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Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: The Day I Almost Lost My Mother

Actually, not just my mother but my aunt and my cousin's wife.

The plan was that Mom, my Aunt Joan and Diane would go on the 8:30 tour of the White House they had planned while on their trip to Washington, D.C. Later in the day, they were to head up to New York City to stay with me and see The Lion King on Broadway. I was working at HBO in Times Square and made plans to leave early that day and take the next two days off to entertain Diane, my aunt and mother. Diane and Aunt Joan lived in the State of Washington and this would be Diane's first trip to the Big Apple.

I took the subway to work from my home in Riverdale and got off at the Times Square station as usual. When I got out of the subway station and walked to the end of the block at the street light, I put my walkman on and noticed how blue and clear the sky was. Fall, one of my favorite seasons, was fast approaching.

The DJ was saying something about a small plane having crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Well, I don't need to do a narrative about what happened next; it's forever seared in our collective memory. I want to pick this up where there were airplanes in the sky still unaccounted for and the theory was that more hijackers had taken over plans and planned on targeting the Capitol Building or the White House. The Pentagon had already been attacked.

My panic momentarily blinded me. I couldn't think or speak as I realized my mother was probably still on her tour of the White House - a likely terrorist target if ever one existed - and once I came out of my initial panic, I started dialing her cell phone and did so for the next 90 minutes until I was finally able to get a line out. By this time, of course, the White House had been evacuated and Mom witnessed men in black outfits, seemingly SWAT-team type people, circling at the top of the White House. Mom saw smoke billowing from behind and thought there was a fire or something hence their being evacuated.

Out on the streets, however, cars had pulled over to the side of the curb and drivers opened the doors so others on the sidewalk could hear the awful news on the radio that the World Trade Center had been destroyed, the Pentagon attacked, and another aircraft had reported crashed somewhere near Pittsburgh. Later we would learn that Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a field, was to be used as a missle against the Capitol Building or the White House . . . the White House where my mother and other family members were visiting. The White House that would have certainly been destroyed had it taken a direct hit from a commercial airliner.

Mom, Joan and Diane managed to get quick and safe passage to their car and out of Washington, D.C. The terrible panic I felt for those 90 minutes not being able to contact my mother, knowing she was in harm's way, is the worst panic I have ever felt in my life. I feared that I was going to lose her, my aunt and Diane. That was not to be, however, but we all certainly lose a great day on that terrible day 5 years ago.

Two images are forever emblazoned in my memory: the first is holding my father's hand as he took his last breath and the other when the second Tower collapsed. The way that second tower buckled and fell, aerial too, is a haunting image that took a very long time to not flash in my mind several times a day.

Thankfully I have only a "could have lost" to contend with rather than mourning the death of a loved one or friend. I'm grateful for that.

Update: The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware published the written memories of Delawareans on 9/11 and a letter my mother wrote of her experience was published. It is being republished here with her permission and a link to the special letter section of today's edition.

'Get out for your own safety'

September 11 dawned a beautiful day in Washington DC as relatives from the state of Washington, a friend and I handed our tickets to the guard for our 8:00 tour of the White House. After seeing the magnificent rooms, we gathered outside under the portico to take pictures when we saw a group of military personnel with weapons drawn running up the driveway. Guards suddenly started screaming at the tourists to 'get out, right now, get out for your own safety!' As we were rushed off the White House grounds we could see men on the roof manning what looked like anti-aircraft guns, and then many police cars and fire engines. People were pouring out of the White House. Behind it we could see a column of smoke from what we found out later was from the burning Pentagon. My cell phone rang, with my daughter who was in her office in mid-town Manhattan, telling me the World Trade Center Towers were GONE! My friends and I got on the last subway car out of Washington for several hours. People were crying, some loudly, some just with tears streaming down their faces. I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me who said she would get me a ride from the end of the line to the remote lot where our cars were parked. Her ex-husband would take us, then she would lead us to I-95.

When we got home, my niece said she wanted me to take her to donate blood near the Christiana Hospital. We couldn't get near the place. Men were by the Center, waving people away. Cars were parked along the road everywhere. People were being turned away. My daughter in New York was safe, but had to walk for miles to get home because all transportation had stopped for several hours. I went to New York on Thursday, the 13. Signs along the New Jersey Turnpike said 'New York City is closed'. You could see and SMELL the smoke for miles from New Jersey. My Washington state visitors were supposed to leave that Saturday, but it was another week before they could get a plane home.

Catherine W. Kersey

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