Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
You always know when Keri McGrath has entered the room. This sassy and charismatic 26-year-old was born in Crown Point, Indiana, and today lives in Anderson, Indiana. After working several years as a journalist, Keri now serves as an information director for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. On the morning of Sept. 11, she was in hazmat training, with no access to radio, television or the Internet. “The class did not stop, although we all heard what happened through a classmate’s palm pilot. Instead of reflecting, we learned about the health effects of chlorine gas.” Keri wrote her essay around the end of September.
I shifted my weight from one smart black leather pump to the other. The frozen lunch – broccoli and fettuccine with a sodium content that would impress the Dead Sea – banged impatiently against my skirt as nervous energy guided my fist in which it was clenched.
Surveying the crowd discretely, I looked for a clear pathway to the front door of the Government Building. A path that wouldn’t involve dodging between mourners or the scores of firemen, police officers and public officials who had traveled across Indiana to attend the memorial service.
The service, held a week after the September 11th attacks, was to remember all the fallen service men who gave their lives to save others.
For some strategic reason, I’m sure, the service was held on the lawn of the government center at 8 a.m. Small pockets of the crowd were state employees on their way to a cup of coffee and a bevy of phone messages.
While my body betrayed my anxiousness, my face was the picture of solemn reverence, fixed on the choir of children singing a litany of patriotic songs – America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, God Bless America. Bag pipers waited in the wings to unleash Amazing Grace as the final emotional blow to our already fragile psyches.
I remember everything about that morning of September 11th – who said what first, the acrid smell of old coffee, the sound of the sliding room partition as people left to make frantic cell phone calls, the way my stomach doubled in on itself when I knew it was serious.
I heard the news of the attacks through a co-worker’s palm pilot and a smattering of people who showed up late for the training session I was enduring. The training room had no radio or TV. It did come equipped with a very focused instructor whose reaction to the news was a clipped, “Oh, wow. That’s terrible (brief pause). So, where were we? The toxicity of chlorine, I believe.”
Anxious for any sort of news about the attacks, our modestly sized group of trainees found a sports bar wallpapered with televisions during our lunch hour. We were allowed only one hour, the instructor told us as we shuffled out silently. We had to be in the classroom a solid 24 hours to become certified. Any less would be dishonest.
Inside, the bar was filled to capacity but no one was talking. Plates of food sat in front of zombie-like diners who stared at the televisions as if awaiting a message from some divine being.
We joined their ranks and, with a portabella mushroom sandwich in front of me, I watched the plane crash into the WTC again and again and again and again. I had the arc of the plane memorized by the time we left the dark bar. I think I could still draw that arc perfectly if given a blank piece of paper.
The rest of the day was a surreal experience that I can only describe as dull panic.
And so I mourned, as did the rest of the country and, according to images brought to me by CNN, other parts of the world. I obeyed countless moments of silence, gave to the Red Cross, watched the coverage, read Newsweek. I got misty when I heard about the husband and new father who led the charge against the terrorists on the plane in Pennsylvania. The story of Abe and Ed, the paraplegic caught on the stairway in the second building and his friend who refused to leave him, renewed my faith in friendships. Both men are under the rubble, collapsed into each other’s arms I’m sure.
I had spent the week forced by the media to endure endless coverage and talk of the incident, so much so I really couldn’t gain perspective. It’s like in high school, when you study for that algebra test so vehemently that you reach a point when the numbers mean nothing.
Right now I needed up for air. I needed reruns of “The Simpsons” instead of endless footage of cadaver-sniffing dogs weaving in and out of the rubble.
I remember seeing an interview of one of the dog handlers. Patting her dog she said, “They know the difference between death and life. They get depressed if they find too many dead people. We take breaks to throw the ball around so he doesn’t get down.”
Standing amid the throng of hundreds outside of the Government Center, I just wanted to get to my desk and start working.
After a solid week of being unable to escape the images of buildings falling and people searching, I didn’t need more dramatic mourning. I needed to resume my life. Looking around at the crowd, I saw signs that my emotions were not singular pockets of selfish disrespect. Several other people clutching lunches and briefcases were also fidgeting, trying demurely to look around for a safe path to the front door.
With a few polite “excuse me’s” I made my way through the crowd, cutting in front of a line of firemen standing at attention as they had been for the past 40 minutes. Before the pathway could close behind me, about a half-dozen others followed suit, eyes turned downward so as not to meet the reproachful gaze of the crowd.
The clicks of my smart heels reverberated through the empty hallway. With a mixture of disdain for my behavior and resentment at the memorial service for blocking my way, I got on the elevator and stood stone-faced as the red light above the door indicated there were no other hurdles to keep me from my desk.
I felt oddly empty for the rest of the day.