Lileks had a great observation this morning — he said that today felt more like 9/11 than tomorrow will, at least in part because it was a Tuesday, and Tuesday has a particular rhythm. He’s absolutely right, and I’m afraid if he hadn’t said that, I might not have understood why I just couldn’t get my ass out of bed and run this morning. Other than allergies.
But it was a Tuesday. A bright, sunny, impossibly beautiful Tuesday. (Not unlike today, though today we have a little fog on the river.) I was trying to take the week off, but there was a lot to do and so I had come in to work on Monday, and I was going to work just half the day on Tuesday and take off that afternoon and the rest of the week to do some blading and paddling and whatever else struck me. I was just settling in to some paper work and finishing off my coffee when (my secretary) Stephanie’s husband called and said a plane had struck the World Trade Center. We started making calls and getting people to attention because our agency is often called on to assist in air disasters, and this one might need some hazardous materials information, etc. But my initial thought, like most people’s, was that it was some small plane that had veered off the sightseeing run and this would not be a big deal. We had just moved into our new building a couple of months before and didn’t have TVs hooked up yet, so there was a scramble to get a TV or two set up, and I was trying to get CNN on the web but CNN and most of the other news sites were quickly bogged down in traffic. Then we got a call that another plane had hit, and we knew we were under attack.
The first thing we did was figure out who from Central Office here in Albany was in New York. On any given day, it could be a couple of dozen people. For some reason that day there was very little travel to New York, and in fact we had a number of people from federal agencies at meetings here in Albany. We had a number of people in the DC area, and when we learned of the Pentagon attack, we tried to get hold of them. Cell phones can be next to useless on a normal day in some parts of DC because there’s so much traffic, and that Tuesday they were of course inundated all up and down the coast. So we put in calls to hotels and offices where we thought our people were and tried to get in touch with them. It took a while, but we were able to find them all, tell them the situation, help them get rental cars so they could return home. One of my key people was on a regional visit out on Long Island and couldn’t get home, so I asked him to stay put there until we knew whether we might need him for the response.
The towers fell while all that was happening. It was unthinkable. How could the towers just fall?
But they did.
And they were still burning.
The people here at DEC were phenomenal. As soon as it became clear we’d need people down at the site, we had volunteers. The air staff started figuring out how we could best monitor what was going on in the air, because it was clear this fire would be burning for a while. The solid waste staff immediately started thinking about how the debris would be moved. And once we’d figured out the logistics and established rotations, people went down and did what needed to be done. We were constantly called on for advice and assistance, and we used our relationships with our neighboring states to smooth the process of waste movement. It would be weeks before we had it down to a routine, but our people rose to every challenge.
At some point I called Lee to see what the schools were doing and to get ready to try to explain this to the girls. One of the hardest things for a parent is being called on to explain something you don’t quite understand yourself. Your job is to tell the kids that everything will be all right. That was a very hard thing to say last September 11. It’s still an open question.
The next months were hard, tiring, unrelenting. Lots of interpreting and explaining, lots of testifying. My respect for the press dropped another few dozen notches, fueled in part by my being deliberately and viciously misrepresented by a “Pulitzer-prize-winning” reporter. My respect for the Pulitzer prize dropped considerably, too. We had had a dry run for this with West Nile Virus — everybody who can do a Google search thinks they’ve got the latest, best information, and since it’s not what the government is saying, the government must be lying! Guess what, folks: information does not equal understanding. The experts don’t know everything, but neither does the guy who says the experts are all wrong.
Out of this comes the opportunity to create something very very cool in lower Manhattan, which I can’t wait to see.
So, today does feel like the day, and I’m just a bit weary and sad and tired from the past year. And I don’t think that tomorrow I’ll go to any ceremonies or candlelight vigils or any of that stuff. It’s just not my way. I’m hoping that I’ll just be able to go home from work and get supper and homework out of the way and go for a run around the lake with my daughter and that will be remembrance enough.