My father drove me to the Newark airport Sept. 11 at 6 a.m., and pointed out the Twin Towers rising above the early-morning haze. Looking out the car window from the New Jersey Turnpike, we both commented on how beautiful the towers were, how remarkable that they could stretch high enough to be visible in the clear sky. They were the only buildings tall enough to be seen, the only perceivable sign of the striking skyline we knew was laid out below them.
I could not have begun to imagine that it would be the last time I would see them.
I was born in Manhattan and grew up in northern New Jersey. The New York skyline is not a postcard photo to me -- it is an emblem of my roots. I have lived, in recent years, in Philadelphia, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, and I have driven on the Turnpike a seemingly infinite number of times. Each trip included one moment -- the moment that I first glimpsed the World Trade Center and the accompanying skyline -- when I felt the peace and lightheartedness of knowing I was home.
I don't know what I will feel the next time I drive up the turnpike. Right now, I can't force myself to conceive of that feeling. I can't even begin to picture the view from the road now that the Towers are gone, crumbled to the ground in a surreal, hideously fatal facsimile of a special-effects action movie.
My family panicked when they heard that one of the hijacked planes originated at Newark. I spent much of the morning trying to squeeze phone calls through the jammed lines to New Jersey, New York and D.C. I started many of those conversations with the words: "I'm OK." Many of my friends in the New York area have put up voice mail messages to express that same idea. My grandmother sent me an e-mail after hearing from my mother that I had landed safely. She wrote that her prayers had been answered.
I was supposed to fly back to Buffalo Sept. 10, after heading home for a friend's wedding. A fire at Newark airport and violent electrical storms delayed my original flight so long that I decided to come the next morning instead.
My flight, on Continental Airlines, took off at 7:55 a.m. We landed in Buffalo at 9:05, just 20 minutes after the first plane crashed into the north tower. I went directly from the airport to HSBC Arena, where the Buffalo Sabres were convening as a team for the first time since last spring. A television in the media room showed a fire in the upper floors of that tower, but at the time it seemed like an ordinary plane crash in an extraordinary place.
As I tracked down some of the players I needed to interview, I kept getting updates from fellow reporters and cameramen. First, I heard that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Then, we all learned that the Pentagon also had been hit, and terrorists must have been involved.
Then someone called out that one of the towers had fallen. I walked back into the media room and saw footage of this 110-story structure appear to implode, disintegrating into itself. A few minutes later, we all saw the other tower do the same.
I tried to focus on my job. I interviewed Jay McKee about his experiences at the Team Canada Olympic orientation camp. I spoke for a few minutes with young Finnish goalie Mika Noronen. I congratulated Ukrainian defenseman Alexei Zhitnik on his new contract.
All of us, regardless of nationality, recognized the frivolity of talking about hockey. We also recognized that we had not received a leave of absence from our jobs, from our lives.
Now, watching footage of the collapses on television again and again, I hear myself cry out through the stunned numbness I am feeling. The Twin Towers were standing before I was born, and I always assumed they would still be standing long after I was buried. Somehow, with all the people who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, I can't seem to get past the thought that there is no more World Trade Center.
I rode down the Jersey Turnpike that morning, looking out my window at the Twin Towers standing where they have always stood, keeping watch over a still morning. Then I got on a plane bound away from New York City.
Just over an hour after my plane landed, the towers -- the symbol of the city that has always been my touchstone -- were gone.