’t go home after this. Can I fly down there to Atlanta and visit with you? I need someone to hold me.”
She hung up. I myself was in such a shock that I didn’t think to hang up my phone. There was silence then the rapid beeping phones give out when a circuit is busy. Maybe five minutes later the second tower collapsed. I didn’t even dawn on me that Beth might be on the ground level as the second tower collapsed. I was thinking like an architect. Something was terribly wrong. Why would the two tallest buildings in the world collapse? Surely the structural engineers had designed them to resist fires?
I never heard back from Beth. I tried calling her throughout the afternoon, and heard repeated messages that all cellular circuits in Manhattan were out of service. I called that night. I still could not get a call through. Maybe she changed her mind and went back to Boston? Maybe she was no using her regular cellular phone when she called me? I thought, “Surely when she gets back home, she will send me an email to say that everything is alright?” Day after day went with no emails or calls from Beth.
Then I started calling her home phone several days a week. This went on for a month, but all I heard was her voice recorded on the answering machine. I didn’t know her parents’ names or hometown. Apparently, she had used the former married name on her credit card, when registering at the hotel, not the maiden name I knew. The Boston police said that they couldn’t help me unless a member of her family filed a missing person report and I could give them her full name and address.
There was no finality. I never knew what happened to Beth. I presume that the second tower collapsed on top of her. The bodies of persons on the plaza, when the building collapsed were never found. A warm friendship and budding romance ended on September 11, 2001. The curtain call came not with an argument, a melting away of emotion or even a funeral, but with the sounds of silence. One day when I called, there was a recorded message that announced, “This number is no longer in service.”