How I Remember It…
It is ridiculously dark in a hotel room with the black-out drapes closed.
It is trip over stuff because it’s a strange room; blink, blink, blink for your eyes to adjust; bang your shin and stub your toe, dark.
I experienced all of those things on the way to answer my phone which was shoved in my purse, somewhere under piles of room service napkins, magazines and assorted other crap.
La la la la la la, my phone chimed its little heart out.
Who is calling me? Everyone knows I’m on my honeymoon and judging from how dark it is, (forgetting the drapes) it MUST be three am.
Five minutes earlier the ringing had woken me up, and I had stumbled like a drunken sailor, half asleep in the pitch blackness, to the bathroom. ‘Wrong number‘ I thought, still half asleep as I felt my way like a blindfolded mime, back to bed.
I heard it go to message. Now I was awake.
It started to ring again; this time I could swear it sounded more insistent.
LA LA LA LAAAAAA!
Curious, I quietly slid out of bed and started moving heaven and earth to find it, only to hear it go to message a second time.
Not even a moment later, as I was finally holding it in my hand, it started ringing again.
So did my husband’s phone, next to him on the nightstand, and so did the hotel room phone on my side of the bed. All at the same time it became a cacophony of three different rings, each one of them trying desperately at that point to get our attention.
I heard my husband’s voice behind me in the bed, “Shit, this CAN’T be good”. He was suddenly wide awake as he grabbed both the room phone and his cell, putting one to each ear.
“Hello!” he announced tersely into both.
I had just flipped mine open to hear someone mumbling and weeping, and at the same exact moment we both lunged for the remote as three different people screamed into our ears “TURN ON THE TV!”
We were two days into enjoying our post wedding coma. Ensconced in a room overlooking the Pacific at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, still feeling giddy from the excitement of such a magical night.
Exhausted, we had given ourselves a couple of days to decompress before we were to fly to a friend’s party in Chicago and then on to Italy to have a motorcycle honeymoon.
None of those plans would come to pass.
My brand new husband pulled open the drapes with one swipe to reveal bright sunshine; it wasn’t the middle of the night, it was after six in the morning. It must be a movie, I thought, as we both slowly sat on the edge of the bed; watching in stunned silence; as the second plane hit the tower.
I think I screamed.
Friends and family were calling; apologizing for bothering us, but wanting us to know.
That’s what family does. They share bad news.
Just thirty-six hours before, they had all been loopy from too much champagne and wine, toasting and celebrating love—now they were crying and asking me Why?
I couldn’t wrap my brain around what was happening. Everything felt surreal, like a slow motion movie.
I certainly didn’t have any answers.
My husband is an architect/builder. He knows about steel and fire and in his most serious Bob The Builder voice he didn’t pose a question or wonder aloud—he made a statement: “I hope everyone’s out of there, that building’s coming down.”
And right on cue, as he finished that sentence…the first tower fell.
“Shit, shit, shit” he yelled, jumping to his feet.
I was screaming and shaking uncontrollably, “No, No, No…Oh MY GOD!”
Was this really happening?
Peter Jennings’ solemn voice said something to the effect of, “This has turned from an act of terrorism to an act of war.”
It was impossible to look away from the TV and I could not stop crying.
My mom called to tell me Pam, who is like a big sister to me, and had flown in from San Francisco for the wedding, had to deplane on the tarmac at LAX and run for her life; as fast as she could, away from the terminals and the airport, as directed by the pilot.
Really. He told everyone to RUN!
No one knew what was going on, and where the next attack, if there were to be others, was going to take place. Lee and my mom picked her up as she ran east on Century Boulevard with a whole crowd of other panicky, thwarted travelers.
Many of the woman had ditched their heels along the way, running in bare feet and business attire.
They had no idea where they were going.
How far would they run?
How far was far enough?
Where could you go that day to feel safe? I sure as hell didn’t know.
If you’d told me a place, I would have run there with you.
After the second tower collapsed and the news went into perpetual recap mode, I couldn’t watch another second; so I pulled on some sweats and sunglasses to hide my red swollen eyes, and walked like a zombie downstairs to the lobby.
My inner historian/collector had kicked in and I wanted to see if they had the newspapers in the gift shop without the headline of the event and also a later edition, with it.
The adrenaline of the past few hours had subsided, which had dropped us into a kind of numb stupor, so we also needed coffee. Bad.
The lobby was deserted. Everything was closed. No gift shop, no Starbucks, nothing. There wasn’t a soul in sight…this huge hotel felt deserted.
Back upstairs, I called room service.
It rang for what seemed like an eternity, then the voice that finally answered sounded out of breath and off of hotel protocol. She didn’t say Hello, Mrs Bertolus, (which I was loving by the way), like they had been doing for the past couple of days.
“Yes? Hello, I mean, room service” she said.
“Um, are you guys open? Is it possible to get a pot of coffee?”
“I’ll try my best, I’m sorry ma’am, but no one has shown up for work this morning.”
“Oh my gosh, I completely understand—it’s just so terrible…”
“Yes ma’am” she said, “it’s so sad.”
She started to cry, which set me off.
“Don’t worry about the coffee” I sobbed, feeling like an ass. “Just forget it, I’m sorry to bother you.”
“No ma’am, don’t be silly” she had composed herself, now the epitome of professionalism, “Your coffee will be right up Mrs. Bertolus.”
Ten minutes later a young man brought up a pot of coffee and some croissants, and after some caffeine and food, the shaking stopped and I felt a little better.
The government had halted all air travel until further notice. Planes were finding a safe place to land and staying put. It was unprecedented and I was relieved.
The absolute LAST thing I wanted to do was get on a plane.
We had a lot of phone calls to make and rescheduling to do.
Against my better judgement we kept our reservations that night for a seaside dinner. The place was beautiful… and depressing as hell. Everyone seemed to just be going through the motions. I sobbed like a three-year old through the entire dinner, having a hard time forgetting those faces we’d seen all day of the people who were missing.
“How can I enjoy any of this? People lost husbands and fathers, brothers and wives and sisters. So many people died today!” I put my head in my hands, I couldn’t eat.
“How can you not?” my husband whispered, resting his hand on mine.
“Those people would give anything to be here, where we are right now, enjoying life. We don’t join them in death, that’s an even greater waste. We enjoy our lives. Every minute. Every day to the fullest. I think that’s what they would want. That’s what I would want.”
Damn, he’s good.
Just writing these memories makes me cry. It instantly brings me right back.
I think it’s important to tell the story. To never forget what happened.
Everything before 911 feels different, simpler, like we lost our innocence.
It just happens to coincide with my wedding. I can never think of one without the other. I celebrate the ninth of September, and I light a candle on the eleventh.
In my life they are forever intertwined.
Just like our parents had the Kennedy assassination, this is our generation’s “where were you?” moment.
Do you have a 911 story? Tell us.