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Sept. 11

This piece was published by the Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2003

 

A slip of paper arrives, haunting memories arise


My father-in-law, Seymour, knows that a successful evening out isn't always based on luck. The details need to be taken care of. He is an expert at the fine points. He works the phones. Takes down the names of those he as spoken to. Makes sure the reserved table, usually a round one, has a view.

 

So when for my 50th birthday three years ago he decided to make a small family party at one of the flashiest restaurants in New York City, it came as no surprise that the evening, except for the weather, was perfect. But until this week I had no idea just how much work Seymour had put into planning the night out. Not until I found a letter in our mailbox addressed to me.

The first thing that slipped out of the envelope was a short note written in my father-in-law's hand. It began "Dearest Claudia." In it he said he wasn't sure if I would want what he was sending. But he had come across it in a suit jacket pocket. Now that they live in Florida, dressing up doesn't happen often. His pocket had been unexamined for quite some time.

 

I unfolded the yellowing paper. I recognized the logo at the top at once. It shows a starry sky, with a rising sun.

 

"Windows on the World." The restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.

It was the reservation form from my birthday dinner. And stapled to the top left corner was another piece of note paper filled with details written by Seymour.

 

Apparently the first person he spoke to about the birthday dinner was a woman named Trish. From his notes it appears that the choices he was given for dining times were either 6:30 or 8:30.

 

He chose the earlier.

 

Next he spoke to a woman whose name was Skye. Perhaps it was with her that he discussed the shape of the table and what we would be able to see while sitting there.

 

A few days later, according to the reservation sheet, Seymour spoke to someone names Diane. She, apparently helped put the finishing touches on the dinner plans. Between them all, these three women, my father-in-law, the busboys, bartenders, wait staff, and everyone else that that evening, my birthday celebration was a success. Almost dreamlike. Especially since it can never be repeated.

 

A couple of weeks ago the Sept. 11 transcripts were released. Thousands of pages filled with last conversations between families and friends and strangers. Bits were reprinted in the paper. I read, mesmerized. Horrified.

 

A woman named Christine who was working at the restaurant at the top of the world had called for help. She was frantic. They were losing air. Could she break a window, she wanted to know.

 

They couldn't breathe.

 

Reading just that little bit I could see it clearly.

 

The staff of workers dressed sharply. The plush carpet. The views that could weaken one's knees.

 

I could hear the sounds of dishes being stacked and carried to the kitchen.

 

Hear coffee being offered to diners. The conversations buzzing like bees from table to table.

And then I could imagine the roar. The dazed disbelief. The beginning panic. The phone calls asking for help, which surely must be on the way.

 

I could see Christine , holding the phone to her ear, asking what she should do. Believing there must be a solution. Unable to imagine that there wouldn't be.

 

I keep looking at the reservation sheet sitting on my desk. Keep reading the names of the women written down by my father-in-law.

 

He would have called in the morning, so as to be able to cross it off his list of his things to do. So that he would be able to go off and play a round of golf or go down and pick up some bagels for lunch and not have to worry about anything.

 

He spoke to three women. Women who must have had friends and families. Women who went to work each day and got in an elevator to ride to the top of the world.

 

They must have known each other. Maybe they chatted in the elevator. Perhaps they spoke of their kids. Or of classes they were taking in school. Or their husbands or boyfriends. Maybe Christine was waiting for them each day when they arrived.

 

I don't know. I'll never know. If I called the phone number on the faded piece of paper, there would be no answer.

 

It haunts me. I want to know what happened to them.

 

I read in the newspaper the words that Christine spoke on that morning in September. I can see her looking around the dining room as it begins to fill with smoke. He co-workers are watching her. I can feel the panic as their lungs begin to tighten.

 

I wonder if they were there, Trish, Diane and Skye.

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