Where were you when—? I was living in Port Orchard, commuting to Seattle via ferry on September 11, 2001. Here is my story:
This story was originally written in 2011.
Tuesday morning arrived like any other September morning in my little, sleepy town of Port Orchard, Washington. Located on the Sinclair Inlet, the town is known for a rich fishing history and its role in the famous Mosquito Fleet of Puget Sound. From 1851 to the 1950’s, smaller passenger and freight boats connected business and people via the waterways of Puget Sound, before the conception of a state-run ferry system. The old vessel the “Carlisle II” is one of the survivors. Built in 1917, she proudly takes walking travelers from the dock at Port Orchard across to the Washington State ferry dock in Bremerton, about a 12 minute crossing.
The “Carlisle II” was my floating connection to a good paying job in Seattle. From 2000-2002, I commuted from Port Orchard to my office on Mercer Street with a cable advertising company. It was a great location to work at; close to the main production houses, just a short walk to the Space Needle, good restaurants and the best foamy latte you could find. Two boats and a bus, talking 45 minutes to cross on the passenger only ferry, or 60 minutes if I was on the auto ferry. The passenger ferry is faster and holds about 150 people. Once docked on the Seattle side, just a quick walk two blocks east was needed to reach a bus stop on 1 st Avenue that carried me the rest of way, in the perfect time for a 9 a.m. start. I became a pro at working the three modes of transportation to fit any fluctuation in my schedule, i.e. running late, a half day, leaving early for a doctor’s appointment, etc. However, on that particular Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the boats seemed to move agonizingly slow as if sailing through mud. It was a voyage into the mind and spirit. The return journey, back to Bremerton, would take home the same bodies as before but the landscape of our minds, that which we identify as being American would be all-together different.
Being the first one up in a family of four comes with responsibilities. My morning duty was to get dressed and head downstairs to start the coffee and breakfast. Often I would turn on the early morning news to catch the weather and headlines. When my husband came down for his cup that is where he found me, sitting in front of the television watching CNN. Right around 5:45 our time, a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. The event was being broadcast on every major channel. He grabbed a cup and sat next to me.
At the time it seemed that it was simply a horrific accident. We talked about it back and forth, “Wow, look at all that smoke.” “All those people…” “Could you imagine being in the OTHER tower looking at all that?” We were dumbfounded. It put a lump in your throat, but still it was “over-there” in New York. Just a plane crash. It’s amazing how things can change in 20 minutes.
We talked over the commentators who were interviewing experts asking the big questions, “How could a plane just accidentally crash into a building like this?” One expert mentioned it could have been a mechanical error or perhaps the sun was in the pilot’s eyes. At 6:03 a.m. the second plane hit. We saw it LIVE. My husband stood up and shouted, “A second plane just hit!”
“No it’s just a replay of the first plane hitting.” I replied.
“No I’m telling you, a second plane just hit the other building—LOOK!”
New flames were emanating out from the south tower. We looked and waited for the person speaking to confirm it, but the newscaster did not yet recognize what we had witnessed! The wings and landing gear on the news helicopters and airplanes were in the way, preventing a clear view of both towers, causing me to subconsciously toss my arms to the left, “Get out of the way! Turn your plane around to get a better shot!” Frustrated, I changed the channel to get some answers elsewhere.
Within five minutes of the second plane hitting, Fox News called it a “suicide terrorist attack”, and NBC, “something deliberate.” TWO planes HAD hit the towers! A cold silence fell over our living room. What the hell was going on? The kids were just waking up and heading downstairs for breakfast. My son asked, “What happened?” For a brief moment the four of us just stared at each other. As parents, we were speechless, but knew we had to tell our 3rd and 5th grader the truth: terrorist have just attacked America!
Then something strange happened to me, which to this day I cannot explain; I just fell into the motions of Tuesday. It was 6:20 and I had to catch my foot ferry to Bremerton. I did what the clock told me to do. Trusting my husband to comfort the kids, I put on my commuting socks and tennis shoes then drove a mile down the curvy unlit road to the waterfront.
The old Carlisle so lovingly restored sitting at the end of the dock talked to me; “I’ve made it through two World Wars and I’m still floating. Everything will be OK”, but I did not listen. Hopping onto the boat, I headed right for the cabin to find a seat, instead of the stern, viewing Port Orchard’s hill of classic homes and evergreen filled ravines as the sunrise slowly lit it up, as I normally would. I sat in silence, along with four other passengers, our ears filled with the sound of the boat’s engine as it navigated across the inlet. My eyes fixed on a vacant part of the wooden bench in front of me. It was hard to tell by their quiet demeanor if they were in shock by the events that just unfolded or if they had not yet been made aware. Judging by the sleepy atmosphere that normally enveloped the boat, I believed the latter. I didn’t want to say anything, perhaps I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell them what had happen. It was nice just for a moment to believe, that it was Monday morning and everything was normal again.
As we approached the Bremerton dock I stepped outside for some air. Our little boat passed by the mouth of the 450 foot long, jumbo class, triple deck auto ferry. This early in the morning the groaning sounds of cars loading onto her made it easy to imagine the ship as a basking shark ready to suck us in like plankton. Feeling myself being drawn into the gaping mouth, I sat up and fixed my coat so as to collect myself.
Once in line for the passenger ferry to Seattle, I could hear conversations about the event all around. Meeting up with two ferry friends, we started to collect stories from each other. Susan, a regular passenger ferry commuter who worked in the I.T. Department at a hospital downtown, had a cell phone with a news headlines service; it was a newer service at the time and not many people had it. When she shouted out an update, those immediately around us would hush to listen. While we waited on that cold dock for the boat to load she shouted out,
“All domestic flights in the continental United states have been grounded!”
As we loaded onto the ferry, I noticed it was about half full. “Perhaps some are home watching the news,” I thought, not wondering why I was going to work. Those on the boat sat a little closer to each other than normal. Susan and two other gentlemen with different news services talked and compared notes, trying to put together a time-line. The rest of us at the table just sat in silence, absorbing every bit of details communicated, just trying to make sense of it all.
“The first tower was hit by a 747.”
“No, I don’t think so, I heard 767.”
“Oh my God, the South Tower has collapsed!”, one of the men said reading it off his phone.
With a quick look around the large cabin, I saw many of those faces I commuted with five days a week, for over 18 months. Anger, fear and confusion seemed to be the main emotions. We were all different people who worked at different places: retail stores, hospitals, high-rise, Safeco Field. People in suits, dresses, jeans, overalls and workout clothes huddled together in groups collecting data and adding commentary. The group on the ferry, that morning, that Tuesday morning, was a slice of Americana, traveling towards a common destination. It seemed we were searching for courage to get through the next half hour. When the boat docked, more disturbing news traveled throughout the cabin.
“A plane has crashed into the Pentagon!”
“The North Tower has collapsed!”
I wanted so desperately to get off the boat and to my office. Working at a cable advertising company almost every office has a television in it. I wanted to see everything, collect information and try to figure out what was happening. Would Seattle’s tallest building, the Columbia tower, be a target? It was over 900 feet high, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River when it was built in 1985. As we walked off onto the dock into the heart of Pioneer Square, that black tower dominated my sight and thoughts. I tried to visualize a plane hitting it, wondering what the people on the streets of New York were going through. It was painful to imagine.
Continuing to the bus stop, the ferry commuters spreading out into all directions, Susan and I stayed together catching the 1st Avenue bus. On the bus she read the headline, “A plane has crashed in a field in Pennsylvania; possibly connected to the others.”
About ten minutes later, exiting at Mercer, I raced into the office to get more updates. It would only take me seven minutes to get from the bus to my floor. “Would there be another place crash by the time I get to my desk?” I wondered.
Being on a ferry the day of 9/11 was a unique situation, a permanent mark in my memory following the old adage, “where were you when…?” Where was I? I was with my ferry friends sailing through dark, unfamiliar waters wondering like the rest of America, what was around the foggy bend.
*Author’s note: this blog was originally written in 2011. Months after the planes hit, new information started to come out, and continues to come out, about that day; information that makes me question everything. However, this is not a political blog. I do not know the truth, nor will I profess to know it. Writing about that day helps me to process. I was a zombie that whole week; completely numb. This is my story about 9/11, and that’s all it is. Tuesday September 11th 2001 is a day that opened minds and stabbed many hearts. -S.P. Laws