published Friday, September 9th, 2011

Leber: Reflecting on 9/11, 10 years later

Most of all, I remember the faces at the window.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2001, I was in the newsroom on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 185 miles north of my native New York City.

It was typical for me to spend all of Tuesday night into Wednesday, and all of Wednesday night into Thursday in there, editing stories, writing columns, working and reworking articles, sitting with writers or helping supervise copy editors.

But this night was anything but typical. Fueled by bad coffee, the editorial board scrapped every story that had been written and started from scratch.

On a normal night, the atmosphere in the newsroom was congenial, busy, irreverent. That night, it was something between numb and panicked. And when I saw the faces at the window, relief.

The newsroom looked out on to the walkway by the student center, and all night long, I saw my dazed classmates wander by, unable to sleep, not knowing what to do. And from time to time they would stop and look in at us, with expressions that seemed almost jealous, envying that those of us inside had something to do, something we needed to do, even if just something very small.

I was so grateful for work, for a reason to be somewhere other than alone in my dorm room. As much as I value solitude, it was a frightening prospect that night.

My cell phone, a Motorola that I'm pretty sure only made phone calls, sat on the desk next to my computer. Back then, I used it only for emergencies and to call my parents long-distance. I never actually kept it with me.

That night, I had it with me.

I wasn't waiting to hear about anyone in particular. I'd heard from my family, finally. They were shaken up but all right. Safe.

My mother saw the towers fall from the window of her office in Soho.

My father walked from 29th Street to 87th Street, then up 20 flights of steps because all the power was out.

My sister, then 16, went to school in the Bronx, just outside of Manhattan, and couldn't get home that night. She was staying with a friend.

But they were all safe.

My boyfriend was in Paris, on a study-abroad program.

I'd reached friends, who had reached their families, and we all checked on one another.

But I kept that phone with me, just in case. Just in case anyone needed to check in.

There was a lot of checking in that day. People who had barely spoken since freshman year talked openly, and classroom acquaintances stopped one another to ask after family or friends.

For a few hours after it happened, there was even an attempt at normalcy. I went to an early afternoon class. A few minutes after the class started, a girl tearfully asked if she could be excused to call her mother and dashed out. When the teacher followed her, another student stood up and addressed the rest of us.

"We shouldn't be here," she said. And we all collected our things and left, not knowing where to go.

I got in my car and drove downtown, though I'm not sure why. Maybe just to get away for a few minutes. It was a ghost town. Empty. Storefronts closed. No one around. Abandoned. I think that was the most disconcerted I was all day.

That evening, there was a vigil held on campus. Some people offered prayers. One told us about his sister, who had been in the building and was now in the hospital with a head injury. I stood with my friend, Adam, who had lost his grandfather the day before.

The school president led us in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," and I still whispered "play ball" at the end, despite myself, because I'm pretty sure I think those two words are officially part of the song lyrics.

And then I and the rest of the Skidmore News editorial board headed to the newsroom. We didn't leave for two days, other than to grab food, or go to the restroom, or pull aside someone to interview. No class. No sleep. I don't think any of us changed clothes. I don't remember.

I barely remember the stories I wrote. Something about blood donation, maybe? Perhaps something else about being nice or some such thing like that. I really don't recall.

But I recall the faces, the ones looking in. And I recall looking back, for a moment, to say "I know," or perhaps "I don't know," and then turning around and going back to work.

Because it was all I could do.

Note: As part of the Times Free Press coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I spoke to other Chattanooga-dwelling New Yorkers about their memories of Sept. 11, 2001. Read their stories in the Life section on Sunday.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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