20 Years On…

9/11.  A date that has become a proper noun for an unspeakable act. Like many others today, I feel compelled to reminisce memories of that surreal day 20 years ago, that seems like yesterday.

I was on my way back from the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend aboard Tango, my twenty foot wooden sailboat.  The trip back from PT was always rather lonely after the hyperactive activity of the festival and sailing with crew, but good for doing a lot of thinking while sailing or motoring along for so many hours. It’s typically 2 long days either way in my boat.

Having left crew behind, I was sailing solo and made my way to Blake Island, a state park in the middle of Puget Sound.  I picked up a mooring and spent the night at the south end of the island.  I remember it as a pleasant evening.

Listening to the rhythmic throbbing hum of the Fauntleroy-Southworth ferry coming through the hull as it went by, I’d wait for the ferry’s wake to rock the boat a few minutes later. It came and went every thirty minutes, a reassuring pulse of life on the sound.  

The ferries run until after midnight, then shut down and resume around 4:00 AM…so I awoke to the familiar thrumming and rocking from the wake.  I stuck my head out of the hatch and it was a beautiful, late summer day, clear and calm except for the ferry wakes.  I went about getting breakfast together and started brewing coffee on my small stove.  

I was up early to catch a favorable tide and currents to help speed up my trip back home to the south. Along with the gulls and crows I heard the distinctive piercing call of a Bald Eagle from the trees nearby and spied him perched high on a snag. He sat calling for a while and then jumped off his perch and flew right over the boat, heading west.

The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 in New York…5:46 west coast time. I’ll continue using Pacific Time as I experienced it. The second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later at 6:03.

At the time I was oblivious to all of this, listening to Jimmy Buffett CD’s on my stereo and sipping my freshly brewed coffee.  I got a call on my cell from my friend Terri.  She sounded frantic…saying that it looked like someone had declared war on us and was bombing New York.  She tried to tell me what was being shown on the news and it all sounded incredulous to me on my little boat, all alone.  

As we were talking, the 3rd plane crashed into the Pentagon at 6:37.  The world had gone crazy and there was all kinds of wild speculation that there was a massive attack across the country. 

At 6:42 my time, the FAA grounded all civilian aircraft within the continental U.S., and civilian aircraft already in flight were told to land immediately. All international civilian aircraft were either turned back or redirected to airports in Canada or Mexico, and were banned from landing on US territory for three days.  

The attacks created widespread confusion among news organizations and air traffic controllers. Among the unconfirmed and often contradictory news reports aired throughout the day, one of the most prevalent said a car bomb had been detonated at the U.S. State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Another jet was suspected of having been hijacked, but the aircraft responded to controllers and landed safely in Cleveland, Ohio.

Everyone was wondering where the next crash or explosion would happen. Then a 4th plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania at 7:03, the passengers having led an uprising to overpower the hijackers.  

At 7:59 the 1st tower collapsed and the descriptions of the mayhem caused my imagination to go crazy with no reference from television pictures.

All flights were shutdown.  All ferry traffic was shut down. The normally busy sound was suddenly silent.  No ship or ferry traffic…no planes coming and going from nearby SeaTac Airport. Contradictory news reports were all over the place. 

All of this added to a huge sense of isolation and frustration to know just what the Hell was going on. Terri would call back with updates whenever something new would happen to let me know as best she could. I tried to find a radio station that had news, but without an FM antenna I couldn’t tune much in.  

Adding to the surrealness, the only thing I found on the radio was the Howard Stern show.  Being based in New York, he was at least broadcasting a play by play of what he was seeing and hearing in the city. The whole thing was insane with the wild reports coming in from his wacky non-professional sources.

I got everything ready for a speedy departure from Blake…tossed the dirty dishes in a trashbag , filled the fuel tank, checked the tide and slipped the mooring lines.  As I motored south, I was the only one on the water…madly rushing to get home as fast as possible while everyone else was glued to their TV sets. I still had many miles and a whole day of motoring to get back to my marina in Olympia.

Trying to piece together what was going on from the chaotic Stern broadcast was maddening…his typical outlandishness was made even worse with the added frenzy of the plane crashes.  I felt like a crazy character in Alice in Wonderland. 

I was pushing the Honda 6HP outboard as hard as possible, but still only moving maybe 5 knots, much less when bucking the current. Motoring through Colvos Passage, out into the much wider Dalco Passage, was when I became hyper-aware of the lack of boat traffic and no planes in the sky. I still had to make it through the Tacoma Narrows before the tide switched or I would be pushed backwards.  This of course added more stress to an already over the top situation.

Making it through the Narrows, I plugged away seemingly endlessly, hour after hour, listening to the insanity of Howard Stern for as long as he was on the air.  The sense of frustration of being out on the water with so far to go when I wanted to see what was actually going on was overwhelming.

The reports of firemen and police rushing into the towers only to have them crumble down, human beings falling from the heights of the sky scrapers, clouds of smoke and dust from the vaporized buildings all created a sense of doom that was hard to comprehend.

After an entire day of motoring south, I finally rounded Boston Harbor and made it back home where I parked myself in front of the news to catch up on what I had missed.  The TV stations were replaying the planes crashing and towers coming down with people covered in dust endlessly and would for days. 

This memory is firmly embedded in my mind, at least for these past 20 years. I have visited Blake Island many times since, and every time I am there the feelings of that day so long ago always come flooding back. 

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