Just about fifteen years ago right now, I talked to my friend R’s mother for the first time. Her mother lived in Hawaii, and it was way too early in the morning there to be calling anyone, especially someone I’d never spoken to; maybe 4:30. It was almost certainly the most awkward phone call I’d placed until that point, but when I’d called R to make sure she was okay, she’d told me that while she could apparently receive calls, she hadn’t been able to get a line out of the City all morning, and asked me to call her mom. “Let her know what’s happened, and let her know I’m okay. She’ll probably need to know for work anyway.” I have to ask what her mom’s name is.

I thought for a minute about what I’d need to say to R’s mom, and how to avoid panicing her. Well, to minimize panic, at least. Start with the positive, then ease into the situation. “Ease into”. Right. So I called, and the “Hello?” came back, groggy, clearly somewhat irritated. “Hello, Mrs. B? My name’s Anthony, I’m a friend of R’s. She’s okay, I just talked to her, but she wanted me to call you right away. There’s been… something’s happened in New York, and she wanted you to know she was okay, but she can’t get a phone call out. You should probably turn on a television.”

For the last few months, I’d been working from my mentor’s house, officially the “US office” of the UK company we worked for. I got there a bit after 9 that morning and M was on the phone, sounding more awake than I’d ever heard him at that hour. Before I could put my bag down, he hung up and asked me if I knew what’d happened. “No, what happened?” “We’re going for a ride. I’ll tell you on the way.”

We drove towards the City. As we got closer, I could see smoke – a lot of smoke – coming from somewhere in the distance. I remembered hearing a news radio story the previous day about some fire in a FedEx or UPS facility or some such that they were having a hard time putting out, and wondered if it’d gotten worse, gotten out of hand. We pulled over behind a line of other cars, all pulled over on the shoulder of an overpass, and I saw the source of the smoke for the first time. Everyone was out of their cars; a few people had binoculars.

The World Trade Center was on fire.

People said what they knew, or thought they new, from what they’d heard on the radio, mostly while driving to work. A plane had hit each of the towers. Everyone thought it was an accident when the first one hit; some sort of terrible mechanical or navigation failure. But the second plane had hit a few minutes before we got there, and nobody thought it was an accident any more.

I remember thinking about how long it’d take the firefighters to get the fire put out, how terrible that must be trying to fight a fire so high up a skyscraper. I remember thinking about how long it’d take to repair the damage, how many floors were going to be gutted, and how long it’d take to get the upper floors safe to work in again. I remember thinking I was glad my dad, who used to park in the parking lot under the towers until some jackass tried to blow them up 8 years earlier, wasn’t in the City then.

We watch with everyone else for about twenty minutes, and then get in the car to go home. We turn the radio on, maybe the first time I’ve intentionally tried to get news radio in my car. I don’t have any news stations programmed, and some I knew weren’t coming through. M found a station as we came back across the overpass, and I saw the towers in my rear view mirror. A few seconds later, the radio confirmed what I thought I was seeing: one of the towers had collapsed.

I remember thinking how strange the other one was going to look, standing there by itself, once this was over.

At M’s house, we’ve got a pair of radios on, trying to get what information we can. With the tallest and strongest transmitters in the area not working, some stations aren’t broadcasting, and some networks are broadcasting on borrowed frequencies on other transmitters. Actual information is still sparse. A plane has flown into the side of the Pentagon in D.C., and another has gone down in… the middle of Pennsylvania? Nobody knows what that’s about, or why it crashed there. The FAA has ordered all planes grounded, but there’s a few “missing”. The guy on the news reads off a few flight numbers and flight plans for planes they can’t locate. His voice is shaky. He doesn’t say it with words, but he sounds like he expects each one of these to end up destroying some other buildings, and because he believes it and he’s on TV and we have so little other information, we believe it, too.

I call everyone I can think of who I know is in New York. I can’t get through to very many people. I get to R, who’s talked to a few others, and then call her mom.

I call my friend C and ask her if she’s okay. Of course she is; she’s in Michigan. I ask her to stay home, avoid campus today. She doesn’t understand why I’m asking, and I have a hard time explaining it, mostly because it doesn’t really make sense. She says all the obvious things: they’re not in a real city, there’s nothing that’d make them a target. “Yeah”, I say, “but we don’t know who this is or what’s going on. We don’t know what they know that we don’t.” It doesn’t really make sense, but I’ve just watched the beginning of something terrible, and I’m a little frightened for what comes next, and she’s the most important person in my world.

Sensibly, she mostly ignores me, and is fine.

I realize the fear. I realize asking C to stay home didn’t actually make much sense. I think about how frightened so much of the country must be, and the bad things that can do to people. On the radio and television, people are almost entirely talking about what’s happening: the planes, rescue & relief efforts, evacuation from the City. But every so often, the question comes up: who did this? Why? I remember thinking that I really hope Americans did this, that it was like Oklahoma City. That it was white guys. Because otherwise, our country’s going to go bat shit crazy. Then I think about the 1993 bombing again, and think about how bad this is, and know it’s probably not home-grown. I’m afraid of what we’re going to do.

Over the next few hours, one by one the missing planes show up, all intact and unremarkable. One had never taken off, one had landed without checking in, and so on. After the second plane was accounted for, the guy on the news finally sounded like maybe they wouldn’t all end up in disaster. With each found plane, a bit of the panic dissipated from his voice, but the fear turns to hurt, and soon to anger. It’s only early afternoon when I hear official people saying it’s probably Osama bin Laden (although others are saying we still don’t really know anything), that it’s an “act of war”. That evening I hear people ask what we’re going to do about it for the first time.

I go to my church that evening. I work with the youth there, and most of them are frightened (like most of the adults), so we open up the church and invite people to be with a community in a safe place. Everyone’s shaken and tense, but the adults hold it together for the kids, which is pretty helpful for the adults, too. It’s quiet. There isn’t much talking, mostly low-spoken conversations, some prayers. Two kids are sniffling, holding back tears. One girl in the room is crying softly, and another is sobbing in the hallway. Both of their fathers are missing, and we’ve got a few others with missing parents. We tell them a lot of people are just lost, that the evacuation of downtown left people without an easy way to get in touch with their loved ones. And that’s true; some people get calls from their loved ones later that night, or the next day. But most of the parents who are still missing by then never come home.

I go home, eventually. My parents aren’t talking about it, just watching the news. I know my dad, for sure, has lost friends, but I don’t know what to say so I say nothing. It seems like I’ve seen the footage of the towers coming down a million times already. The news is talking about the rescue efforts. They’re trying to sound encouraging, saying how many people are working and how devoted everyone is to making sure they find all the people who’re probably trapped, but half the people saying it don’t sound like they believe it. They’re finding very few survivors. The news talks about the offers of all sorts of support from around the world, from countries not normally inclined to support the US, and I think we have a chance to do something wonderful with that if we can just not focus on revenge in the short term, if we can look beyond our fear and hurt.