“Hey…Did you see this?”
Michael came running into my office and flicked on the television.
“Looks like there’s been an accident at the World Trade Center.”
We were just starting our day researching and writing the questions for a Studio theme park game show, based on the popular television phenomenon Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
We usually kept the TVs on in our offices to monitor breaking news on any subject from entertainment to politics, history to science. We worked seven days a week bathed in the glow of our computers and television screens delivering creatively entertaining queries for Studio theme park guests to answer for some pretty swell prizes.
The questions we created had to be very high quality and absolutely accurate in every way. And our little team of twelve researchers and writers rocked them out every day, brand new, shiny, fresh and fun, for the attraction on both coasts.
We were nerds in paradise and we knew it.
And we became very close friends in the process.
“Looks like a plane flew into it, doesn’t it?” said Michael.
And, indeed, the smoldering breech in the long grey side of the building did look like a cartoon impression of a plane’s wings and body with smoke pouring out of it.
He was shifting from one foot to the other nervously. “My dad has offices there but I think he’s travelling now.”
Mike’s dad was in the business of eggs. Among the many things of which Michael had innate knowledge, all of our questions regarding Judaism went through him. He was a wonderfully kinetic and funny New York Jew.
Then Shiraz bolted in to join us watching the television, buoyant and ready to start work. Always in a good mood, and full of vinegar, Shiraz was a great smiling kid who loved food and computer games.
“What’s going on?”
“Looks like a plane crashed into the Trade Center, Shiraz.”
An American Muslim, Shiraz was educated at Rutgers and his father was the Chairman of the North New Jersey Muslim Association. He had friends who worked in the Trade Center. He was betrothed to his intended wife in Pakistan.
“Looks like a small plane,” I said, “Why would anything larger be flying that low?”
Michael said, “It may not be an accident.”
And Shiraz said, “Let’s hope it’s just an accident…”
The news helicopters and camera feeds from every surrounding building adjacent to the World Trade Center were being broadcast on all channels as we flipped from CNN to ABC to CBS.
Some anchor woman was talking by phone with someone near the impact point. The man was speaking to her with otherworldly calm while the space around him melted like a Dali painting.
Images of both tall towers filled the television screens and we watched and rocked back and forth on our feet and groaned with every new observation of fire and smoke and the small dots, the tiny dust motes imbued with gravity, the men in business suits with their ties spiraling upward and the women in high heels, their hair streaming just falling, falling…
The cameras didn’t know when to look away.
“Oh! OH! God. There goes another one!” I barked.
“No, NO you couldn’t have.” Heather had joined us silently. A native of North New Jersey, engaged to be married, the tears were springing to her eyes. She could see the Towers from where she grew up.
“I did. It was so fast. Just a dot speeding by, shot from a low angle from the street…LOOK!”
The morning show anchor reporters we were watching on television, incredulous, doubted each other’s eyes just as we were until the control room could rack the playback, and yes, there was another.
Blasting into the second tower in a stream of fire and a rain of paper. A grey ticker-tape sprinkling of papers, all white and on wing like flattened doves riding the thermals down.
The four of us became instantly kinetic, turning away, turning back to see, holding each other, crying, hushing.
And then the Pentagon.
And then a field in Pennsylvania.
Landmarks in the United States.
A dawning realization bleached the color from our faces as all of our phones began ringing and our pagers went off in a concert of beeps and bells.
First response in a theme park is rapid, efficient and strikingly calm. By noon, with the concerted effort of pre-trained first responders leading us in strict evacuation protocols, all the parks were clear of guests.
Other than one hurricane, this was the first time the entire theme park complex was shut down.
When we were done assisting with the exodus, I instructed Michael, Heather and Shiraz and the others to go home, and stay home until notified.
Shiraz was to come to my home if he encountered any difficulty. His face drawn with a kaleidoscope of emotions, Shiraz blessed us all with a prayer and assured me he would be just fine. He was going to mosque.
We held each other in a collective hug, the moment distinct in its context. A microcosm of people, just four of us: Jew, Muslim, Gay, Christian, Male, Female, Young, Old wondering what was next.
Alone in our offices, turning off our televised windows to that morning’s horror, I sent the day’s quiz show questions electronically to the stages at both theme parks, one in Florida and one in California.
The show must go on.
I walked out of our bungalow into the screaming silence of an achingly vivid blue sky day and drove home.