Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reflections on 9/11 in Manhattan

Editor's note: This post is a slightly edited version of a column originally published in the Piedmont Post on May 4, 2011, two days after the death of Osama bin Laden. 

By C.J. Hirschfield

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2011, I was in Manhattan’s Little Italy with my small staff, enjoying a great dinner on a warm and lovely night. Back then I was working in the cable industry, and every year at about that time we came to New York from Oakland to produce a huge industry fundraiser for an organization that aimed to ensure that cable’s management reflected the diversity of the customers they served. 

Clark, Abby, Paul, and I always tried to get in one dinner together before we had to turn our energies to the black-tie event for more than 1,000 VIPs. That night we enjoyed each other's company, a bit of wine, and excellent Italian food. As we walked to catch a cab to our midtown hotel, we marveled at the beauty of the night. The Twin Towers glowed.

The next morning, as I was preparing to head upstairs at the Hilton to our temporary office, I turned on the Today Show and learned that a plane had hit one of the towers. 

In real time, I saw footage that was shocking. I called my staff and told them the news. I invited them to come to my room to watch the unfolding story.

Other industry friends came by as well, including Ruth, who worked for the Home and Garden Network. She was eight months pregnant at the time, and crying inconsolably. We sat transfixed as what initially seemed like an accident was found to be a planned attack.

It seems silly now — we knew our event would have to be cancelled — but we felt we needed to get confirmation of this from the industry CEO who was chairing the dinner. 

We walked to his office, which was on a high floor. We were able to look down and see thousands of people in Times Square, staring up at the huge TV monitors for news. Behind them we could see the smoke billowing up from what only a short time before had been the Twin Towers. It was a sight I’ll never forget.

Amazingly enough, I was able to reach my best friend Lucy, who was trapped on Long Island and unable to get home to Manhattan, where her young daughter Ada was in school. Her friend Ned and I teamed up to make sure that Ada and the family dog had adults in the house than night and were well taken care of. 

Early the next morning, as we walked the dog in Central Park, there were fighter planes overhead, and the unforgettable smell of burnt electronics.

Abby, Clark, Paul, and I knew that we wouldn't be getting home for a while. But there was no way a disaster like this would keep Abby from her young son one more second than necessary, so she made her way to the airport, where she parked herself until the very first planes out would be leaving. 

Paul, a former reporter, ventured to what would later be known as Ground Zero. 

And I think Clark probably downed a few of his beloved Tanqueray and tonics that week. 

Between many hours on the phone trying to get a flight, I walked the streets in a kind of trance. It was heartbreaking to watch the news — so many people were searching for their missing loved ones, showing photos and praying they were still alive. A town known for the toughness of its citizens was now a city of people whose kindness and gentleness were more touching than I could believe. When the cashier in a pizza joint asked me if I was OK, I almost lost it.

It was during that time when I couldn’t get home I started thinking about the thousands of good people who’d gone to work on Sept. 11 and never came home. I found myself hoping that they'd enjoyed their work, because it was all gone for them now. 

And I realized that my own job didn’t give me the deep satisfaction that it once did. The cable industry had consolidated, and with consolidation came dehumanization. 

I decided to do something closer to my heart, something that would make me happy to come to work each day. 

When I finally made it home, I went on Craigslist for the first time ever and saw a posting for the job of executive director of Children’s Fairyland. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

Once every other month over the past decade, Clark, Abby, Paul, and I have gotten together for lunch. We bonded over our shared experience in New York on Sept. 11, and we are still close. I spoke with Lucy this morning, and we reminisced about that memorable week.

I could say that Osama bin Laden was in some crazy way responsible for my getting my dream job at Fairyland. Nevertheless, I wish I’d been able to join the amazing citizens of New York as they celebrated at Ground Zero after hearing the news of his death, long overdue.    

Update: "Paul" is Paul Fadelli, now the legislative director for BART. His own reflection on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was published last week in the San Francisco Chronicle. C.J., Clark, Abby, and Paul met last week for lunch, as they have been doing regularly for 15 years.

-- C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park. 

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