Smoke and Tears: From 9/11 to Climate Grief

A Smoky Sky

The ashy orange hue tinting the skies of Seattle this summer are distressing enough on their own as they signify the literal burning of the West. The lyrics of the song I used to sing in 6th grade music class — “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle; and the trees the greenest green, in Seattle” — mock me as the sun burns angry and red through the choked air.

Orange sunset through a bathroom window, Summer 2021. (Photo by Author)

My climate grief, however, is viscerally connected to another day, twenty years ago, in a city on the other side of the country, when smoky skies changed my life.

A Long Delay (That Was More Than a Delay)

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, I was running late to work — atypical for me. So I was irritated — not concerned — when the subway operator’s voice came over the loudspeaker to explain why our train was delayed “due to an above-ground accident at Cortlandt Street.” Cortlandt Street was where the subway stopped below the World Trade Center and expelled departing passengers into an air-conditioned, underground mall. Sometimes I went to the mall food court on a lunch break. Once, I bought a watch at a shop there.

The Cortlandt Street Station sign in 2012. When I lived in NYC, it said: “World Trade Center-Cortlandt Street.” (Photo by Author, taken on a trip to NYC in 2012)

Still, irritation remained my initial reaction. The Q train inched along slowly, finally emerging onto the Manhattan Bridge — one of my favorite parts of the commute — where I could glimpse the skyline view of lower Manhattan across the water.

But on this particular day, I did not notice the skyline.

Instead, I noticed the smoke.

My irritation gave way to surprise — the smoke appeared to be coming from the Brooklyn side, but as I shifted to get a better look, a collective gasp rose from my fellow passengers who also pressed against the window: it was the Trade Center that burned.

A few years prior, I had worked as an office temp at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant. (The view from my temporary office on the 109th floor was breathtaking — I could see to the end of Central Park).

A Trick of the Mind

Our brains do funny things when they process information they can’t initially make sense of. As I watched the smoke pouring from the top of one of the Towers, my brain pulled out from my long-term memory the thought: Ah! The restaurant is up there! There must be a kitchen fire!

The view from Brooklyn on September 11, 2001. (Photo Credit: Sara K. Schwittek/Reuters)

Then my eyes registered the fire in the second Tower. Aha, my brain rationalized, the restaurant fire has jumped into the next building! They have sprinkler systems in place to put out such fires!

[But two fires? In two separate buildings? my confused brain pushed back. How could this be?]

Even with the obvious trauma occurring in that very moment, my Internal Responsibility Meter ticked: You still have to go to work.

A Salmon Swimming Upstream

Moving with the now near-panicked crowd to exit the train at the next stop, I continued on towards work. It’s funny now what memories flood back twenty years later, but as I pressed into the swarms of people fleeing away from the Trade Center towards the building where I worked, I recalled the salmon ladder at the Ballard Locks, where every year, young salmon fight the powerful current to swim upstream to lay their eggs.

As I struggled like the salmon, I was greatly outnumbered by the hundreds of people pushing past me in their hurry to Run! Leave! Go!, heading in the opposite direction. Stupidly, numbly, I realized that maybe, just maybe, “work” wouldn’t be happening today.

And that perhaps I, too, should go the opposite direction.

My cell phone already wasn’t working — probably due to the cellular towers on top of the Trade Center being knocked out — and so when I saw a pay phone (they still existed in 2001 in New York City), I fumbled with a quarter and tried to call my then-boyfriend (now-husband), Ben. Of course I couldn’t get through.

The crowds thickened. My brain finally woke up to the reality of what was happening and with a jolt, I suddenly registered: Run! Leave! Go!

I ran.

I left.

I went.

A Return to Brooklyn

Stumbling back down into the subway station, the N train arrived on the Q track.

In “flight” mode, my brain grew legs and walked me onto that train. It didn’t matter if it was the right train on the wrong track; my primary focus now was Get back to Brooklyn, and this train was pointed to Brooklyn.

On the train, increasingly, my awareness grew. The murmurs from the passengers around me trickled towards me the words: “It was a plane, I saw a plane!”

My brain murmured back: How could a tiny little Cessna do damage to two buildings? I still didn’t understand.

The train emerged into the bright light above ground on the Manhattan Bridge again, and suddenly, my phone rang to life (life!) brightly and bizarrely in my hand, a normal sound in an abnormal moment.

Startled, I answered. It was my mother, terrified, calling from Seattle.

“Emily! Where are you!? Oh my God, are you okay?” she yelled, panic-stricken. I assured her I was fine and heading back home on the train.

“Oh, Emily — they hit the Pentagon too!” she cried.

And then, before I could ask, “Who is ‘they’?” and just as the train dipped again into the tunnel, my phone signal went dead.

For a brief moment, I sat suspended between a world of innocent confusion (a little plane? hit the Towers? the fire sprinklers, though….right?) and the stark, gaspingly cold shock of reality (a PLANE, hit the TOWERS, and THEY hit the Pentagon too…).

This wasn’t an accident.

Panic set in and I wanted to get above ground as quickly as possible. I stumbled out at the next stop, Atlantic Street in Brooklyn, and tripped up the stairs to a sight I will never, ever forget: all four lanes of the multi-lane road of Atlantic Avenue, filled with every emergency vehicle in the city and boroughs, sirens screaming, lights flashing. Ambulances, fire trucks, police cars streaming towards the city. I had no idea so many existed in one region.

They didn’t stop coming.

By the time I got home twenty minutes later, both towers had fallen. I had figured by this point that they would, and I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to have that memory.

My heels had blisters from the shoes I would never wear again.

A Hole In The Skyline

But I did go onto the roof of my apartment building when I got home, with my crappy little point-and-shoot camera, to take photos. On September 10th, 2001, I had a view of the twin towers from my bedroom window in Brooklyn. On September 11th, 2001, I stood on the roof of my building, watching sheets of white paper from the collapsed towers, only a few miles away, flutter and blow in the breeze.

My little point-and-shoot camera did not capture the scene fully: the sheets of white paper that fluttered in the sky above me are not clearly visible, but they were there. At this point, the second tower had already fallen. (Photo by Author, on September 11, 2001)

I often say that September 11th was the day I became a grown-up.

Much of the trauma didn’t arrive until much later, of course, as it so often does. A close friend had been visiting me in NYC and had flown out on a westbound American Airlines flight the morning of 9/11, and in my shock and confusion, it had not even occurred to me that she might have been one of those passengers on one of those planes that had hit the towers. She was not — instead, she was rerouted to Canada for three days — but in a strange, sad twist of connected grief, that same friend died by suicide almost exactly six years later.

In the days and weeks following the attacks, we lived on edge. Fighter jets roared through the air space above the boroughs, patrolling the skies for future, unseen enemies. We were raw. Loud noises made us jump, like the day the manhole covers on our street started popping off because of a burst pipe underground, hitting parked cars and setting alarms blaring.

We just assumed it was a bomb.

Or the time I went to Wall Street on a Saturday morning to attend a class for my graduate program, and got lost in the narrow streets of shadowy skyscrapers that make up lower Manhattan. In my post-9–11 grief and anxiety, I had intentionally avoided returning to the area, for fear of seeing the rubble that still smoldered, not wanting to add more visual horrors to my addled brain. But in my disorientation, I took a wrong turn. When I looked down the street ahead of me, twisted steel and metal smoked in a mountain of debris so massive, the destruction in the distance was taller than the skyscraper right next to me.

The scale of devastation was beyond my conceptual ability.

And even months later, each morning, we’d step outside and breathe in the smoky air, noting we could “smell the Trade Center” today. Then we would go about our day, live our lives, work our jobs, and in the collective grief of all New Yorkers who were there That Day, we felt connected and unified as humans in a troubled world.

A Smoky Sky: Redux

Today’s smoky skies swell my ears and throat, indicating a new trauma, one inflicted by our own hand; its victims, our own homes and bodies. In a world that has never felt more partisan and divided, we may be arriving at an awareness of our shared climate trauma, and perhaps that is good.

Just as the smoky skies of Brooklyn awoke a sense of collective humanity and adulthood and responsibility in me, so, too, do I now hope that the smoky skies of Seattle and beyond will drive us again to connection, and care, and compassion, for each other, for our country, and for our climate.

Smoky skies today, and hope for a better future, Summer 2021. (Photo by Author)

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Emily is a speaker, writer, consultant, and parent of two. A former middle school teacher, she is now the founder and owner of The Screentime Consultant.

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Emily Cherkin

Emily Cherkin

Emily is a speaker, writer, consultant, and parent of two. A former middle school teacher, she is now the founder and owner of The Screentime Consultant.

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