9/11

Martin started in his new position on the day after Labor Day, 2001.  He was now responsible for programs with over five thousand students annually, more than two and a half million dollars in revenues, an office with twenty-two full time and part-time employees, and about seventy instructors.  He had barely gotten to know the names of all the people in his office during his first week on the job, when on Tuesday, September 11th, he had come to work very early, to avoid the rush hour traffic.   Martin stepped out of his office to get a cup of coffee sometime between 8 and 9 am, when he found one of the older secretaries sitting behind her desk listening to a small radio.  A plane had just hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, she told Martin, and she was trying to hear which tower had been hit, because her nephew worked in one of them.   He stayed with her to listen to the broadcast, and minutes later they heard that the other tower had been hit by a plane as well.

At that moment, the world changed.  Martin knew now that the first plane’s collision with the tower had not been an accident, and the gruesome awareness of the terrorist attack was slowly sinking in, even though the details would only become available much later.   After the twin towers had fallen, one of the secretaries, whose husband was a New York City firefighter who had been called to report at the site of the disaster, left the office to get her children out of school and try to get some news about his fate.  Martin suggested to the older secretary, with whom he had listened to the first reports, to go see if her sister, whose son had been working in the collapsed building, needed help, and she left as well.  He spent the rest of the day either in emergency meetings with fellow administrators, trying to make the right decisions for those who were on campus, or in his office, trying to get in touch with his wife and son.   Fortunately Martin’s wife, who worked as an instructor at a college in mid-Manhattan, was able to get on one of the last ferries to cross the Hudson, and she had just come back when their son’s grade school decided to send those children home whose parents were available to take care of them.    Martin could not leave because of his responsibilities, and even if he had been allowed to leave the New York City bridges were closed, so he would not have been able to get home.  Wherever he went that day, Martin saw the thick, dark smoke from what was now ground zero blowing straight south over the campus.

Late in the afternoon, after the bridges had finally opened and the administrators were allowed to leave, Martin first saw the smoldering site of the attack from the Bayonne Bridge, driving north on Route 440.   Yet the horrifying, gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline and the heavy column of smoke covering the sky were not what he would remember most from that day.   Everywhere on the highways, first on Route 440 and then on the New Jersey Turnpike extension, were people walking home.  Men in shirt and tie with briefcases, and women in business suits, some in pumps and some in sneakers, trying to get to destinations that might be tens of miles away.  Because in the US you never see anybody walking on a highway, except for a very occasional hobo, this is the image of 9/11 that would always stay with Martin.

Back in his home town, he first walked two blocks to the river and had a much closer look at ground zero, which was less than half a mile away from his house.  Martin stayed there for about an hour, together with hundreds of other spectators, not talking but just watching and like everybody else trying to remember what the twin towers had looked like.  Later that night he was in his local bar, where the atmosphere was surreal.  People were talking about the events of the day, and occasionally a loud cheer would go up if someone walked in that had not yet been accounted for.  Simultaneously, people slowly became aware of their losses, and some left in tears.  And then there were the stories about young workers on the top floors of the buildings, who knew that they would never get out alive and called their parents one last time, to say “mom, dad, I love you.” Martin was thinking about his friends who worked in the World Trade Center, especially Larry Silverberg, the international director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who had been on his advisory board at the globalization management center.  They often held meetings in his office, because of the great views from the forty fourth floor.  He didn’t know what had happened to Larry and would not know for a while (from ‘The Doghouse Administrator’).

Hugo Kijne

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