A Choice in Time
October 8, 2019
7:29 am, Tuesday September 11th, 2001
Ding Dong. The cheerful doorbell rang through the air as I stepped into the North Tower at the World Trade Center in New York.
“Good morning,” the clerk at the front desk exclaimed. I responded with an equally cheerful “Hi,” and laughing a little bit in my head, I stepped into the silver elevator, careful not to spill any of my hot coffee on the other passengers.
“What floor, miss?” the elevator operator asked, a grin on his face.
“Um, floor one hundred and five please,” I said with a smirk. Only a few people had access to that specific floor, especially this early in the morning. Someone snorted at the back of the elevator, but I just let it blow over. Some people, I thought, a smile spreading across my face. I had a feeling today was going to be a good day. Everything was calm and collected, exactly as it should be.
As the elevator dinged, I glanced up, expecting it to be my floor. I had just about zoned out again. Instead, a man from the sixty-fourth floor stepped in. He was tall and wore a tightly- pressed tux. He had a sharply-narrow face with facial hair that screamed, I just woke up, but I still rock this look! His expression was curious, his eyebrows furrowed, and he kept glaring at nothing in particular. When the poor elevator operator asked what floor he was going to, the man snapped back a hasty reply of “floor one hundred and five.”
Great, I thought, already despising him for ruining my joyful mood. I silently prayed he wouldn’t have anything to do with me. The man, already in the elevator, pushed his way to the back where–just my luck–the only space was left. Right next to me. Sipping my cafe mocha, I anxiously hoped that my curiosity wasn’t as obvious as I believed it to be. Sighing, I slipped back into my daze, arousing faintly only at the brief buzz of each text going off in the man’s phone.
When we finally reached my floor, I nearly died with relief. Checking my watch, I hurried down the long hall, past the stairs, and into my office. I carefully shut the door, relieved it was only 7:38 am and I still had time until my meeting at nine to work. After setting everything into its place, I smiled and started up my computer. Glancing at a picture of my kids, I got to work. I had a report on plane safety due soon, and I couldn’t afford to make my boss mad.
Typing away, I was just at the part If hijackers are discovered, remain calm. Your plane shouldn’t be in any danger. If danger is possible– when the man from the elevator came slamming into my room. I was so startled, I dropped my cafe mocha, and that really pissed me off.
“What is your problem?” I shouted, my temper rising faster than I could control. The man flinched; obviously, he hadn’t expected this volatile of a reaction. I glared at him and squatted down to the hardwood floor, examining the damage. Muttering angrily under my breath, I stood and grabbed a few tissues off my desk, and bent back down to clean it up. I glanced up at him a couple times, only to see him fidgeting with the corner of the papers in his hands. Once I was satisfied the mess was cleaned, I stood up and sat back down in my leather chair.
I sighed and looked at him. He blinked slowly and then shook his head. Was he getting annoyed with ME? When HE came in here like this? My string of angry rants were cut short by his deep voice.
“I am so sorry, Miss…?” He paused, waiting for my reply. I stood there, shocked. He looked nothing like the disturbed man in the elevator.
Staring at him like an idiot, I remembered his question and answered, “Lynn.” I gave him my first name for no reason I could think of.
“Well, Miss Lynn,” he enunciated my name, “I am deeply, truly sorry.” I cocked my head to the side, anger evaporating. When I opened my mouth to reply, he spoke instead.
“Please, I had a really…uncanny dream last night and I didn’t get much sleep. I am asking for your forgiveness. I have a feeling that I was fairly rude to everyone this morning, so please don’t feel like this is something personal against you,” he pleaded with me, his eyes bright with worry and stress.
My impulsive self took over, and I found myself asking, “What was the dream?” I was truly curious. I have a minor in psychology, and I’ve always studied dreams and found them as something to be observed. Also, I was starting to warm up to this guy, not that I would ever admit it.
The man gave a weak grin and said, “You sure you want to know? It was…” He paused, searching for the right word, “…surreal.”
I frowned, but waved a hand for him to continue.
“You see, it was very realistic and it was odd, as most unnatural dreams take place in, well, unnatural or impossible worlds.”
I agreed silently and nodded for him to continue.
“I was on the ninety-sixth floor when a huge plane crashed into this building. I remember feeling as if I was choking on smoke and feeling insanely hot.” I frowned, and as he continued, my frown seemed to get deeper and deeper.
“I also had the crushing sensation of falling and that’s when all I saw was red. When I woke up, I was sweating like I had just finished a run with my daughter, who runs track.” He looked down at his feet, as if ashamed of admitting his fear to me. I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. He returned it with one of his own; however, he couldn’t mask the shining of his eyes.
“It felt so real. I…” His voice broke and he turned away. My concern for him was growing. He was obviously under a lot of stress and pressure. The man took a deep breath and continued, his voice wobbly and unsure.
“I called up my two kids, and told them I loved them, because I was so unsure. At three in the morning, I called my twelve and thirteen-year-olds in Pennsylvania.” He took a deep breath and stared at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sympathy echoing in my voice. I took a sip of water and continued.
“It is very unnatural and, um, I could see why it would keep you up.” I actually couldn’t, but I sensed there was something he wasn’t telling me. He nodded, and I proceeded.
“I don’t have an explanation, but I’ll try to get back to you.” I tried for a hopeful smile, which he returned.
“Okay, here,” He gave me his business card. I didn’t look at it, but set it to the side. I had a small feeling I would see him again.
“Thank you.” He gave me a genuine smile and I returned it. Fighting the urge to blush, I shook his hand and he left.
Glancing at the clock, I had a small start. It was 8:38! I couldn’t believe I had been talking to that man for nearly twenty-five minutes. I was supposed to call my kids before they went to school. Grabbing my cell, I dialed the number anxiously while biting my nails, an old habit of mine. I twisted my chair around to face the beautiful city that was my home. I snuck another look at the clock. 8:42. They would be on the bus now. I dialed the number again. I knew my daughter had a project due, and she was terrible at remembering things, especially important things.
I looked at the clock again as it was ringing. 8:44. As soon as it stopped, I expelled a sigh of annoyance. I was going to be a pain to reach them–my thoughts was cut neatly in half as I heard a strange noise and looked up and out the window.
Panic was registering in my brain before I even realized what was going on. My breathing hitched as time slowed down. A dark silver airplane was coming straight towards the tower. So fast. So straight. So purposeful. This has to be an accident. Some idiot has lost control… please, NO! My rambling thoughts were cut in half again as the airplane crashed into the floor below. Time stood still as screams echoed in my head and suddenly, I was floating. Flying, even. Then everything came crashing down, and I knew nothing.
When I awoke, I couldn’t feel my legs. Or my arms. Or any other part of my body. Panic started seeping in as I slowly began regaining feeling. I painfully sat up and stared in disbelief at a huge piece of a wall lying flat down on my long, thin legs. I felt like screaming, but when I opened my mouth to do so, bile came out. Coughing out the remaining vomit, I gazed around me. Heat burned my skin, smoke stung my eyes, but I could still make out all the wreckage was littered around me.
The walls of my office were blasted out, and what I could see of the floor made my stomach clench in horror. The remains of the office that neighbored mine were on full display, and my throat closed up completely at the sight of an overturned desk chair and a body that lay close to it. It was the woman with the office next to mine. How could I have never even bothered to learn her name? I thought in a daze as I realised she was dead. I looked away as tears filled my eyes and tried to focus on something else, anything that would get me out of this mess.
Papers floated around me, riding a nonexistent breeze. A faint buzzing was surfacing from somewhere close to my left. The remains of desks, chairs, and office material were scattered all throughout, most turned upside down and missing parts.The only signs of human life were a cracked picture frame holding a photo of someone’s children, a single shoe, and a small teddy bear missing an arm. Painfully, I twisted my head to look behind me. In the far distance, I could see a wall of debris that cut me off from the rest of my floor, effectively enclosing me in a small space. Muffled screaming reached me through the floor below, and I remembered the thousands of people below me, the ones who were evidently trapped. Just like me, I thought. Whimpering, I continued to look for something–a sign of life, a way to escape.
I finished my desperate search and gazed out the huge windows to my left. What on earth had happened? Did some idiot lose control of the plane? Some inexperienced pilot who misread his monitors and panicked?
Yet the way plane had aimed like a laser beam toward the tower had been too purposeful and direct. I couldn’t help but feel that if this were an accident the plane would have appeared to try to swerve away. Who in their right mind wouldn’t try to avoid a building? Everyone knew this and the building next door were the tallest towers in New York, ones that housed at least fifteen thousand people daily.
Pulling my thoughts together to my predicament, I stared at my helpless legs for a moment before making my decision. Pain ripped through my body as I lifted, and yanked–gritting my teeth all the while–until I had pulled my legs out from under the pile of concrete and glass. I felt one moment of success before I doubled over and screamed out the pain I had no idea a human body could feel.
After what seemed like an eternity, the pain subsided to a dull throb and the tears were no longer running in deep rivers down my cheeks. I managed to pull myself near the windows, my breathing labored. I was tempted to try to stand. but with the way my legs dragged helplessly behind me…I quickly gave up on the idea. At least I could breathe easier here.
My back was cramping from sitting for so long, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I glanced at my watch for what seemed like the millionth time as I wondered how long it would take for help to arrive. My breaths were harsh in my own ear, the smoke seemingly getting denser and thicker.
And then it happened. Again. This time, I just heard the plane crash. I didn’t see it. The boom of pressure against my ears startled me as I registered noises I had already heard not so very long ago…screeching engines…an immense crash…a collision resulting in a whirlwind of metal and fire. My whole tower seemed to shake and shudder, even though it hadn’t been the one struck. Another plane had hit the other tower.
Ears ringing in the aftermath, I pulled myself into a more comfortable position. I let out a sob and rested my head on a piece of rubble, then gazed down at the sea of lights below. The screams of the people below had faded to a dull murmur, and I winced as fear grated inside my head. Why, God, why was this happening? What had gone wrong in this world for this to happen to us? These were normal people were dying for some unknown cause. It astonished me that something like this could ever happen, and frightened me to not know why.
Tears fell down my face as the South Tower in the World Trade Center collapsed. I gasped in anguish as a cacophony of metal grinding against metal produced the loudest noise I had ever heard. I covered my face as the smoke increased and became thicker. Gasping for air and choking through my tears, I imagined–or was it real?–that I could hear hundreds of voices screaming and fading away as the collapse of the huge tower snuffed out their lives. Perhaps some were teenagers who hadn’t even gotten to drive yet. Some might be pregnant, taking with them to their graves babies who would never get to see the light of day. I imagined men and women in that tower who would never hug their parents or kiss their husbands–yes, MY DEAR HUSBAND–again. I imagined the faces of little children–yes, MY PRECIOUS CHILDREN–as they learned the horrible truth that their mother was gone. And like this? I sobbed.
As my body shook with the effort of breathing, I gave a dry sob. As the increasingly overwhelming heat and smoke pressed itself into every crevice of my body, I finally gave in and accepted the truth: I was never getting out of here. My lungs weren’t going to make it. The smoke was so thick and dry, and it coated my eyes. I began scratching at my own throat, slowly suffocating, my own wheezing the only sound I could hear. With an unknown strength, I grabbed a nearby piece of rubble and threw it at what I hoped was a window. The resulting crack of glass focused my mind as I grabbed something else and threw it once again. The smoke billowed out of the room, and I pushed myself out with it.
The world sharpened to a point in one moment.
I coughed as air, as fresh as it could be with dust from the South Tower lingering in it, filled my lungs. The wind pulled at me, yearning to drag me down with it. The sounds of a city in distress hit me all at once, but the sounds that grabbed my attention and held onto it were from the other people that I realised were hanging out of other windows alongside my side of the building. A sickening feeling grew in my stomach as I leaned out and could see people shaking out tablecloths, napkins, shirts, anything to show that they were still alive. Screaming at the top of their lungs, cursing, sobbing, praying and fighting. Fighting for a miracle, for a savior, for anything to help them live.
I dragged myself closer to the edge and studied the ground far, far below. The smoke was becoming even thicker, I felt with complete certainty that if I had stayed in that office I would have suffocated. I had only prolonged my death.
I glanced to the right of me, simply because the screaming had started anew. A man was crawling through his window. People were pleading with him to stop, hands pulling at his coat, trying to save him from the inevitable. My own throat, dry and rough, ripped open and I screamed as he yanked himself free from their hands…and fell. If he made any sound, screamed any last confessions or prayers, they were ripped away in the wind.
At least one hundred stories away. That’s how far all of us were. One hundred stories away from a quick death. One hundred stories away from never seeing my kids again. Not being there for their proms, graduations, and college send-offs. Not standing proud at their weddings. Never feeling the warmth of my husband’s embrace, and watching him beam with pride and admiration. I imagined my puppy, a little German shepard waiting for his mother, who was never coming home.
I closed my eyes as the screams of the people around me rose and fell. Another casualty in this nightmare. I supposed my quick suicide would be just one more, and bringing an inevitable death faster than the painful suffocation awaiting me here. I cracked one eye open and gazed up at the sky. Above me, the sun was barely visible through the smoke. I wished I could see it, just one last time, in all its glory. I looked down at my death, and felt my chest tighten as the weight of emotion pressed down on me.
“Oh Lord and Savior,” I murmured as I pulled myself as close as I could go without falling. The wind howled and ripped at my hair, and through blurry eyes, I gazed down at the city I was leaving behind.
“Please grant me a safe passing. Watch over my children, and for-forgive me for my sins–” I started choking up. “I’m grateful for all the years of life you gave me.”
Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes for the last time. I supposed I was ready. I didn’t see any hope for me, any chance of life left. This tower was coming down, and this was my last opportunity to claim a death of MY choosing, not at the hands of those inside that plane.
I grasped the fact of everything I was and had been. I reached for the images of my family and grabbed a hold of my courage. Pressing them close in my heart and mind, I pushed myself forward…
…and embraced the wind.