9/10: The Day Before
The pilot grilled steaks. The WTC Borders clerk picked up a pushcart coffee. The mayoral candidate prepped for the primaries. And the terrorists argued over a meat lover’s pizza.
This essay was originally published in Gear in 2002. It has been republished here with permission from publisher Bob Guccione Jr.
On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer was talking about the deluge of reality TV on the fall schedules. The news was thin. Israeli tank fire had killed a Palestinian (quel surprise) near the town of Jenin on the West Bank. At the final of the U.S. Open the day before, a young Australian tennis player, Lleyton Hewitt, had wiped the floor with Pete Sampras.
Even under usual circumstances, you would have been hard pressed to remember anything about September 10 that was out of the ordinary, and yet it was the day that would come to crystalize the quality and value of what had gone before, if only we had known it at the time.
In New York, it was a balmy 83 degrees with rain forecast in the afternoon—the kind of unsettled day all too familiar at the tail end of summer.
What else might people have picked out from the daily torrent of ephemera and gossip? That The Musketeer was the weekend winner of the new movie season; that Ben Stiller had won a ratings battle for his forthcoming movie, Zoolander, over an orgy scene involving Stiller, a Maori tribesman, and a midget. Most of that summer had been what journalists refer to as a quiet news period, enlivened by the occasional shark attack off the U.S. coast and the ongoing Gary Condit/Chandra Levy saga, but very little else. The country had gotten used to its cardboard president. The economy was not great, but it was not terrible either. Life was, on the whole, pretty good.
Sara Low arrived back in Boston on the red-eye from San Francisco. Barely 24 hours later, she would be heading back to L.A. on American Airlines Flight 11. One of her passengers would be Mohammed Atta.
It was one of the many pleasures of Low’s peripatetic lifestyle that she got to see cities in the soft light of early morning that other people, in their slumber, missed. Her friends said that travel became less exciting when you had to do it for a living, but Sarah was an exception to the rule and looked forward to every flight with an enthusiasm undimmed by the years. On Sunday afternoon she’d called her sister, Alison, with anecdotes about her previous evening at the Red Room, a popular San Francisco nightclub, where she’d partied with the flight crew into the small hours.
Two weeks earlier, Low had bought her first apartment, an old Victorian place in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood. It was tiny, but it was hers, and after three years of slumming it with other flight attendants—more than 20 of them in total—she felt it was time. Her mother had visited and helped her decorate, admiring the character of the place, the cobblestones on the street outside, the old gas lamps that were still in use.
At 28, Sara felt that her life was falling into place in all the right ways. It hadn’t been so long since she’d left Arkansas—“keen for adventure and the big city life,” as her father would say—for her to forget why she’d left and what she’d come looking for. It might have been some other city, if circumstances were different, but the circumstances had led to Boston, the antithesis of the small-town world in which she’d grown up.
Sara had called her parents from San Francisco shortly before boarding the red-eye back to Boston to say she’d be flying to Los Angeles on September 11. That would mean an overnighter in L.A., which gave her an opportunity to do some shopping and arrange a dinner date with a guy she knew. It was one of Sara’s qualities that she maintained friendships with half a dozen men in various cities, any one of whom would have made a great boyfriend. She wasn’t quite ready to settle down, but when she was there would be no shortage of suitors.
At the same time that Sara Low was touching down in Boston, Frank Peters navigated the John F. Kennedy out of the ferry terminal at Staten Island. It had just turned 6 a.m., and the sky stretched before him, a pale canvas on which the outline of Manhattan was etched like a painting. There was little traffic on the river at that time of day, and a fragile silence still hung over the city. Peters loved his route. His friends would sometimes ask if he ever grew bored of the same short run, but he always shrugged them off. There was something ineffably soothing about the river, lying so close to the chaos of the city without being sucked into it.
Frank Peters was softly chugging across New York harbor when David Kasmire left his apartment in Chelsea to catch the E train downtown, where he worked the morning shift at a branch of Borders Books at 5 World Trade Center. As was his habit, Kasmire picked up a coffee from the pushcart at the corner of Fulton and Church, and hit the store shortly after 6. It was an unpopular shift that few of his co-workers freely volunteered for, but Kasmire liked it. He was 70, and the early mornings didn’t bother him.
Kasmire had a copy of The New York Times with him, and he grabbed 10 minutes to read the Metropolitan Diary while waiting for the rest of the crew. Shortly before the store opened at 7, Lars, the manager, gathered the staff for a briefing on promotions and new releases. With the fall publishing season in high gear, they were anticipating a busy week.
Borders had opened by the time Luc (last name withheld at her request) arrived for work. Each morning she passed the store on her way to the World Trade Center, where she had found a job in the kitchens at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. An illegal immigrant from Colombia, she had arrived in New York three years earlier hoping, but largely failing, to improve her life. Since she didn’t speak English and had no Social Security number, what work she could find was poorly paid and part time. That is, until she met a manager of Windows on the World at her local church. Out of Christian charity, or plain goodwill, he gave her a job, and they agreed she should borrow someone else’s Social Security number, which is how Luc became Martha.
Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain for New York’s fire department, began his day shortly after 8 a.m. with a public morning prayer services at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, which stood just opposite his firehouse, Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24.
At 8:45 a.m. on September 10, Frank Peters looked at his watch and wondered about his daughters, who were now back at school. David Kasmire was at the cash register on the top floor of Borders. Martha was in the middle of the breakfast shift, making omelets. Father Mychal was kneeling in his pew offering private prayers. Sara Low was asleep.
Jeremy Glick woke up feeling pissed. He was flying to San Francisco that afternoon for a few days of business meetings and hated leaving his wife, Lyzbeth, and 11-week old daughter, Emerson. He half-seriously suggested Lyzbeth make up some excuse that would enable him to stay home. Maybe she could call up and say he was sick. They had decided Lyzbeth would take Emerson to her parents in the Catskills while he was away, and he delayed working so that he could play with her before they parted ways. Since he worked from home, he was in no rush and took the time to change Emerson’s diaper and prepare her bottle before strapping her into the baby seat in Lyzbeth’s car. After settling the two dogs in on either side, he kissed his wife goodbye. It was 10 a.m. Glick had kissed his wife for the last time.
John Schiumo was pissed, too. He’d woken up at 3:45 a.m. as usual, but instead of going into the office he’d gone to Cathedral High School on the East Side to report on a teacher’s strike. It was the first time in five years that the New York One TV news reporter had not gone to the office first, and he was regretting it. The crew was nowhere to be seen, so he hung around with a bagel and coffee waiting. He didn’t have a high opinion of the strikers, either. It seemed to him they were also sitting around waiting for his crew to turn up. Sure enough, as soon as the cameras were rolling, the protesters were rolling too. Schiumo thought the whole thing was phony, predictable, irrelevant.
At about the same time, Mark Green, the Democratic hopeful to replace Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York City, was striding confidently down Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was the last day of the primaries, and he was enjoying the novelty of saying “Please vote tomorrow,” stressing the word “tomorrow” with theatrical relish. Reporters traipsing around with Green joked that he’d let them down, not providing the sparks in the campaign they’d anticipated. There was too much consensus, they complained. Where were the slurs? Where was the drama? Green, a thorn in Mayor Giuliani’s side during his tenure as New York public advocate, was not living up to his reputation.
Green maintained his Cheshire Cat-like composure, refusing to take the bait. From experience, he knew that an election was never over until it was over. There were still 24 hours before the polling stations opened.
Over in Brooklyn, the Rev. Al Sharpton was having coffee at the beginning of a heavy day campaigning for Green’s opponent, Fernando Ferrer. He was certain the tide had turned and that Ferrer, a no hoper at the start of the campaign, was on the cusp of victory. It would be “world famous” upset, Sharpton told supporters, his customary hyperbole kicking in. Tomorrow, when the polls closed, the world’s eyes would be on New York, he promised.
Lt. Col. Tim McGreer, an F-16 fighter pilot who in a day would find himself patrolling the capital’s skies on attack-alert, had just returned from a two-week training deployment in Nevada. It had been a grueling exercise, in which McGreer had been forced to draw on every lesson he’d learned to avoid being shot down during air combat simulations. He’d not always succeeded.
As a favor to his wife, McGreer had dropped the kids off at school and was wondering what to do with his day off. Ordinarily he would have been out in his motorboat on Chesapeake Bay, where his wife’s family has a remote cottage near the mouth of the bay. On September 10, however, the boat wasn’t working. Instead he mowed the lawn.
On Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx, Thomas Von Essen, the commissioner of the New York Fire Department, was attending the official rededication of his old firehouse, Ladder 42. Rudy Giuliani was in attendance, as was Father Mychal. In his Franciscan robes, Father Mike, as he was affectionately known among the firefighters, used his Mass to remind those present of the brevity of life. You had to live and appreciate each day, he said, for you never knew what the next day might bring.
Charles Burlingame III, better known as Chic among his family and friends, was flying his usual route, from L.A. to Dulles. He’d be flying the same route in reverse on September 11, but that flight would be his last. On September 10 Chic was due to make Dulles by 4:24 p.m. but anticipated arriving earlier. So did his flight crew. It was why they liked flying with Chic. Among American Airlines crew his name stood for flying fast. Flight attendants would say, “Pull a Chic and get us home early.”
Burlingame was not an obsessive man, but he believed in certain routines. He would, for example, have a big breakfast so that he wouldn’t have to eat on the plane. And the way he dressed reflected an almost military approach to his appearance. He was flawlessly neat, pressing his shirts on layovers and remembering to polish his shoes in the mornings. Boarding the plane, Chic had smiled at spotting one of his flight attendants reading a copy of Bailey by My Side, a small book of inspirational thoughts about life, death, and golden retrievers; Chic had given it to her on a previous run. Hell, he’d given a copy to just about everyone he knew, he loved that book so much. He’d originally bought it for his wife, Sheri, since they had two retrievers of their own, Maggie and Molly. Whenever they could they would take the dogs up to Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke, Va., where they were planning to build a second home. It was why Chic was doing back-to-back flights, so that he could spend more time at his mountain retreat.
Rodney Williams was also in the air that afternoon, flying to Denver. The athlete was feeling nervous, anxious that his first NFL game with the New York Giants would be a success. Monday Night Football: Fans would be watching his every move, and every mistake. If he slipped up, folks would be talking about it for weeks.
That day, New York City was finding its pace again, now that Labor Day had passed. It was the start of New York Fashion Week; celebrities were rolling into town. Kenneth Cole had just finished showing his new collection in Bryant Park, using the opportunity to launch an attack on the lack of handgun control. “People need to be aware that there are more regulations on toy guns than handguns,” he said.
By 1 p.m., John Schiumo, the TV reporter, was on his way home. Since it was the primaries the following day, he knew he’d have to spend the morning hanging around polling stations and talking to voters. Even a teacher’s picket was a more exciting prospect. “Let’s hope for some major breaking news so that I don’t have to stand at a polling location all day,” he said as he left the office. (“You got what you wished for,” someone told him at 9 the next morning.)
At their new home in Connecticut, Amy King and Michael Tarrou were packing for their three-day trip to the West Coast. The two flight attendants were working the Boston–Los Angeles route on United Airlines Flight 175 the next day and planned to take a short break in San Antonio before heading back. They had met some years earlier, but it had taken all of Michael’s charm to win Amy over. He’d written her songs and then played them to her on his guitar, and her reservations about his child from a previous marriage slowly evaporated. Now they were living together and planning to get engaged. Michael had even recorded an album of his own music, taking his inspiration from his idols, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
A week earlier Michael had been talking with another flight attendant, Jennifer, who said that Neil Young’s song “Comes a Time” made her think of him and Amy. “That’s your song,” she said, quoting the first few lyrics, “Comes a time when you’re drifting / Comes a time when you settle down,” but Michael wasn’t so sure. He said it sent shivers up his spine. (After September 11, Jennifer took another look at the song, and different lyrics jumped out at her that time: “You and I were captured / We took our souls and flew away.”)
For lunch that day, Mark Green ate a salad. Al Sharpton ate chicken at an old folks’ home. David Kasmire had sushi from the plaza of the World Trade Center, as he did every day.
Timmy Burke, a firefighter with Engine 202 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, arrived at Brian’s house with a fridge on the back of his Ford Explorer. He’d picked it up from a construction site where it was being thrown out. “Brand new,” he told Brian, a buddy from Ladder 101. Brian didn’t want it, but they made arrangements to get together that evening to watch the Giants play the Broncos, and Timmy headed back home to play with his daughter, Elizabeth. He figured he’d take the fridge to the fire station in the morning.
At 3:30 p.m. Lt. Col. Tim McGreer turned up at his oldest daughter’s school to watch her play soccer. He had the family Springer spaniel in tow and was training it to fetch in time for hunting season.
Father Mychal was a passionate walker, known for his treks from the friary at 31st Street to Coney Island, a distance of some 20 miles. On Monday afternoon, while McGreer was cheering his daughter on the field, Father Mychal joined a friend on a rather more modest stroll to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the two men admired the saints and symbols carved around the doors and identified empty spaces where future saints could be honored.
Chic got home that day some time before 5 p.m. and threw on a pair of old jeans and a U.S. Navy T-shirt. Sheri had picked up some steaks, and Chic got the grill ready. It was one of the things he loved making himself, right down to his own special marinade. Truth to tell, he liked his steaks rare enough they hardly required cooking at all. Although the couple didn’t usually watch horror videos, Chic had bought Hannibal, and they ate their steaks in the media room—just a family room, really, but somehow they’d gotten used to calling it the media room on account of the huge TV screen and sound system Chic had rigged up.
Sheri hated Hannibal. Too much cutting, she complained. It wasn’t for Chic either. “God, what a heck of a way die,” he said.
At 5:30 p.m., Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari checked in to the Comfort Inn on a bland strip of stores and fast-food joints in South Portland, Maine. At reception Atta asked if he could have 15 copies of USA Today, intending perhaps to bulk up his luggage, but had to make do with four copies instead.
Dan Rather led the CBS Evening News with a report on the Senate Special Committee on Aging and the makers of dietary supplements. In Lubbock, Texas, a four-day Buddy Holly symposium concluded with 49,000 people simultaneously singing along to the 1950s hit “Peggy Sue.”
Lyzbeth Glick was with her parents in the Catskills when Jeremy called. There had been a fire at Newark airport; his flight had been rerouted. He would have to catch a plane from JFK if he wanted to make San Francisco that day. Instead, he’d decided to catch United Airlines flight 93 from Newark in the morning and take the red-eye back home Tuesday night. He was still talking about canceling the trip altogether. Lyzbeth couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so adamant about not wanting to travel.
Around the time that Jeremy Glick was returning home, Mark Green was hitting his last campaign stop, the subway on the Upper East Side at 86th Street. It was his own neighborhood, as well as that of Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor. That seemed like a good omen to Green, and he arrived home feeling buoyant. His wife was making chicken cutlets, one of her specialties, and they talked about the following day’s elections and the speech Green would give when the results came through. He was expecting a run-off with Ferrer, nothing he couldn’t handle. It was amazing, he said, that nothing had gone wrong during the primaries. His wife gave him a look as if to say, it’s not over yet, but Green dismissed it. The polls were opening in less than 12 hours. What could possibly go wrong?
A few blocks away, John Schiumo was doing some last-minute research on the primaries before turning in early. He was getting up at 3 a.m. the next day, and he wanted to read up on Green and Ferrer to avoid making any obvious gaffes.
Luc got home that night to find a message from her manager at Windows on the World, telling her not to come in until 11 a.m. on Tuesday. There was no explanation for the scheduling change. Luc shrugged it off and reset her alarm clock.
David Kasmire, of Borders Books, made himself a gin and tonic, watched the Antiques Roadshow on PBS, and went to bed.
At 8:15 p.m., Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari were in the Pizza Hut a short distance from their hotel, arguing about whether to order a meat lover’s pizza or a plain. (They settled for plain.) Then they asked the waitress to turn up the lights. And could they have the lettuce without the house dressing? At one point the waitress noticed that they seemed to be laughing at the movie posters across the street. Naturally her gaze followed theirs, but all she could see was an ad for the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger film Collateral Damage.
At a pier on the Hudson River in New York City, 1,200 people and Monica Lewinsky were trying to cram into 900 seats for Marc Jacob’s much-hyped spring collection. The rain had stopped, the skies were clearing. There had even been something of a sunset.
In Staten Island, Timmy Burke was cutting the pepperoni pizza and passing out beers. Brian from Ladder 101 had called to say he was going to spend the evening with his wife instead, but Kevin from Ladder 235 was there, and so was Matt from 101. The game started well, but the Giants were now getting spanked in spite of an amazing 90-yard kick from the new kid, Rodney Williams. At some point in the evening, Matt called into the station and was asked if he’d switch his Tuesday shift to Wednesday. That was fine by Matt, who could be more cavalier with the beers now that he knew wasn’t working the next morning.
In Denver, Rodney Williams was on a high. His 90-yard punt was the longest in team history. It felt like everything he’d ever worked for, and now the rest of the guys were crowding around him, telling him that his kick would be all anyone would be talking about for weeks.
In South Portland, Atta and Alomari had found a Walmart and were on a spending spree. They blew about $200 on T-shirts alone, and Atta was so impressed with one of the sports shirts he’d bought that he put it on before he left the store.
The sky was exceptionally clear that night, and the forecast was for more of the same. On TV Jay Leno was interviewing Keanu Reeves. Anne Robinson was hosting the Weakest Link on NBC. Big Brother 2 was debuting on CBS.
At Madison Square Garden, Michael Jackson was performing his 30th Anniversary Celebration. An emaciated Whitney Houston sang “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” to the crowd.
At 1 a.m. Father Mychal finished writing in his journal and, as he was known to do, cast a final look out his window at the firehouse on the opposite side of the street before switching off the lights and saying his final prayers of the day.
Nine hours later Father Mychal would be recorded on his death certificate as Victim No. 00001—the first official casualty of America’s new war.
Sara Low was on American Airlines flight 11, which flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on September 11. On July 18, 2002, her father flew from Arkansas to New York to identify her remains. Two of Low’s rings were found in the debris and are now worn by her mother and sister.
Frank Peters was docking the John F. Kennedy at the Battery Park terminal on the morning of September 11 when the second plane flew overhead, sparking panic among commuters who crowded back on to the boat. It was the last passenger ferry to leave Manhattan that day.
On September 11, David Kasmire was having his morning coffee when he noticed what appeared to be ticker tape falling from the sky. Shortly after, he and the rest of the staff were evacuated. He was relocated to another branch of Borders in the city.
Luc watched on TV that morning as the towers collapsed. Everyone who worked her regular shift that morning, including the manager who gave her the job, perished. As an illegal immigrant without proof of employment, she has been unable to receive relief benefits.
Jeremy Glick was among the passengers who led the revolt against the hijackers on United Airlines flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
John Schiumo covered the attacks of September 11 for New York One every day for the next two months and was appointed host of a special nightly news show, New York Tonight.
Mark Green cast his vote at 7:40 a.m. the next morning. Just over an hour later the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, and the primaries were postponed soon after. Green narrowly won his primary but lost the election to Republican Mike Bloomberg, whose surprise victory was aided by the endorsement of the newly lionized Rudy Giuliani.
Amy King and Michael Tarrou were on United Airlines flight 175, which crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre at 9:05 a.m. on September 11.
Charles Burlingame III (Chic) was the pilot of American Airlines flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. His wife has still not washed the clothes he was wearing on his last evening at home.
Rodney Williams was cashing his check from his first NFL game when the teller told him a plane had just hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Timmy Burke was sitting in his firehouse on September 11 when he heard the call over his radio for ambulances. He thought it was a replay of the ’93 bombing but would soon find himself battling the flames at ground zero. Of the seven men who went with Ladder 101 from Burke’s firehouse that morning, none survived. They included Burke’s buddy Brian, who had opted to stay in with his wife the night before. Matt, who had switched his shift, was off duty but has been plagued ever since by the guilt common to all firefighters who lived through that day. Burke himself survived, as did all the men on Engine 202.
Thomas Von Essen, the commissioner of the New York Fire Department, survived on September 11, but Father Mychal Judge did not. He was killed by a falling body at 1 World Trade Center while administering last rites.
Lt. Col Tim McGreer was getting a wart removed by his podiatrist when American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Over the next three months he would fly more than 40 combat missions over Washington, D.C., including on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Additional reporting by John Cook, Chris Lee, Sara Lieberman, Tal Pinchevsky, Chris Ketcham, and Timothy Wood.