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A Distant Nightmare, Closely Seen

A Distant Nightmare, Closely Seen


Dana Keeton, the spokesperson for the Department of Safety in Nashville, was on her way Tuesday morning to the Tennessee Tower -- one of downtown Nashville's looming monuments -- for a Spanish class at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute. She planned to go to work immediately afterward for what was expected to be an uneventful day.

Her language study was partly out of personal interest and partly a response to the complications that ensued from last year's run on driver's-license venues. Many of the applicants were Hispanic immigrants drawn by the temporary easing of various residence restrictions on the issuance of licenses.

"I just talked to so many Spanish-speaking people back then," Keeton said. "I thought it would be useful to know the language."

She was listening to the radio, and when she heard the first news broadcast of a plane hitting the first of the two World Trade Center towers in far-off New York she had no reason to think it was anything but a freak accident. Then, about the time she reached the Tennessee Tower building and was about to park her car, she received a phone call from a colleague at the department. "You're starting to get some calls," she was told.

Nevertheless, she went to class, but when the calls from workmates -- relayed messages from news media wanting to know about Tennessee's emergency plans -- kept coming, she realized "there was no point in trying to finish." The full gravity of events -- which now included a kamikaze attack on the other World Trade Center tower -- was dawning on her, and as her foreboding grew she knew that she would spend the rest of the day, and perhaps much of the night, fielding the persistent questions of a needy state media. There would be no telling when she would get home.

IT TOOK A WHILE for the sense of emergency to get around. Even though there had been a partial and temporary blockade of a portion of downtown Memphis by police -- for what purpose it was hard to say -- the men of Engine Co. No. 2, hard by the National Civil Rights Museum, might have been doing what they were doing on any given day.

Three men in black regulation T-shirts were busy washing a huge fire engine parked on the fire station's broad concrete lot. A fire department officer and an inspector stood nearby. "Business as usual," one said. "Of course, I don't think you'll see any of us going out for groceries and heading off to do routine inspections of buildings. We've been told to stay close." But, despite the sawhorse obstacles that had blocked a street or two earlier, there had been no reported emergencies in the downtown area or anywhere else.

Inside, two fire lieutenants -- Pat Pearl and Bill Shelton -- had sat down to a makeshift lunch. Both had seen the events of the morning on the firehouse TV. Pearl, a stout, mustachioed man, at first hazarded an observation that, huge as the circumstances in New York and Washington were, they amounted to little that he had not seen over and over again. "Keep in mind that death and destruction is something we see all the time in our work as firefighters," he said.

He and Shelton began to speculate, more or less dispassionately, on the physics of the morning's horrors. But after a spell of trying to talk about the New York rescue effort in terms of "stairwell logistics, if you will," Pearl developed what sounded for all the world like a catch in his throat -- one that deepened when he was asked to estimate casualties.

Grimly, Shelton gave the final pronouncement. "There could be as many as 100,000 dead when they finally count 'em all," he said.

IN 1950, WHEN HE WAS STILL a teenager, Jim Brown was a Marine private involved in the march northward of United Nations forces in North Korea. He was on the Yalu River -- ready with his unit, as he remembers it, to make a leap north across the Yalu into China. That all changed when a huge Chinese invading force surrounded the Marines and forced them to cut an escape route some hundred miles to safety in the dead of winter. "From November 27th, when the trap was sprung, until December 13th, when I was on board a rescue ship eating pancakes, I had no meals at all," Brown says. He went from 165 pounds to 90.

And though his experience in Vietnam a decade-and-a-half later never became quite so dire, Brown -- a master sergeant by then -- had a couple of narrow escapes there, too, at Da Nang and Chu Lai.

All that was behind him, so he thought, at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, Memphis time, when the retired city schoolteacher -- having suffered nothing worse in the intervening years than the rude treatment he got from some school board colleagues and then from the voters who turned him out of office last year -- sat down for some coffee. "Then my wife, who was watching television in the next room, yelled at me, 'My gosh, a plane hit one of the World Trade towers!' So I went in and was watching when we saw the second plane hit the second tower."

Brown -- who, like many viewing these events from the supposed "cool" medium of television, was powerfully affected -- summed up his reactions. "My first impression was that they planted a bomb. What bothers me when I think about it is that they used our plane and our material to bomb us. That's really scary and makes us realize how vulnerable we are." And for Brown it was like that sniper-plagued three-week retreat through frozen Korean hillsides or like the entirety of the Vietnam experience. "Dealing with an enemy we can't see and can't understand!"

REVEREND BILL ADKINS NEVER THOUGHT twice when he became acquainted with the facts of Tuesday morning's catastrophes in New York and Washington. Though his Greater Imani Church has moved to Raleigh in the last year, Adkins still lives in Whitehaven, where Imani, until an intermediate move to Midtown some years ago, had originated.

But he decided early on to hold a prayer vigil and, after instructing his assistants to start preparing for it, headed north on a route that took him by Memphis International Airport.

It was there, at mid-morning Tuesday, that he saw a shocking sight -- planes, rows and rows of them, pulled up and parked. "And I don't mean just on the apron," he said, recalling the moment hours later. "I mean on the runways! I've never seen anything like that. It looked like a scene out of wartime!"

As Adkins noted, the planes -- all commercial airliners -- included many which did not service the city but were routed here once the Federal Aviation Authority had shut down all domestic flights Tuesday.

Once into his service, before several hundred people, Adkins chose to preach from Psalm 27, which contains the key words "When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me ... they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear, though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident ... ."

During the service, Rev. Adkins said a 15-minute prayer, during which he asked the Lord to "send a mighty wind to New York City, to blow away the soot and dust," to send "a breath of air" to clean the lungs and souls of the afflicted.

After the service, he stood in the outer lobby of his church and declared emphatically, "You have to respond. God says we do not have to suffer heathen attacks and heathen rage. There are times to fight, and this is one of those times!"

TODD COOPER, A 32-YEAR-OLD NATIVE MEMPHIAN whose early upbringing was in Memphis and Florida, has lived in New York for the last two years, working as an "event producer" from a high-rise home office in midtown Manhattan. His brother Trent, a record producer, phoned him about 9 a.m. EDT to tell him that a plane had slammed into one of the two World Trade towers.

Inasmuch as Cooper had a balcony window that had a clear line of vision to the downtown New York skyline, he put down the phone and went to it. It was from there, minutes later, as he looked at the smoldering tip of the north tower, at a distance of some two miles, that he saw, to his horror, its mate impacted by yet another airliner.

"I had complete visibility. It couldn't have been a clearer day. I couldn't feel it or really hear it, but I saw it perfectly," Cooper said. And he watched stupefied as the subsequent events unfolded -- the collapse of both towers, the incredible storm-like clouds of smoke which rolled from the destruction and filled the horizon, the sense -- even at that distance -- that the affected masses of humanity were helpless, as before some implausible and unexpected cosmic plague. Or like something out of Hollywood. "It was like watching a movie," Cooper said, hours later. "I kept thinking of Deep Impact from two or three years ago, the one where a comet was aimed right at Earth, and people were helpless to do anything about it."

That sense of helplessness was as evident in midtown Manhattan, where Cooper -- whose stock-in-trade is arranging Super Bowl parties, awards ceremonies, and the like -- found his fellow New Yorkers wandering about aimlessly in a crippled, shut-down city, as it was from the more terrified versions of it seen on his TV set of the chaos downtown.

"I'll tell you," said Cooper (whose father Joe Cooper is a familiar figure in Memphis politics), "my business is big events, good times, parties. None of that seems very important right now." He paused. "We need to pull together right now, show the world what we're made of." And paused again. "Our world will never be the same."

THERE HAD BEEN REPORTS ALL DAY TUESDAY that gasoline retailers here and there -- whether on their own or at the direction of their governing corporate enterprises was not made clear -- had raised their price-per-gallon to outrageous levels

But was it so? Late Tuesday night, I stopped in on a Union 76 Snack Shop around the corner from my residence in Raleigh. One of the two attendants, who identified himself as Brian Jones, pointed out proudly that his station had kept its prices down to the previously prevailing rate. Oh, there was gouging all right, over in Arkansas, or in Mississippi, or even in Cordova to the upstart suburban east, at all of which places the rate-per-gallon had allegedly climbed to as high as $4.

"The boss did call today to ask what the guys across the street were charging. We always try to stay just behind them," Jones said.

Across the street, at an Exxon station, the prices shown on the pumps had held stable as well, and they were, indeed, only a mite more than those of the Snack Shop: $1.39, $1.49, and $1.59 for the three basic grades, compared to the Union 76 station's $1.37, $1.47, and $1.57. So far, so good.

HUNDREDS OF PASSENGERS, AND NOT ALL OF THEM on flights that were destined for stopovers in Memphis, were routed by the FAA to Memphis International Airport, making a relatively huge number of people involuntary tourists in the Bluff City. Whether assisted by their airlines or by local authorities or on their own they filled up the city's hotels.

Two travelers who ended up at the Peabody were Peter McCabe and Ron Rothstein, Chicago lawyers who had been on a Delta flight to Atlanta when their plane was directed by the FAA to land in Memphis and go no farther.

McCabe and Rothstein had to cancel a noon meeting in Atlanta that might have, they implied, settled a case that seemed to be of some urgency. They sat in the Peabody lobby late Tuesday night, their bags packed, waiting until it was time to go to the Amtrak station, where they would board a 1 a.m. train back to Chicago, mission unaccomplished and perhaps even in ruins.

Rothstein shrugged, "These things are relative." McCabe explained that their Chicago flight had left at 8:10 a.m., at roughly the time that the second of New York's twin towers had, unbeknownst to them, been slammed into. Theirs was the last flight allowed to leave O'Hare, and they learned in-flight what had been happening in the outside world.

"But we didn't fully understand the enormity of it until we disembarked here in Memphis," said Rothstein.

On top of everything else, there was a reported gas leak at The Peabody at 3 p.m. that forced the hotel's temporary evacuation. So McCabe tried to make the most of things. He headed, as so many tourists had before him, toward the legendary home of Elvis Presley. "That's the main thing I regret, that Graceland was closed," he said. "They shut it down at 4 p.m., and I never got in. But I did see the Lisa Marie [Elvis' airplane], and that was really something."

Things are relative, all right.

Epilogue: TWO YEARS AGO I SPENT A GOLDEN WEEK in New York with my wife and two daughters, then aged 8 and 10 and fully deserving, as I saw it, of first-hand experience with some of the monuments of their great country. On the second or third day, we got to the top of the Empire State Building (or to the main observation deck, anyhow). To our disappointment, there was such a fog that morning that literally nothing could be seen in any direction -- a flash here and there of what looked like river or a momentary glimpse of a nearby building. But there was no chance of showing the girls the two great towers that were due south at the tip of Manhattan Island -- on top of one of which their parents had stood on a memorable day back in 1983.

We waited and waited and the fog never lifted. So, after an hour or so, Linda, Julia, and Rose were all inside the gift shop trying to buy souvenirs.

It was then that, waiting outside with stiff-necked determination for the haze to clear, I caught a break. The two twin shapes in the distance began to materialize through the thick mist, even to gleam a bit, and I rushed inside to the gift shop and demanded that Linda and the girls come out and see.

To tell you the truth, Julia and Rose were probably annoyed at having their shopping interrupted. But they came and they saw. There was perhaps a 10-second window of opportunity before the vapors closed in on the buildings again, and they were gone -- for good, as it turns out, forever to remain in the unseen distance, dissolved in the mist of memory.

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