Five years ago I was being sued for a car accident that I was involved in while I was off at college in south Georgia. We had already attempted the trial once, but my lawyer said something during the examination of a witness that the judge believed had tainted the jury, so he declared a mistrial. We had to start all over again several months later in September of 2001.
At the time I was living in Long Branch, NJ and had to fly to Atlanta, where the trial was being held. In some sense it was great because I got to see my family at the insurance company's expense.
I remember we spent almost all of Monday, September 10th selecting a jury. We got through some questioning by the afternoon, but dispersed shortly thereafter, deciding collectively to start fresh the next morning.
I remember getting to the courtroom to continue the trial at 8:45am. The plaintiff and her lawyers sat and waited with me and my lawyer. We waited and sat, sat and waited for the judge to enter the courtroom. My nerves were already in a tizzy from being accused of something I didn't do. Butterflies were in abundance in my stomach in anticipation of the judge and the jury.
The clock on the wall behind the judge's chair ticked and tocked until it was nine o'clock, and then 9:10. Where is the judge? Let's get this show on the road!
Then I remember the judge, a sturdy man, dressed in long, open, black robes entering the room; his shiny, bald head reflecting the flourescent light from above. He rather unceremoniuously mentioned that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I think my initial thought was exactly what everyone else's was: some small plane, probably a cessna, had gotten off course and run into one of the buildings.
The judge and the lawyers discussed how they intended the trial to proceed that day, and polished up some loose ends and paperwork before getting down to business. The judge left the room once more, intending to come right back to begin the trial, but returned a few minutes later to tell us that a second plane had hit the other tower AND another had hit the Pentagon. I think we all silently hunched forward slightly in our seats at that point, suddenly listening more intently, realizing for the first time that this thing might be bigger than we thought.
The plaintiff's lawyer slammed his fist down on the table and screamed, "This is an act of WAR!!!" to which the plaintiff burst out into tears presumably because her husband was in the military. She stormed out of the room.
After a few minutes they brought the plaintiff back in the courtroom and she seemed to have collected herself. We discussed whether we should inform the jury, because of course, they didn't have any contact with the outside world at that point. We agreed that we should in case they had any family members in New York or D.C. As it turned out, none of them had any relations in either place and seemed willing to continue with the trial.
We began the day's work and went through about two hours of testimony before the judge said we needed to take a break. That's when things really hit home. I remember milling about in the food court where many people had gathered around a wall-mounted television set. I wasn't supposed to speak to any jury members, but how could you not when you're gathered around the same TV set watching that kind of news? That's when we found out the towers had collapsed. Awestruck, we watched our first glimpses of the horrible events of that day.
Our fifteen minute break ended and we gathered back in the courtroom where the judge told us that more important things were going on that day, and we needed to go home and be with our families. He declared another mistrial and sent us home.
My mother, who had been kind enough to join me that day, drove me home. I remember feeling numb. The sun was shining brightly and cars were calmly driving around town; seemingly a normal day. The cheery sun and the calm traffic seemed surreal in light of the tragic events.
When we got home I sat down on the couch and watched CNN all afternoon. I took it all in. At some point in the day I learned of United 93, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. I couldn't stop watching. Who knew how much more was going to happen? Since the airports were shut down, I couldn't just pop back up to New Jersey for work, so I just sat there on the couch for the next few days and watched and watched.
The airports finally opened back up, and it was time for me to go. My mom had gathered some extended family to see me off. I remember looking at my mother that day and saw fear in her eyes. With false enthusiasm she asked, "Why don't we all just pack up the car and drive you back?" No, I assured her. This day of all days will be the safest day to fly. As I left my parent's house that day, waving at my family members through the window of my dad's truck, the thought did cross my mind that I might never see them again.
My flight was one of the first planes out of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport after it reopened, and it flew into Newark International Airport, which is just across the river from Manhattan. There were probably fifteen people on that plane. All thrity eyes stared out the right side, fixed on the gigantic plume of smoke billowing up from the southern tip of the famous island. I returned to NJ and heard stories from by bosses who had lost neighbors that worked in the WTC, and a co-worker whose uncle was an engineer at one of the buildings and had escaped the tragedy.
That's my "where were you when" story.