The afternoon of 9/11

My office in 2001 was on the fifth floor of a six-story building in the unfashionable Gallus quarter of Frankfurt. At around three in the afternoon (German time) on a Tuesday my colleague from the next office came in and told me she had just received a strange phone call from her son in New York.

“Don’t worry, Mom, I’m all right,” he had said. She started to answer “Of course you’re all right, what are you talking about?” but then the line went dead.

Then my wife called and said there were strange rumors floating about her school, especially from parents coming to pick up their children.

At that time, I was the only person on our floor who had an office internet connection. So I went online and soon found an American television network (ABC or NBC, I think) that was streaming from New York, showing a plane crashing into a building and later a second plane crashing into a second building.

My office was soon full of people watching this, and wondering if the same might happen to one of the skyscrapers in Frankfurt. Some of us knew people who worked in those skyscrapers, and we were worried for their safety. For once, we were glad to be working in an inconspicuous low-rise building that was unlikely to be the target of such an attack.

After work I stopped by the repair shop, only to be told that my bicycle wasn’t ready yet. I remember being extremely upset about this, but then telling myself I shouldn’t be upset about such a trivial matter. All it meant was that I had to take the tram to my evening appointment, which after all was no great hardship.

My colleague didn’t hear from her son in New York for a day or two, but then it turned out he really was all right, though quite shaken. Since he both worked and lived near the World Trade Center, he had been stuck in his apartment without electricity or telephone.

As I child, I was perplexed when my uncles and grandparents insisted on telling me exactly where they had been and what they had been doing on December 7, 1941, when they heard the news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Little did I know that later, as an adult, I would also retain vivid memories of what I was doing when I heard about various catastrophic events, starting with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Friday, November 22, 1963. On that day I was in Fort Knox, Kentucky, getting ready to go out on what promised to be a cold and wet weekend bivouac at the end of our eight-week basic training in the US Army.

When the news came in, all activities on the base were cancelled, including (to my relief) our bivouac. We spent the weekend warm and dry in the day room, watching the news on television. On Monday morning we all had to line up in the rain and were marched onto a large open square, where we stood at attention while a general made a speech over a defective loudspeaker system. None of us understood a word that he said. We were then marched back to our quarters, and that was the end of our basic training.

Six months earlier I had seen John F. Kennedy when he was being driven through the streets of Frankfurt in an open car (eerie in retrospect), standing and waving to the crowds. My wife and I later realized that we both saw Kennedy on that day. I was standing in a crowd on the sidewalk and she was upstairs in a nearby building in the office of a friend’s father. So we theoretically could have met that day, but we didn’t actually meet until five years later in California.

My photo in this post is from 2006. I wrote the text in 2020.

See my posts on the Frankfurt Skyline Countdown.
See also: Tosca and 9/11.

27 thoughts on “The afternoon of 9/11”

  1. I came looking for you to thank you for always reading my prose, means so much, and this essay i came upon accidentally spoke to me in such a personal way since, I was there that day and it yes, was our Pearl Harbor, such an apt comparison.

    Like Covid being our Small Pox. We are such spoiled people living in a sophisticated, plentiful world that, we never think anything so profound could happen till it does. I’m very glad I came looking for you today, Sincerely, Susannah

  2. At the time I was working for Atari Germany, a video games publisher located near Frankfurt. The morning of the 11th passed in the usual fashion with meetings and emails, but in the afternoon a colleague of mine came running into the office to tell me to check the news, something was happening in New York.
    Incidentally there was a group of our colleagues from Lyon travelling to New York, where they had a meeting scheduled at the WTC – albeit later the same week.
    I remember calling my boss in France after I had learned of what was going on, staring at the live feed, while she was near tears about the fate of her co-workers and the horrific news unfolding. I can’t remember if we were actually watching the events on TV or internet, I do remember coming home in shock and disbelief to my now wife, with whom I was sharing a small cottage at the outskirts of town. We watched TV for the rest of the day and night, with me still feeling the tears of rage and sadness rising just thinking about these tragic moments.
    I believe I’ve never felt closer to my father’s nation than during these fateful days in September. May all of the victims of these events l rest in peace. They will never be forgotten by those that lived thru those times.

  3. In far away New Zealand we heard the news and were dumbstruck.. I was on the way to spend the day with my daughter and her little boys and while the toddler played at our feet and the baby slept, we sat and watched television for most of the day. I heard the news of JFK’s death while in Scotland where my children were playing around my feet and my sister in the US was getting married. Many earth shattering dates, but
    These two remain vivid in my mind.

  4. Don your colleague must have had such a terrible two days, not hearing from her son. How awful. I can’t even imagine.

    I love how most of the comments on this post are people’s story from where they were at the time. It makes your point about people needing to tell exactly where they were the moment they heard, like your grandparents telling you where they were on December 7th. I, too, couldn’t understand why people told me about where they were when Kennedy was shot. But now, having lived through 9/11, now I understand.

    I’ll never forget the Pentagon was involved, because that is *my* 9/11 story. I was running around the house, getting my kiddo ready for daycare while getting ready for work in California, and I got a phone call from my friend Jeff. Like me, he was a federal employee with NOAA, but he worked in Silver Spring, Maryland. While Jeff told me what was going on, he was staring out the window of his office, watching the Pentagon burn, and crying. It took me a while to understand what he was talking about. I had to turn on the TV and then I had to sit down from shock. That’s what the day always takes me back to: Jeff, crying on the phone.

    1. Thanks for your visit and your two comments. I don’t think any of us will ever forget where we were on that day, and how we got the news.

  5. I guess one day I could do a blog post on 9/11. I was in the library for a major global accounting/consulting firm when a staff member rushed and told me what she saw on tv that was inside the elevator in our office bldg. in downtown Toronto. She saw the planes hit the World Trade Centre.

    From there on the whole morning at work was unreal. Our U.S. office in NYC …we contacted library staff there. Was ok. In Toroonto the provincial legislative building and major office towers, including ours, were evacuated by noon. I worked on the 29th floor. The central subway station was jammed with people trying to get home… There was genuine fear that downtown Toronto…Canada’s equivalent headquarters for finance and banking would be hit.

    Later that wk., we lost 1 employee in World Trade Centre and another on plane with his 10 yr. old son that ploughed into Pentagon. An internal database was set up for employees to I guess to mourn. Most CAnadians didn’t respond…primarily American employees. Business travel overseas (since the firm and still has, offices worldwide) by the company was banned for lst wk.

  6. I remember watching on tv in the morning – Pacific Coast time – after my friend called. Just in time to see the second plane. Horrible. Definitely changed travel in the US. Interesting to see events from the other side.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for your visit and comment. Here in Frankfurt people were especially shocked, because Frankfurt is the German city with the most skyscrapers.

  7. I was working for a global accounting firm at Canadian national head office in downtown Toronto. On 29th fl. of 40 storey office buiidling.

    A staff member saw it on tv monitor in elevator and rushed into library to tell us. The whole morning was useless. I didn’t join other employees on another floor to see planes hit WT building in NYC.

    We did phone our library colleague in NYC office to ensure she was ok.
    An emergency alert was on high in downtown Toronto. Major office buildings in financial district where I worked, were evacuated by noon.The subway was jammed.

    We were conscious..that Toronto is Canada’s head financial centre…all major banks have their head offices inToronto.

    Later that wk., our company lost 2 employees….one hit World Trade Centre and another employee with his 10 yr. son, on plane that hit Pentagon.

    The American division of our firm actuallyt set up an internal database/forum for employees to recognize these employees..but also kinda “mourn”. There were a number pro-U.S. feelings of course..

    Our companyissued internationally a ban for a few days on international business travel since we had/still have offices worldwide.

  8. I worked in central London at the time (near Leicester Square). I was in a meeting with other senior managers when a junior manager interrupted us to tell us that parts of Westminster were shut down, the council’s City Hall (23 storeys high) was being evacuated along with some other buildings, and we should come and see the news. We were all crowded in front of the one TV in our offices in time to see the second plane hit. Up to then it had looked like a dreadful accident and we couldn’t really understand why parts of London should be shut down in response. All planes coming into Heathrow were diverted not to fly directly over the city centre.

    A week later I was chairing a national conference of youth librarians. One of our speakers was stuck in NYC, with all flights grounded, and it was touch and go whether she would get back in time to make it, but flights restarted just in time and although shaken she joined us. One of our contributing authors gave a very moving speech about the tragic loss of life that had everyone in tears at what would normally have been a joyful celebratory conference dinner.

  9. i will never forget this day as long as i live. i had a brother and his family living in new york city, and a daughter and her husband at school in washington d.c. i could not reach any of them for hours, and was so scared. i also was teaching kindergarten when i heard the news and could not react in front ot them. my family turned out to be okay and most of the children were picked up by parents, and we all sat crying and in shock.

    1. Sorry I didn’t respond to this comment sooner. Somehow it got shoved into a spam folder and I didn’t know it was there.
      How awful that you had family in New York AND Washington on that day.

  10. It’s amazing how this event stunned everyone in the world simultaneously. I remember I had just come back from dropping my children off at school in Louisiana and how in shock I was as I watched it all unfold on television. Should I go pick up my children? Were we all in danger? Everything suddenly became suspect and the world previously so calm and safe seemed menacing and dangerous. I feel like our current administration in the USA is like a prolonged case of the stunned surrealism we experienced that day. Not as graphic and gripping, but just as menacing and dangerous. Thanks for sharing your experiences from Frankfurt.

  11. I was terrified watching the news on TV. Discussion about this disastrous event went on for weeks in my circle. Security and intelligence organizations were put on high alert and traveling to US had become difficult. In 2011, the perpetrators were found and punished.

    On 26/11, Mumbai was attacked by a terrorist group and I was in my Management class and my mother made a panic call asking me to return. We had no idea what had happened until we reached home. Origin of both these barbaric attacks were found to be the same country.

  12. I was very young when 9/11 happened. I don’t remember much about the event itself, but I clearly remember the aftermath the following year when then-president George W. Bush declared the “war on terror” and sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. I pretty much grew up watching such news on the TV, and it’s incredible just how it’s affected the nation’s perspective on other countries, including those in the Middle East. Such effects remain today, and whether or not one thinks it’s for better or for worse, I think we can all agree that 9/11 really shaped our nation to how it is today.

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment. I haven’t lived in the United States since 1970 — and haven’t even been there since 1989 — so I can only look in from the outside and try to make sense of what is going on. But I’m sure you’re right that 9/11 had a major influence on how the country and the world have developed since then.

  13. On the west coast near Los Angeles, we were sound asleep when the phone rang. At first I thought it was the alarm but quickly realized it was the phone. Our son was calling from Michigan to tell us the news and we quickly ran into the living room and turned on the television. We sat glued to it most of the day. Our oldest daughter was in the Air Force in Idaho at the time and called at some point to tell us she was fine and not involved at all. We actually watched the two buildings collapse on television. It was horrifying.

    1. Hi Sally, thanks for your visit and comment. The person I knew who was most involved in 9/11 was a former Berkeley colleague from the 1960s who left Berkeley about the same time I did and returned to New York. After 9/11, she went to ground zero every day for six months to report on it for NPR.

  14. I was preparing for my birthday in lovely Versailles to have a walk in the gardens by the petit trianon, and walking there once at the property someone told me about the incident. I have the entire brokerage firm of AON on that second building most of pro collegues died and as a tribute their sons continue the career of their fathers as of today. Sad indeed but it can happened just the US got spare lots of time.

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