FROM THE ARCHIVES: 9/11 through a child’s eyes

I remember her eyes. They were clear and blue and filled with tears.

On Tuesday, Sept 11, 2001, Newark Airport, just 15 miles southwest of New York City, was frantic and disorderly.

The strange woman from Manhattan, whose eyes I will never forget, held my face in her hands and in a wet whisper told me a child should never have to go through this.

I remember returning her desperation with indifference. Not cruel indifference, but the indifference of a 12-year-old child — one who cannot understand catastrophe as it unfolds.

She and her husband had flown in from a film festival in Europe. He was tall and thin and had a full beard. He was a screenwriter and she was a casting director for the movies.

I don’t know their names.

She and my mother spoke using words like “tragedy” and “terrible” — words beyond me. I stood by the still, empty luggage carousels alone, annoyed at the prospect of a 12-hour drive home.

I sat on my suitcase, hung my head and pulled out my Gameboy. Some people hustled back-and-forth, others frantically dialled their cell phones, and some stood still in shock, like the heavyset man in a Hawaiian T-shirt. In one hand, he held his phone. In the other, his wife’s hand.

He had driven his wife to the airport to catch her flight to Miami and asked his best friend to cover his shift on the 106th floor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He couldn’t reach him. I waited with him while my mother went to find a reporter.

***

When kids in my family turned 12, our parents took us on a trip. Nothing too extravagant — not farther west than Toronto, not farther south than New York.

I wanted to see the Yankees play the Red Sox in Yankee Stadium. I especially wanted to see Derek Jeter.

We booked the tickets in May and got the best bleacher seats money could buy.

It was my first time on a plane and my first time in New York.

The city swallowed me whole. It isn’t clean like Chicago or beautiful like Paris — it’s even a little dehumanizing, the skyscrapers constantly reminding you of your insignificance.

We saw the sights. From the top of the Empire State Building, the city stretched as far as I could see and I was on top of it all. Below me, eight million people shuffled or raced through the maze of streets and avenues.

I took in Times Square and a club sandwich so big it could only have been American.

On Saturday, I went to Yankee Stadium.

It was 90-something-degrees in the bleachers. Derek Jeter didn’t play — sometimes life doesn’t seem fair — but Tino Martinez hit two home runs and my New York beat Boston 9-2.

Our flight was scheduled for Monday, but was delayed until the next morning because of a storm.

Early in the morning of the 11th as we were packing our things, the Today Show was reporting Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA.

“It must be a slow news day,” my mother said, and we caught a taxi to Newark.

Once we were through security and in the plane, we sat on the runway for what seemed like ages.

Over the intercom, in a thick French accent, the pilot said there was a fire in the city and we couldn’t take off.

The stewardess walked to the back of the plane and sat down. Her face was flush and she put it in her hands.

We still weren’t allowed off the plane. A man with a shaved head stood up with his phone at his ear and yelled loud enough so everyone could hear, “A plane flew into the World Trade Center!”

Countless voices rose over his and soon we were ushered off the plane.

Inside the airport was chaos. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. It seemed to me things like this, explosions and deaths, happened all the time.

My dad left my mom and me in the airport and went to find a rental car.

***

The gold sedan was spacious. We threw our luggage in the trunk and sped out to the freeway, leaving the airport behind.

Cars were lined along overpasses, drivers taking pictures of the thick mass of deep grey smoke issuing from the city’s heart.

It was the first tangible thing I had seen of the attack beyond tears and fear.

It was a somber drive. We travelled through New England and let the radio do the talking. Men and women called in asking about loved ones they hadn’t heard from yet. Others called in to give their sympathy. It was the first time I remember hearing the word “terrorism.”

We made it to New Hampshire and I got to a level of Super Mario I’d never reached. We stopped in a Burger King and the sun waned over the quiet rest stop parking lot. I had decided on chicken nuggets.

There was a television in the Burger King. People crowded underneath watching the news. I stood by a stranger and watched the planes hit the towers for the first time. I watched the buildings fall into a pile of rubble.

I didn’t want chicken nuggets anymore and Super Mario seemed childish.

The image of the falling towers replayed in my mind as we drove home.

Slowly, I began to grasp why the woman in the airport had held my face and that she knew my innocence was something worth protecting. By then, in some ways, it was gone.

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