9/11 Was Dystopia Made Real

A series of coincidences nearly changed my family forever.

Editor’s note: This was originally published in 2016.

When my ruminations on September 11th turn particularly dark, I think about dystopias, and my latent obsession with parallel universes. We assume, or fiction teaches us, that the Earth we occupy is the “good” one, the original from which the sinister threads might unfurl. We think reality could always be worse — the Nazis winning World War II, Cuba launching its missiles — but I’ve often wondered if the destruction of the Twin Towers 15 years ago opened an aperture to a mistaken reality, the savage one that persists to this day. The Iraq War, ISIS, the permanent military state — all wicked offspring of 9/11.

But in this reality my father is alive, so I can only take the thought so far. On September 11th, 2001, he was supposed to be eating breakfast at Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of the North Tower. Then with the U.S. Department of Commerce, he had a morning interview with Neil Levin, the 46-year-old executive director of the Port Authority, for a gig to become the deputy executive director. He knew Neil well and the breakfast was something of a formality.

At the last minute — and at the urging of my mother — he scrapped his interview with Levin to get a colonoscopy after his doctor moved his appointment to the morning of the 11th. As she recalled to me on the phone the other night, my father didn’t want to disappoint Levin, but she insisted he get the colonoscopy because he’d have to wait another month for a new appointment. Levin didn’t mind. Could my father meet him on Thursday instead? He all but had the job anyway.

At 8:46 a.m., when my father was in St. Vincent’s Hospital, a hijacked airplane struck the North Tower, where Levin’s office was located. Less than two hours later, the burning tower crumbled. Levin’s obituary states that he died in the building collapse: his exact location at the time of his death was never determined.

“Life is a series of accidents and coincidences, and it can just fall apart,” my father tells me, remembering how he silently watched the towers collapse from a reception area in the hospital. “Meeting people, events that occur, things just happen by accident. That always stuck with me.”

He didn’t know that day his friend had died. Maybe he had escaped. The extent of the carnage wouldn’t be known for days, if not weeks — people scoured Lower Manhattan looking for missing loved ones, hoping somehow for miracles in the smoldering rubble. My father’s office at 6 World Trade Center, one of the smaller buildings in the complex, was annihilated. Gone were his tchotchkes, his plaques and a photograph with Richard Nixon. Gone too was his job with the Port Authority, but that was beside the point.

These days, he wants nothing to do with the 15th anniversary, unlike my mother, who still works a short walk from the World Trade Center. She watched from Church Street as the second airplane struck, the boom and echo unlike anything she had heard or would ever hear again. She still doesn’t like movies with explosions.

My father recalled how, as a young boy, he tried to ask a captain in his New Jersey neighborhood about his experience fighting in World War II. “I remember his response. ‘I don’t talk about it.’ That’s my feeling about 9/11. I’m not interested at all in any of the commemorations. It’s horrendous — I don’t find the necessity. I understand obviously why it’s done but personally I have no interest.”

The militarism of the anniversary turns him off, too.

“Why does patriotic mean we have to associate everything with the military and the armed forces? What does the First Amendment have to do with the military?”

He said this all good-naturedly; he’s amiable, if stoic. My mother, the emotive one in the family, tries to walk by the memorial on every anniversary. The morning of the attacks, she fled Manhattan to pick me up from school in Brooklyn, avoiding the highways as much as she could because she thought someone would try to bomb them.

She told me she assumed Levin was dead the second the plane hit the tower.

“I knew he just had no chance,” she said.