I still remember the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001 as I was getting ready for another workday. Just as I was about to walk out the front door to begin the commute to the downtown Chicago office of United Press International, I saw the report on CNN that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center.
My initial reaction was a gross underestimation. I thought to myself, “it’s going to be a slow day at work for me.”
AFTER ALL, THE top editorial brass in Washington were going to be all over the New York staffers to cover this story as intensely as they could. The last thing they were going to care about was what anyone in Chicago was up to.
So I took my Metra commuter train ride into the downtown area (the Rock Island line that goes from Joliet’s Union Station to LaSalle Street Station near the Chicago Board of Trade building). I was on board that train when one of my fellow commuters with a laptop computer and an Internet connection announced to all of us, “there goes the tower.”
Sure enough, the second airplane struck the building, causing the structural damage that made the twin towers unsalvageable.
And when that Rock Island line train pulled into LaSalle Street station, a conductor told us we were better off staying on board the train and returning to our homes. For it turns out the train stood there just long enough to take on a full load of passengers – before going back to the South Side and surrounding suburbs.
IN FACT, ALL the Metra lines were working overtime to get people out of downtown Chicago. The order had gone out. For the first time since the March 1992 incident where a construction company punched a hole in the floor of the Chicago River – causing basements of downtown office buildings to flood – the Loop was evacuated.
Now being a reporter-type person, and just a stubborn fool at times, I got off the train. I got to see the onslaught of people coming at me, trying to get out of town and back to their homes – where they might feel safe to some degree.
Instead, I went for the payphone, and called my office – where I was assured that no similar incidents had hit anyone or anything in Chicago. The word to close up shop in the downtown area was purely precautionary.
Then, I made my usual stroll through the Loop. From LaSalle and Van Buren to Wabash and Lake. It usually took about 10 minutes. That day, it took about a half hour.
THE REASON WAS the number of people trying to work their way to a train station or some other sort of mass transit were headed in the exact opposite direction as I was. As I passed storefronts, I could see the people putting away items so they could suddenly close.
I still recall walking past the Borders Books on Randolph Street to see a store employee making a crude sign to hang in the window informing people the store was closed “until further notice” (just about all businesses reopened the next day).
I will never forget the sight of uniformed police officers on motorcycles, with their sirens flashing, doing patrols of the downtown area – just in case anyone got the idea that looting would suddenly be an appropriate idea.
In fact, about the only place in downtown Chicago where there was not a rush of human activity at that moment was Daley Plaza. The people who usually find an excuse to lounge around “the Picasso” were gone. The pigeons were the only living creatures in that spot.
IT ALMOST SEEMED like the final scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film, “The Birds,” watching the feathered creatures spread out everywhere and observing us, just waiting for us to make a false move before they tried to attack.
Finally, I made it to the UPI bureau – only to find out that the landlord of the building where the venerable wire service kept its Chicago operations had also decided to shut down.
While my colleagues packed up some documents and other equipment that would be useful to trying to compile a news report, I sat down and wrote a story about the tension that existed in the Second City in response to the incident in New York (and at the Pentagon as well, too many of us forget that the military also took a hit that day).
The story, which eventually became a sidebar to the package of main stories produced out of Washington and New York, was not one of my best. It was banged out in a matter of minutes, with people watching over my shoulder trying to edit my copy while I wrote it.
FINALLY, I FINISHED writing. The story was edited and transmitted, and we locked up the bureau (which re-opened the next morning). But we didn’t decide to quit for the day.
One of my colleagues and I caught a CTA train and headed for Evanston, where my colleague then drove me to our editor’s home in Skokie – where we reassembled and continued our work trying to cover the news of the Midwestern United States on this day when Islamic radicals gave the western world their best shot.
Now my former editor had a nice setup for herself to work out of her home. But it wasn’t really designed for an entire bureau to gather at. I remember perching over a laptop computer that literally at one point was plopped on my lap before a crude table could be found for me to work at.
One of my colleagues literally wound up writing his copy that day from the computer that my editor’s then-11-year-old son had in his bedroom.
MOST OF WHAT we wrote that day were stories of how life in the Great Lakes region came to a halt as many people tried to comprehend just what had occurred in Manhattan and Rosslyn, Va., and how to prevent it from ever happening again.
At the time, I was the agriculture writer for UPI, doing a daily notebook of farm-related news. Most of what I wrote concerned how the agriculture markets had immediately shut down after learning of the morning attacks.
Now if all of this sounds like a hectic enough day, I must admit that the part of Sept. 11, 2001 that I will always remember in detail is the trip home.
My editor, knowing that I lived south of downtown, let me leave at about 3 p.m. I finally got home at about 7 p.m., and that was a hassle.
THE EASY PART was catching a CTA train in Evanston, where they were running infrequently. But after a short wait, I got a local train that made every single stop between Linden and the Loop.
Walking through the downtown area where just six hours earlier there was chaos and confusion, there now was nothing. My footsteps echoed off the downtown sidewalks in a way I had never heard them sound before, and the lack of traffic was amazing.
I could jaywalk through the downtown streets in a way never possible – not even when I was once an overnight-shift reporter for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago and routinely saw what the Loop looked like at 4 a.m.
I still remember the joy I saw in the eyes of a newspaper vendor who was trying to peddle copies of the “Extra” editions that both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times had published, but was stuck with because there was no one to sell them to.
BEING THE NEWSPAPER junkie that I am, I bought both (and still have them, along with a copy of the national edition of the Sept. 12, 2001 edition of the New York Times). Then, I had to figure out a way to finish my commute home. Or else I would wind up being one of the homeless people looking for a place on Lower Wacker Drive.
The problem was that because Metra had run so many extra trains earlier in the day to help with the evacuation of downtown Chicago, there were very few trains left. Most were not scheduled to run for several hours.
I was told that the Rock Island line I would have preferred to take home (I lived then about four blocks from one of the line’s stations, a very short walk) would not have another train for about four hours. And it’s not like there was anything open in the Loop that could help me kill time.
Then, I got my break for the day.
I LEARNED THAT the Metra Electric line, which runs from the Randolph Street station south to University Park had a train going in about five minutes, and that if I didn’t get on it, there wouldn’t be another train until about 10 p.m.
I got on the train and read my newly purchased newspapers (my earlier purchased editions from the morning were obsolete, particularly the New York Times profile about Bill Ayers reminiscing about his days in the radical Weatherman group during the Vietnam era to try to promote his new book – which these days can be found in remaindered book bins for $5.99 each).
About one hour later, I got off that train in the south suburb of Flossmoor, where my father happens to live just a few blocks from the train station. Ultimately, the reason I got home that day is that my father (who at the time worked at a job near his home) gave me a lift.
Walking through my front door where about 13 hours earlier I had mistakenly thought I was in for a slow day made me chuckle at my own foolishness.
SO WHAT IS the point of reminiscing about my odd work day from seven years ago today? It’s obvious I didn’t have nearly the hardships that some people experienced in New York.
But I think it is important to note that there are many people in the Chicago area who tell tales of the stress they felt upon learning of the airplane attacks who didn’t even have it as hard as I did.
They caught that morning train after putting in about one hour’s worth of work and got home by noon – where they proceeded to have an afternoon off on a Chicago day that I seem to recall was sunny and warm.
The extent of their personal “suffering” was to have to “endure” a half-day off in the middle of the week.
WHEN I HEAR people talk of hardships caused on that day, I have to admit to being skeptical. How many of these people are just trying to build up sympathy for themselves?
And if anything, it makes me fully appreciate the efforts put in by rescue workers who didn’t get to take the day off, but actually had to remain at their posts to do their jobs. They are the ones who deserve to be remembered on this day.