“It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
The universe exploding ’cause of one man’s lie
Look, I gotta go – yeah, I’m running out of change
There’s a lot of things, if I could, I’d rearrange”
-Bono on U2’s “The Fly”
My college roommate, Chris, died on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the 95th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Chris, just 28 at the time of the attacks, worked in technical support for Marsh and McLennan in Tower 1. Marsh and McLennan is a U.S.-based global professional services and insurance brokerage firm. What follows is a description of how I came to learn that he was missing on the evening of 9/11.
The color of the sky on the morning of Sept. 11 was probably the most beautiful blue I can remember. No humidity. No clouds. Living in Georgetown and working in Bethesda at the time, I spent about a half-hour in the car on the way to work in the mornings. At the time, I listened to CDs while driving so I was unaware of any activity in New York. I arrived before 9 a.m. at the office with my boss telling me she’d just heard on the radio that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. In my mind, I did not think much of it. Probably a Cessna that flew off course, I thought. An accident.
I went about my business. My boss continued to pay attention to what she was hearing on the radio. After she heard that the second plane had struck the World Trade Center, we all agreed to go across the street to Rock Bottom. We needed to see what we could not believe was happening at the towers. We were not the only office workers who had this idea. The bar was filled and the restaurant had lowered large viewing screens tuned to CNN.
As I watched the horrifying images from New York, I could not even grasp the magnitude of this event. What was playing out before me was indeed the most violent act that I had ever seen. And, it was all happening on U.S. soil—we were being attacked.
I went outside of the bar to make some calls to my friends in New York. Many of them were traders in the financial district. And I knew that Chris also worked at one of the firms on or near Wall Street. I was not sure at the time who among them actually worked in the Trade Center. It had never been important to know in which building they worked.
I pulled out my cell phone and made a couple of calls. The calls failed. As the morning progressed and the news of the planes crashing at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., emerged, people drifted out into the street and began to contact loved ones. Texts soon started to come through on my phone. Everyone in my family that worked in downtown Washington was safe and in the process of putting together plans to get to their homes. I received a text from a guy that I was dating in Rehoboth. We had planned dinner that night as he was coming into town for business. He was at the train station in Wilmington: “All trains cancelled. Talk later.”
I tried getting through to New York. Same rapid busy signal. Texts to my friends in Manhattan were not returned.
I eventually found my way home that afternoon and sat in front of the television—as most Americans did. As night fell, I sent out a text to my college friend that I knew did not work on Wall Street, but out on Long Island. Maybe he had heard some news. “Is everyone OK?” To this day, I will never forget the wave of sadness that overcame me as a result of the one-word response that I would soon receive. The text read: “Chris.” Nothing else needed to be said for me to realize that my college roommate, my friend, was among the missing.
In the days that followed, my friends and I would talk on the phone periodically. We had hope. Chris would turn up. I wore a picture of him on a string around my neck. In hindsight, I think it was my way of telling people that I was in shock. Chris was the last person that I would have imagined to be in the middle of this awful attack. He was innocent.
I sat in my room one night looking at my caller ID and remembering the phone call that Chris made to me at 11:30 p.m. one night the week prior. I had just brushed my teeth and was getting into bed. I saw his number come up and I didn’t want to answer. Given the time of night, I thought he would probably have been out to happy hour and would be annoying. I wasn’t in the mood. “Hello Foxy! Pick up your phone. Pick up your phone, it’s Chris. Well, alright, I will talk to you later. Bye Foxy!” Yeah, he had gone to happy hour alright. This was my last communication with him. It was one-sided. I wish to this day that I had answered.
In the ensuing years, when I thought about Chris and that infamous day, I often wondered how the events had played out for him. I had hoped it was quick and that he was quietly humming a U2 song while doing some busy work. He was a huge U2 fan and the idea that he could be playing back a U2 song in his head was not a stretch. Chris was musically inclined and would often play guitar and sing songs from “Achtung Baby” in college.
In preparation for writing this piece, I sat down at my computer and read the Wikipedia entry that outlines the timing of events for the day of 9/11. As I navigated my way through some linked sites, I discovered that Flight 11 had struck the IT center for Marsh and McLennan — the exact office where Chris worked. It was fast. But now, 10 years later, the memories are fresh, and it’s still painful.