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9/11 . . . instant messages from the hell of Ground Zero

9/11 . . . instant messages from the hell of Ground Zero

This memory from the past honors the Americans, who died, were injured or lost loved ones on September 11, 2001 – a day that those who experienced it, will never forget.

It was exactly this moment,  fourteen years ago, that I first realized that something might be terribly wrong. I had known Susan for about a  year.  She was a Historic Preservation consultant in Boston. I was a Historic Preservation Architect living north of Atlanta.

Susan  was recently separated, when she first emailed me with a technical question about one of the buildings  that I had restored. More emails were sent with technical questions mixed in with subtle personal questions that only women know how to say.  She was trying to find out, if I was available.

When she was about to be “legal,” the emails became more personal. However, the distance between us kept the conversation limited to a friendly basis only. I assumed that she was dating around. I went through some short term dating flings myself. The email exchanges would be more sporadic during those times then heat up when both of us were sitting at home alone.

By the summer of 2001, Susan became convinced that I really was single and really not living with someone. Her divorce had been finalized. She was a free woman. That change in status was confirmed by several late night, steamy telephone calls. She was suspicious that I had “someone on the side” and couldn’t figure out why I was not tied down. I finally convinced her that the problem was not mine, but the women available where I lived. There was too much difference in values, education and world outlook

In August, Susan called me on my birthday and announced that after attending a conference in Atlanta in early October, she wanted to spend several days with me . . . perhaps go camping in the mountains. It we got along, she suggested that I could come up to New England for Thanksgiving and I could spend a week with her in Boston. She promised that we would have Thanksgiving Dinner in Plymouth Plantation with her historical society.

The morning that changed everyone’s lives

Normally, I never watch television in the daytime, but my sister happened to be visiting in Atlanta that week. She called me at 8:45 AM and said, “Turn on the TV, Bubba! A jet has struck the World Trade Center. You just won’t believe the scene. It is surrealistic”

Two weeks earlier my sister had called me to say she was flying to Atlanta on 9/11. I don’t know why, but I immediately responded that she shouldn’t fly on 9/11 because there was going to be bad terrorism involving airliners. Sis flew in on the 10th instead. It turns out that knives were found hidden under the seats of the Delta flight she would have taken on the 11th.

Believing the initial report from my old friend in Virginia, Katie Couric, that a small commuter plane had struck the top of the North Tower, I went into the bathroom to shave and shower. In the shower, as usual, I laid out my work plan for the day.

Just as I stepped out the bathroom, rubbing the last shower water off my back, I glanced at the television screen. There was a brief glimpse of a jetliner on the right of the screen and then a great ball of fire.

“My Lord . . . this is a terrorist attack.” I connected to the internet, to see if there was more information from CNN Online. To my shock, there were several AOL instant messages from Susan.

SUZIE-PRESERVATION: Richard, are you there? Oh my God, I am here.
SUZIE-PRESERVATION: Richard, please answer me!
SUZIE-PRESERVATION: Richard, I’ve got to talk to someone. This is hell on earth. Please answer me.
NEWFIRE2001: Hey Suzie! What’s going on in Boston Bean town? Did you see what’s on the TV? A jetliner just struck the second World Trade Tower. Is that the hell you are talking about?
SUZIE-PRESERVATION: Yes, oh my God . . .  People are jumping out of the windows . . . oh my God . . . Richard, I am in the World Trade Center Hotel!
NEWFIRE2001: What? What are you doing in New York?
SUZIE-PRESERVATION: I was supposed to be at a meeting on the 74th floor of the North Tower right now. My employers sent me here for a training workshop at our main office. My mother called me to discuss the problems of my brother. He is really depressed about something and she is afraid that he will try to commit suicide.
NEWFIRE2001: Guess you know that your mother’s call probably saved your life. How are you instant messaging me? You are in a hotel room.
SUZIE-PRESERVATION: The company bought me one of these new laptop computers. This hotel has an internet connection for these laptops. Oh my God, Richard, don’t you realize that my friends are up there now, burning to death. Oh my God.
SUZIE-PRESERVATION: I can’t see anything out my window. It is all white with dim red and blue lights blinking somewhere below. I can hear screams and sirens. The fires on the Trade towers are getting bigger and bigger.  Oh my God. All my friends are up there.  They are being burned alive.  Oh my God.  I could have been up there with them. I can’t stand this typing any longer. Can I call you? I have got to talk to someone. This is hell on earth.

Almost immediately after I finished reading her IM, the phone rang.  Susan said hesitantly, “Richard? Oh my God, Richard. This is a vision of hell. I cannot describe in any other way.”

We talked – well mostly I listened as she described the scene of horror that was only seen at a distance on TV. She said that more people were jumping out of windows of the towers. She wept over and over, “My friends are up there. My friends are up there!”

Simultaneously, I watched the first tower collapse downward on the television screen, while on the phone there was a rumbling sound like a distant thunderstorm. Susan was screaming and incoherent.

I interjected, “Susan, this is not right, this is not right. Buildings on fire do not fall straight down. They fall sideways. The only way to make building fall like that is with computer controlled explosives!”

Within  a second after I finished speaking, there was an exploding sound on her phone. Susan wailed so loud that my ears were ringing.  She screamed, “A steel beam has gone through the wall of my room. All the windows are shattered. I’ve got to get out of here.”  She screamed again, then became incoherent and hung up the phone.

She called back about a minute later. I could hear fire alarms blaring in the background. She shouted over the background noise, “Richard, they are evacuating the hotel.  Can’t talk.  I have to get out of the hotel now! I will call you again as soon as I am safe.”

Her last words on the cellular phone were, “Richard, I can’t go home after this. Can I fly down there to Atlanta and visit with you? I need someone to hold me.”  I said, “Yes, of course.”  She hung up.

The Silence

I, myself, was in such a shock that I didn’t think to hang up my phone. There was silence then the rapid beeping phones give out when a circuit is busy.

Maybe five minutes later the second tower collapsed. I was relieved that Susan was out of that living hell. It never even dawned on me that she could have been on the World Trade Center Plaza when the second building collapsed.

Assuming that Susan was now out of harm’s way, I was thinking like an architect. Something was terribly wrong. Why would the two tallest buildings in the world collapse? Surely the structural engineers had designed them to resist fires?

I intentionally stayed by the phone in my home office for several hours, waiting for Susan to call. She never did.

I tried calling her throughout the afternoon and evening of the 11th, and heard repeated messages that all cellular circuits were out of service.

I called that night. I still could not get a call through. Maybe she changed her mind and went back to Boston? Maybe she was not using her regular cellular phone when she called me? I thought, “Surely when she gets back home, she will send me an email to say that everything is alright?” Day after day went with no emails or calls from Susan.

The problem was that Susan had never told me the name of the firm that she worked for or her mailing address. She had an unlisted phone number. It was the long distance, internet dating thing. Women did not want to give out too much personal information to a man, who they really didn’t know.

There was another problem. When the lists of dead and injured from the 9/11 attack were published, there were over a hundred women with Susan as their first or middle names and none with the last name that she had used with me. Had she used her married or maiden name with me? Had she used a false first name?  I didn’t know.

I started calling her home phone several days a week. This went on for a month, but all I heard was her voice recorded on the answering machine. The last time I called, her number was no longer in service. I didn’t know her parents’ names or hometown. The Boston police said that they couldn’t help me unless a member of her family filed a missing persons report with the exact name that I knew. They never did.

There was no finality. I never knew what happened to Susan. A warm friendship and budding romance ended on September 11, 2001. The curtain call came not with an argument, a melting away of emotion or even a funeral, but with the sounds of silence.

All that remains fourteen years later is a faded computer printout of an AOL Instant message conversation on September 11, 2001 and the memory of a terrified woman’s last words.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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