submit-button

9/11-911

1 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 5    5.00/5
Loading ... Loading ...

June 19th 2017  |  1  |  Category: Other  |  Author: Tim Krzys  |  364 views

9/11-911

 

           

            This story is written for those who have a morbid curiosity about death and tragedy and what meaning it may have for the living, and for the survivors and loved ones of the victims of 911. All names are fictional as are the specific events. However, there are many factual components in the story related to timing of events and the structural collapse of the WTC. This story is not meant to open wounds, but to help some never forget, and to help others who must understand the last moments of a loved one in order to let the pain and memory rest.

            Great care was taken to respect the survivors. All fictional names were checked to be sure they did not, by coincidence match any of the victims of that horrible day. While many events are accurate down to the minute and second, all persons and businesses are purely fictional.

            The World Trade Center twin towers, like New York City, were tall, proud and stood out from the crowd. They were 110 stories high; Tower One, the North Tower being 1,368 feet tall, and Tower Two shy of being its exact twin by six feet at 1,362 feet tall. Combined, they held about 10,000,000 square feet of rentable space that was occupied on any given day by almost 50,000 people. The rentable space on each floor amounted to nearly an acre, or 43,200 square feet, nearly the combined floor space of thirty, average sized ranch homes.

            It was called the World Trade Center for a reason. There was a bigger purpose than to provide space for its tenants. One purpose was to promote world trade, and world peace. Trading partners, when linked by common economies, are often reluctant to go to war or undermine the economy of the other. The two towers housed offices from over 430 businesses from at least 26 different countries. They were the world’s tallest buildings for a short time until the Sears Tower was completed in Chicago. Despite that fact and the fact that neither of the Twin Towers stands today, they shall always rise out of the ashes like the mythical Phoenix and remain tall in our hearts.

 

            Ground crew were busy preparing American Flight 11 for its journey from Boston to Los Angeles. It was only 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, as the long line of passengers slowly made their way past the ticket counter, down the gate to the jet, where they waited while those in front stowed luggage before taking their seats.  It was like any normal, routine day at the airport. Crowds of strangers hauling their luggage behind them walked down the long shiny halls, past vendors selling gum and magazines and snacks, past hot dog stands that were preparing to open later that morning. Overhead pages, some in foreign languages boomed through the airport, anonymous voices that were largely ignored and just part of the ambiance of the bustling environment. Small electric carts beeped their way down the hall, their electric motors whirring as they swept past.

            It was as normal as a day could be; giving absolutely no hint of the history making event that had already been set into motion. That’s how death and tragedy typically take center stage. Death is often disguised as routine, walking among the living who are too busy going about their lives to notice its cold and chilling presence, but it’s always there waiting to steal tomorrow. And with few exceptions, it comes as a surprise, as if tomorrow was a promise and that promise had been broken, our trust violated. As people hurried to their gates, their thoughts were filled with family or work, worries about money or health, and some dared to entertain concern about flying. Fear is not a stranger at airports. In the best of times people approach flying with some measure of worry and hesitation, somehow feeling safer on the highway even though statistics called those thoughts lies. 

Had anyone considered the possibility of the horror that would lie ahead on Flight 11, being terrified would have been an understatement.  But no one’s imagination conjured up the events that were about to unfold, and it’s likely that only fifteen percent even gave any consideration of being in a plane crash, and if they did, the thoughts were quickly dismissed as routine cloaked the shadow of death. As passengers boarded Flight 11, some were anxious, some slightly fearful, but most simply boarded, found their seats and stowed their luggage and sat down as if their whole future was still waiting for them to write it.

            Dan Powers was 29. He stood barely over six foot and was considered the short one of the four boys in his family. He had warm, green eyes that were intelligent, sharp and perceptive, sexy and full of expression. In high school the girls all commented about how cute he was, but his eyes were irresistible. In the blink of an eye they could go from looking happy and excited, to whispering of pain and sadness. It was as if all of his emotions were expressed through his eyes without the necessity of one word being spoken. Dan had a strong, athletic build, a soft kind face, and short dark brown hair with a touch of gray coming in on the sides. He considered coloring his hair, believing 29 was too young for any gray, and at least one morning a month he stood in front of the mirror for several minutes having a debate with himself over the pros and cons of hair coloring. No matter how strong his argument for either side, he always came back to the strongest argument of all, his wife loved the touch of gray and promised to always love it. Still, he kept a small bottle of Grecian Formula hidden in a drawer in the bathroom, tucked way in the back behind a pile of folded washcloths. His wife Beth knew it was there and periodically checked to make sure it hadn’t been used. Beth colored her hair because gray didn’t look well with blonde, or any color on a woman for that matter, according to her. She told Dan that when she was a great-grandmother, she’d let the gray finally show.

Dan was a CPA for a large Boston accounting firm that was branching out into L.A. Because of his Harvard education, his strong work ethic and especially the way he worked so well with others, his boss personally requested he be the one to monitor progress in the L.A. office. Like any young man striving to build a great career and have more toys than the average man, it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He disliked flying, and disliked being away from home even more. But not everything could be carried up the career ladder. 

As he stood alone in the crowded airport, nearly oblivious to the activity around him, Dan kept thinking of Beth. She was home ill, fighting a bad cold that arrived every year about this time as if it was a seasonal requirement. It had been that way since she was a little girl growing up in the suburbs of Boston. Over the years the colds decreased in severity and duration, but always arrived on time every September. Two years ago it arrived late, and she didn’t become ill until mid-October. The break in routine was actually distressing, leaving her to worry that maybe an undiagnosed cancer was mucking up her schedule. That morning Beth woke only long enough to kiss Dan good-bye and call in sick to work. She was a paralegal for a large attorney firm and had hopes of one day attending law school. Being employed by a law firm would soon provide great benefits, but little if any, true comfort.

            Dan tucked his garment bag into the overhead compartment, being careful as he moved aside an old duffel bag and two other carry-ons. He had discovered over the years that some passengers were extremely touchy about having their luggage rearranged by strangers unless it was the flight attendant.  When he was satisfied with the placement of his carry-on, and confident the overhead compartment would close without problem, he sat down in the window seat and fastened his seatbelt. He imagined that one day he would join the aisle seat crowd, those business people who didn’t fly for the view, and wanted to save as many seconds as they could upon landing by being able to exit quickly so they could hurry up and wait some place else. Dan still enjoyed the view of a window seat, but imagined that one day, as he grew older, he would lose the child-like curiosity and excitement of seeing the world from thirty thousand feet up. On a rare occasion and if the sky was clear, and the jet took a certain flight path, he could spot his home. In his den was an enlarged photograph of their home he had taken three months ago as the jet made its final approach for landing. Despite the graininess of the enlarged photo and its obvious amateurish appearance, he had hung it with all the pride of a fishermen displaying an award winning swordfish.  Plagued with boredom if he wasn’t constantly busy, Dan retrieved a Grisham novel from his briefcase and began reading. As the crowd of passengers squeezed through the aisle, every arm carrying something, a woman checked her ticket and then sat down beside Dan.

            “Good morning,” she said with a cheerful, melodious voice.

            Dan lowered his book, looked over and smiled. “Good morning.” He thought she seemed awfully cheerful for so early in the morning. “You must be going to L.A.,” he said, a little unsure of exactly what to say to a stranger on a plane.

            “I sure hope so. It’s a non-stop flight,” she said with a wide grin. “I’m looking forward to getting home,” as she sat back in her seat.

            “I wish I could say I was going home. I live here in Boston. My wife’s sick and I hated leaving her this morning.”

            “Oh, anything serious?”

            “No, just a severe cold.” He paused a moment, held his place in the book with a finger, and offered his free hand. “I’m Dan Powers, accounting.” They shook hands and he was impressed with the strong, firm grip and the softness of her feminine hand.

            “Lisa Hodges, marketing.”

            “Ohhhhh.”

            “What does ohhhhh, mean?” she said smiling.

            “I guess it didn’t surprise me. You seem so cheerful and outgoing. I guess those would be good qualities to have in your field.”

            “Yes, they are,” she agreed. Lisa placed her purse on the floor between her feet and then leaned back in her seat.

            “Well, cheerfulness and early morning flights fit together for me like a square peg and a round hole. Or is it a round peg and a square hole?”

The woman laughed. “Oh, it’s not that early and you seem to be in a fine mood.”

“It’s the window seat. I’m like a kid when it comes to flying. I love looking out the window.”

“Me too,” she agreed. “but I can’t wait to get home and asked for an aisle seat. Quicker exit that way. I flew in Sunday night for a big presentation on Monday, and I’m exhausted. I think my body is still operating on west coast time.”

            “Yes, I have that to look forward to,” Dan said. “Do you have any family in L.A., or are you one of the millions of transplants who moved there from one of the other forty-nine states and Mexico?”

            “No, I’m a little unusual.  I was born and raised in the L.A. area. I don’t know why, but I never had the sense to move away. There’s something beautiful and alluring about the area, but it’s also false and fairytale. My roommate is an aspiring actress, and sometimes I think half of the people in L.A. have aspirations of breaking into show biz.”

            “I’ve heard that. Just in the small firm we’re starting up, we have two people who have been extras in some movie. I have no idea which one and don’t really care. They’re still hoping for a bigger part, you know, to get discovered. One man was on The Price is Right.”

            “That certainly is a claim to fame!” she said with a giggle.

            “Can you believe he even included it on his resume?”

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think ninety percent of LA is delusional about their talent and chance of  becoming famous. Do you go out there often?”

            “No, thankfully. Just once a month or so to check on our newest accounting firm. To be honest, I don’t care for traveling, but it scores points with the boss.”

            “And none with the wife I’ll bet,” Lisa filled in for him.

            “You got that right. You have anyone special in your life? Perhaps that’s too personal a question.”

            “No, don’t worry about that. Half the fun of flying is getting to meet someone new. I have a boyfriend. He’s a cameraman for a game show.”

            “Not…”

            “Yes, can you believe it, The Price is Right!” They shared a laugh at how small the world really was. “I hear all about the wannabes that come onto the lot looking to become the next big star. It amazes me what some people call talent.”

            “Talent and TV have nothing in common!” They both laughed at the truth in that statement. “How long have you two been together?”

“We’ve been dating about fifteen months.”

            “Any wedding plans?”

            “Maybe. I think he might ask me on my birthday, which is next week.”

            Just then, the flight attendant began to announce the pre-flight instructions. A few passengers who were standing in the aisle quickly stuffed their belongings into the overhead compartments, slammed them shut and found their seats.   

            “Well, have a happy birthday,” Dan whispered.

            “Thank you.”

            The flight attendant reviewed all the safety instructions, made last minute pre-flight checks of all the overhead compartments, and then found their seats and strapped in.  The jet was filled with a cross section of Anytown, USA. There were a few small children, all under the age of ten, four married couples, one couple who had been married only four months, several grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, businessmen dressed in suits, men dressed casually in blue jeans and sweatshirts. Several businesswomen wore dress suits or slacks, and a few traveled comfortably in blue jeans and a T-shirt. Among the non-caucasian men, were a few of oriental background, several African Americans, and about ten who appeared of Middle Eastern decent. Among the ten were five causally dressed men who traveled light, appeared to be flying alone and blended in quietly with the other passengers. They fit in well with the melting pot of passengers aboard Flight 11. They politely took their seats and waited patiently for take off. 

            A few minutes before eight, the jet taxied to the runway and joined the short line of other jets waiting for takeoff.

            “I hate this part,” Lisa said.

            “I hate landings,” Dan replied, his mouth curving into a grin.

            “Oh, that’s great. Between us, we’ll have fear sandwiched between the two events.” They both laughed as the pilot throttled up the powerful jet engines and the large, Boeing 767 moved forward on the tarmac. The wings were filled with over 10,000 gallons of extremely flammable jet fuel. The jet had a maximum takeoff weight of approximately 450,000 pounds, a wingspan of 170 feet 4 inches, with a length of 201 feet. Its typical cruising speed was 530 miles per hour. In forty-seven minutes its speed would exceed 600 miles per hour. In a fully loaded 767, flying at an extremely low altitude where the air density is greatest and its resistance highest, the entire structure of the jet would begin to approach its point of self-destruction. Inside the 767 there were two aisles with three seats in the center in economy class, and two center aisle seats in business class. In first class there were two seats on either side of the aisle, and one in the center. It boasted a roominess that would soon feel tiny and smothering.

            After the jet was air born at exactly 7:59 a.m., it banked gently around to head west. The Boeing 767 had a light passenger load of only 81 passengers, two pilots and nine flight attendants.  While still climbing, the flight attendants began to prepare the galley for beverage service. As soon as the seatbelt sign blinked off, people unbuckled their seat belt, got up, and headed for the restroom or to grab a different magazine. Some simply stood and stretched before returning to their seats. A few passengers opened the overhead compartment to retrieve reading material, a laptop or PDA from their luggage. Amidst the normal routine, and unnoticed by anyone, one by one, five Middle Eastern men got up from their seats, opened the overhead compartment and pulled out a small bag. They carried out their activities slowly, almost as if they were purposely delaying returning to the seats. But no one noticed because there was no reason to notice. One of men, Atta walked confidently toward first class, pushed aside the curtain dividing the two areas, and continued toward the galley.

            “Can I help you sir?” A flight attendant asked.

            He said nothing. With a sudden and rehearsed swiftness, Atta swung one arm around the woman’s neck, abruptly spun her around and pulled her towards him. Within a second, she was subdued in a chokehold with a sharp box cutter held against her throat.

            “Hey!” a first class passenger shouted as he stood.

            Suddenly, four other men rushed through the dividing curtain, each one holding a box cutter with a sharp, shiny razor blade exposed.

            “Don’t be a hero,” Atta spoke with a heavy accent. “If anyone moves, I will slit her throat then kill one of you.” The passenger who was standing froze, looked Atta straight in the eyes, glanced around the first class section, and then slowly sat down. Quickly and without discussion, the four other terrorists subdued the flight attendants in first class, and three of them escorted the flight attendants to the rear of the aircraft. Atta and Al-Omas remained behind.

            Atta retained his choking lock around the woman’s neck as he dragged her toward the cockpit door. Al-Omari kept watch over first class. “Open immediately,” Atta commanded, striking the door firmly with his free hand. The woman stood still, her eyes widened with terror. The knife blade was pressed against her neck so firmly that even the slightest movement would bring blood.

            Atta stepped back slightly and waited as his partner moved closer. A moment later, the co-pilot opened the cockpit door. He stood tall wearing a white shirt and minus his jacket. “What’s the problem out here?”

            Al-Omari kicked open the door sending the surprised co-pilot sailing backward. His arms flailed outward in an attempt to grab something as he fell hard on the cockpit floor.

The pilot turned around in his seat as his co-pilot landed on the floor beside him. “What the hell is going on!” The pilot demanded to know.

“We are taking over the plane,” Atta said firmly. He moved in front of the open door still clutching the woman. “If there is any resistance, we are prepared to die and to kill everyone on board this jet. I suggest you do not resist.” The flight attendant tried to look away as the co-pilot fell, but Atta’s arm kept her head positioned so she had to watch. She gasped and the sudden noise made the terrorist tighten his grip around her neck. Her eyes were bugling and she was breathing hard. 

            Without a word, the terrorist pressed the knife blade against the woman’s throat until a tiny drop of blood emerged and dripped slowly down her neck. Without a word or warning, he pressed harder and slid the blade across the flight attendant’s throat. Blood squirted out and sprayed the wall beside the cockpit door. She screamed and immediately clutched her throat as the terrorist released her. A rapid gush of bright blood flowed between her fingers. Her contorted and twisted face drained of color, her knees buckled and then her eyes glazed over.  The terrorist shoved her to the floor and she collapsed like a small tower of Jello. A woman sitting in first class screamed and then suddenly fell quiet, sobbing nearly silently after the terrorist glared at her.

            “If you follow our instructions, no one else will die.”

The co-pilot grabbed onto his empty seat and pulled himself up, never once taking his eyes off the killer.

            “Both of you, get out. Now!” The terrorist commanded.

            “Who will fly the plane?” the pilot asked.

            “That is not your concern. I’m not going to say this again. Get out.”

            The pilot and co-pilot looked at each other. Both hesitated, and they knew what the other was thinking, but there was no immediate solution to the attempted hijacking. There was unusual and almost eerie silence in the cabin. The pilot slowly got up from his seat and stood beside the co-pilot. They slowly stepped out of the cockpit, moving cautiously as they walked past the terrorist leader. Two of the terrorists had stepped into first class to make sure no one tried to be a hero. Atta spoke firmly in his native language giving commands to the two remaining terrorists. They quickly grabbed the pilot and co-pilot, and with box cutters in hand, lead them to the rear of the plane where they would be tied up with duct tape. As they moved down the aisle there was near silence. Every passenger watched in silence.

            Before they entered the business class, one man stood up and was abruptly struck across the face. He fell backwards into a woman passenger as blood spilled from his nose.

            Atta looked behind him, his eyes glaring at the seated passengers, and then he stepped into the cockpit and slammed the door shut.

            As the two pilots were lead to the rear of the plane, the terrorists warned the passengers to remain in their seats unless they wanted to die. The cabin remained unusually quiet and still. A sense of shock and disbelief had settled into the large jet, which now was feeling extremely small, stuffy and isolated from the entire world.

“What’s going on?” Lisa asked quietly, leaning toward Dan. Her voice was nervous and breaking.

            “I think we’re being hijacked.” Other passengers were growing restless, looking around the cabin and whispering to one another.

            “Attention everyone. In the name of Allah, we are now in control of this plane. I must warn you to strictly obey our instructions or be killed. If anyone tries to resist, we will begin killing passengers beginning with the two pilots. Unless you want to be responsible for someone’s death, you must stay in your seat. If you need to use the restroom, raise your hand and we will address your needs.” There was a long pause before the deep voice boomed over the intercom again. “You must follow our instructions. You must remain calm and quiet, and must stay in your seats.  Anyone failing to follow these instructions will be killed immediately. I hope I have made myself clear.” The intercom clicked off and the cabin fell completely silent. The hum of the jet engines was the only sound that filled the length of the cabin. A small baby began crying, and whispers of the mother trying to calm her infant floated among the seats.

            “What are we going to do?” Lisa whispered.

            “Nothing. We’re going to do nothing. Hopefully, we’ll fly to Cuba or Columbia or something, and they’ll let us all go.”

            “They don’t have any guns, do they?”

            “I don’t know. But they have box cutters that they got on board somehow. I don’t really want my throat slit.” Dan turned around in his seat in time to see one of the terrorists walking up the aisle. He was holding a box cutter in his hand and looked ready to use it.

Despite the large size of the cabin, the six seats across and the two aisles, Dan was beginning to feel as if they were all seated in a tiny and crowded Lear jet with a narrow width and low ceiling. The air was beginning to feel stale and stuffy. They were on their own, at the complete will of their hijackers. Flying was normally a surrendering of power, of not being in the driver’s seat. That feeling of powerlessness had just been jacked up a few hundred notches. Dan looked around the cabin, wishing he had a gun, a parachute, something to help even the odds.

            “You!” the terrorist said, pointing at Dan.

            “Me?” his voice cracked.

            “Turn around unless you’d like to join the pilot in the rear of the plane.”

            Dan quickly turned around and remained silent. There was nothing to say. He wanted to be as invisible as possible, and that meant remaining silent. The terrorist walked past him, staring him down with his dark eyes. Without warning, the jet began banking sharply to the left. Passengers suddenly looked out the window trying to determine where in hell they were going. Except for quiet whispering, and there was little of that, the cabin remained extremely quiet. No one moved, no one read a magazine or turned on their lap top. It became a jet filled with still and quiet statues.

            Within several minutes, the four terrorists separated many clusters of passengers throughout the cabin. Almost out of some absurd kindness, they did not separate people who were traveling together. When they were finished, the 81 passengers were spread among the entire length of the aircraft. Dan and Lisa were allowed to remain in their assigned seats.

            Suddenly a woman’s scream ripped through the quiet like a cannon shot, and then almost as suddenly, silence returned to the cabin like a thick, impenetrable fog. Some passengers turned around to see what was happening, but most sat motionless in their seats, wanting and not wanting to know, their faces white with fear and hands tightly clutching the armrests.

Minutes moved like sluggish giants in a tight corridor. Anyone who glanced at their watch stared long enough to make sure the sweep second hand was actually still moving. Some simply sat staring, being careful to avoid any eye contact with one of the terrorists. Others pretended to be reading, but no one could plow through more than a sentence before they glanced up from the page again, totally aware of the precariousness of their own safety. In the cockpit, an air traffic controller attempted to contact the pilot to inquire about the course change. He received no response. The new pilot increased the jet’s speed and set the heading for New York City. Cleverly using a Global Positioning Device, Atta programmed the target’s address and used it to assist in guiding the jet. After several minutes, the pilot made an announcement over the intercom.

            “This is your pilot. If you wish, you may use the in-flight phones to call whoever you would like. You may say whatever you like, but I must ask that you do so quietly. If not, we will help you become quiet.” There was another click and the intercom fell silent.

            “What do you think is going on here?” Lisa asked in a whisper. She rubbed her face nervously with trembling fingers.

            “I have no idea, but I don’t like this at all. Why would they let us make phone calls, unless it doesn’t matter?”

            “What do you mean, doesn’t matter?” Lisa’s face was twisted with fear, her eyes were widened circles and her brow wrinkled with tension.

            He regretted making that comment. “I’m not sure. But something tells me we’re not going to Cuba.” He looked at the phone on the seatback in front of him. Dan checked his watch. It was 8:20. They had only been in the air for twenty-one minutes. Beth was most probably still sleeping and maybe wouldn’t hear his call. He sat motionless and waited, wondering if the whole thing was a trick of some sort. Maybe they would kill whoever made phone calls. Maybe they would make them special hostages, telling their loved ones on the other end of the line to meet their demands or listen to them being murdered. He mind played with all sorts of possibilities, none of them positive. After an extremely long and endless minute or so, he heard someone making a call. He continued to sit motionless and heard another call being made. It was followed by another, and then another. He kept the debate going in his mind, wondering about the safety of making a call. So far, nothing had happened. Finally, he reached out and pulled the phone off its cradle. “I have to try and call home.” He thought of saying this may be his last chance to speak with his wife, but decided against it. Dan leaned over, pulled out his wallet and retrieved a credit card. He swiped the card on the phone, nearly missing because his hand was trembling, and then dialed the number. “I hope she hears the phone,” he said to Lisa. Dan placed the phone close to his ear and waited. After a long delay, the phone began ringing in suburban Boston in Waltham, Massachusetts.

            It rang a second time, and he waited, and then a third, and he waited, and waited, and then a fourth ring and the waiting grew longer, and a fifth time, and he waited. Dan looked at his watch. It seemed he had to wait to verify the second hand was still moving.

            He looked at Lisa. “I don’t think she’s awake. The damn cold medicine, probably knocked her out.” It rang a seventh time, and after a long delay, an eighth, each ring seemed to take longer and longer, finally a ninth ring….. he’d never heard such a slow ringing phone before in his life.

            “Helllloooo,” spoke a hoarse and groggy voice. “Who’s this?”

            “Honey? It’s me. You need to wake up, you need to wake up now and talk to me.”

            “Dan? What’s wrong?” She coughed to clear her voice. “Are you okay? Aren’t you on your flight yet?”

            “Yes,” then he repeated in a quieter voice. “Yes. That’s the problem. We’ve been hijacked.”

            Beth sat bolt upright in her bed. A pillow dropped to the floor unnoticed. “Dan! What do you mean, you’ve been hijacked?” Tears began forming. “Are you okay? Do they have guns? Is anyone hurt? Are you okay?”

            “Honey, I’m okay. I think someone was hurt. I saw blood on one of the hijackers and I don’t think it was his.” Why did he tell her that! What was wrong with him?

            “How many are there?” She was sobbing now, hoping, praying that she was still actually asleep experiencing a cold medicine induced nightmare, a horrible nightmare that even in life, could never feel real. She looked at the digital clock on the nightstand. The red numbers glowed 8:22. It felt like three in the morning.

            “There are five, I think. I haven’t seen any guns, but they have knives, box cutters. They’re flying the plane and I have no idea where we’re going, but from the position of the sun, I think we’re heading south. The pilot and co-pilot are sitting in the back of the plane. I don’t know if they’re okay or not.”

            There was heavy sobbing into the phone and spits of static clouded the sound. “Oh my God! Oh Dan! Are you going to be all right? What is going on? Do they know you’re on the phone? Pleeeease don’t let them hurt you.” The sentence ended with tears and heavy sobbing. Beth looked at the clock again. It seemed to be the only proof she had that this conversation was actually taking place. The numbers glowed 8:23. Suddenly the numbers changed to 8:24. That small change in a minute was proof that the day was marching forward, moving ahead and spiraling out of control. In an odd sort of way, how digital clocks sliced time into such small increments reminded her just how precious every moment really was.

            “I don’t know why, but they’re allowing us to make phone calls. I don’t know if I should stay on the phone for very long or not. I don’t know what I should do.” Dan raised his head slowly and looked forward, peeking over the seat in front of him like a soldier expecting return fire. “Some of them are up in first class. They have the curtains pulled so I don’t really know what is going on. A lot of people are making phone calls.” Soft crying sounds could be heard throughout the cabin. Dan noticed a few callers wiping their eyes as they held the phone tightly to their ear. He knew how they felt. Clutching the phone, embracing it was the only closeness to family that remained. “I love you so much, Beth. I don’t know if, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Please call my parents and my brother. He should be at work. Grab the address book in the den. His number’s in there.” Dan blinked hard. He could barely see through the tears clouding his eyes. He needed to remain strong. There was no telling what he had yet to face. “I love you. I love you so much. You know, I never say that enough, I never tell you how much I appreciate you and everything you do for me. I’ve been working too much lately when I should be home more with you. I wish¾

            “Stop! Dan, don’t do this! Pleeeasse, don’t do this. You’re a wonderful husband and I couldn’t love anyone as much as I love you! Please tell me that things will be okay.”

            Dan paused, trying to picture Beth sitting up in bed, clutching the phone tightly, wiping her eyes with a soaked tissue. He had been working too much, willingly trading in memories of being together to get ahead in his career. Life was so short, way too short, and he had been racing through each day as if there was an endless supply of them. Why was that so easy for people to do? Why did money and things matter so much when the real wealth in life was the time with loved ones and the memories they created?

            “Dan? Are you still there? Dan?” He could hear the panic across the miles.

            “I’m sorry, yes, I’m here. I was just thinking. If something happens,” his voice cracked. There was a lump in his throat the size of a large rock.

            “Don’t talk like that. You’re coming home, I know you are. You have to!”

            “Beth, if something happens to me, you must be strong. We have to consider what could happen.”

            “Stop!” Beth screamed into the phone. Her voice cut sharply through the static and the miles. “Stop it! Now stop talking like this. You’re coming home. I know you will. I love you so much. You’re not leaving me. I know you’ll be home. You have to be. You can’t leave me, you can’t leave me,” she finished, her voice trailing off to tears.

            “Okay, Beth, okay. Call everyone, and turn on the TV. Maybe there’s some news about what’s going on.”

            The conversation continued for a few more minutes, and each word was pulled from his heart. The longer they talked, the more impossible it became to find the right words, and to push back the growing flood of emotion that was tainted and stained with guilt and fear. He wanted the conversation to never end, and he wanted to end it immediately. When Dan finally said goodbye, it was like trying to talk fluently in a foreign language he had never spoken before. The goodbye seemed so final, like he had actually been witness to life’s end and he was still living. In the pit of his stomach he knew he would never see Beth again, never touch the softness of her hand, listen to her laughter, enjoy the warm moistness of her kiss or feel the wonderful sensation of her embrace. When Dan pushed the button to end the call, not one word existed in his thoughts of what to say next. People talked of being left speechless, but rarely were. There was always a remnant of a thought, a word waiting to be inflated into a sentence. This time however, his mind was completely blank. Not even an image existed in his thoughts. It was as if twenty-five billion brain cells had suddenly ceased functioning, save for a few that regulated the basic body functions that normally occurred without consideration. After a long pause that existed without the benefit of time, Dan absently handed the phone to Lisa. He glanced down and checked his watch. It was now 8:34. Slowly, the nightmare reappeared; thoughts sluggishly fell together into a sloppy pile, still not making any sense. Dan turned his head slowly and looked out the window. As his mind powered up on dying batteries, he noted the sun’s position and saw something familiar.

            “I think we’re headed toward New York City.” His voice was weak, robbed of strength by intense grief.

            Lisa looked out the window, and then looked at Dan. “Here,” she began, holding the phone. “Put this back. I could never in my life make a call like that.  Maybe I’m a coward, maybe I’m just scared to death, but finding the words to say what you just told your wife, is, well, I don’t know what it is. I can’t even talk well now.”

            Dan looked at her and looked at the phone she was holding. “Are you sure?”

            Lisa nodded silently, and swallowed hard. Dan took the phone, replaced it and looked across the aisle. A woman was wiping a tear from her eye and talking on the phone. She looked to be about seventy, and from her appearance, Dan guessed she had money. Her clothes looked expensive and she wore beautiful diamonds on her fingers. He checked his watch again. It was now 8:37. Less than nine minutes remained before the jet would crash into World Trade Center 1, the North Tower. He knew something was going to happen soon. Life gave those that listened, an intuition that was rarely a blessing and often a curse. He knew, he was certain. Every glance at his watch reminded him that it had now become useless except for the minute and second hand.

            Three of the hijackers continually moved quickly through out the plane. Their constant movement was aimed at keeping everyone off guard, unsure of their location and intentions. Yet, there was something else behind their movement. It almost looked like pacing, impatient waiting for an event to occur. It seemed they never stood still, bending over occasionally to glance out the window, and then talking to each other in their foreign language. At times they smiled at one another, and as time passed, their chatter became more frequent.

For the most part, the passengers remained quiet; a few were crying, some sat silently in shock, staring forward or simply looking out the window at the Long Island Sound below them and to their left.  

            Dan looked out the window again, and then glanced at his watch. It was 8:38, and unlike only a few moments ago, the second hand seemed to be almost spinning.

 

 

World Trade Center 1, North Tower

 

            It was 7:20 a.m. when James L. Jones arrived to work on the 101st floor of WTC Tower 1, the North Tower. He was a brilliant electrical engineer for Cohen Electronics, which had been one of the first tenants of the tower when it opened in 1970. The owner, Ed Cohen was determined to have an office on the top floor, but settled for the 101st. The view of looking in any direction for nearly fifty miles on a clear day was one of the few remaining pleasures he enjoyed in his life. Personal tragedy had decimated his once extensive library of enjoyment. Now all that remained was work, and looking out the window for inspiration. 

            In many respects, every floor of the north tower was nearly identical, though the configuration of the office cubicles and a few other minor variations gave each floor its own personality. The building’s core was occupied by a small area of elevators, restrooms and stairwells, leaving the entire perimeter of nearly an acre completely open for office space. The external structure or skin of the building provided the true backbone and strength and essentially held up the building. The lack of support beams and structures gave each floor a sense of expanse and space, reflecting the enormity of the entire tower. The weight of each floor was transferred to the tower’s powerfully strong sides, held in place by thick rivets and braces. In a sense, the support columns, often found within a tall building, were for the most part, moved to the perimeter of the tower. It was an ingenious and sound design that made the interior feel as large and graceful as the soaring view from outside. 

            As Jim exited the elevator, he could smell coffee. He walked with a casual confidence to his cubicle, set down his leather brief case, removed his suit jacket and hung it up on the shiny, brass coat rack just as he had done over five thousand times before; five thousand, one hundred seventeen to be exact, nearly fifteen years. He was probably one of the few employees in the entire World Trade Center who counted such things. He had a reason, and it wasn’t because he had an incurable obsessive-compulsive disorder that wouldn’t respond to therapy or medication. There were an exact number of workdays he wanted to reach before age sixty when he would semi-retire with his wife. It was a number only he knew, a number he likened to hitting the jackpot; it would be the day he started to really enjoy life and all it had to offer. Thirty years of employment, minus vacations, holidays and the rare sick day he grudgingly allowed himself, the number came to nine thousand, one hundred ten, or 9,110. The number held significance; September 11th was the anniversary of when he first met his wife Ellen in 1980. Adding that year presented a problem, so instead of working 91,180 days, he rounded the year to a zero. It beat working himself to death for the sake of sentimentality.  Besides, 91,180 workdays amounted to over two hundred sixty-five years. That just didn’t seem practical. His wife thought he was just plain goofy.

Satisfied his routine was intact and everything in its place, he smiled at the warm, morning rays of sun that enveloped his small space like an ethereal, translucent blanket, and then walked with a more casual, slower pace to the break area for a cup of fresh coffee. Often he made the first pot in the morning, but on occasion, someone arrived before he did.  

            “Good morning,” Jim said to Vicky Bloomberg. She was a brilliant engineering student who showed great promise. The fact that she arrived so early was just one more indicator of her work ethic and dedication. Sacrifice was always rewarded in the corporate world.

            Almost always.

            “Good morning, Jim. I already made coffee.”

            “I could smell it as soon as I got off the elevator. When did you get in?”

            “Just a few minutes ago. I couldn’t sleep. Kept waking up, tossing, turning, you know the routine. So I decided I might as well get a jump start on rush hour.”

            “Workload keeping you awake?” He asked as he walked over to the coffee pot.

            “No, I don’t know what was bothering me. But every time I thought about coming into work, I thought about staying home.” She took a sip from her cup and looked out the window.

            “I have those days, too. Especially when it’s Monday and raining!” He chuckled and poured coffee into a Styrofoam cup, shook in some sugar and powdered creamer, grabbed a plastic stirrer and stuck it into the coffee. Jim was forty-five, looked his age, but didn’t feel it. He was a tall man, six foot two, with broad shoulders and a waistline that was also growing broad. There was something about hitting the forty-year milestone that made staying slim a true battle of the bulge. Two years ago he essentially conceded defeat, tossed out his size thirty-five pants and purchased only size thirty-seven. The other battle in the two-front war of middle age was a receding hairline. He hated how it crept up behind him where he couldn’t see it coming, until finally, carrying a comb was more for ego than function.

Jim had two sons in college, one studying English and the other drifting between majors, still undecided but leaning toward law. His wife Ellen was a nurse who worked part time, preferring to pursue her hobby of painting and volunteering. As soon as the kids were out of college and he hit the magic number, they planned to sell everything and move to New England, semi-retire and work only enough to fund their interests and desire to travel. Their goal was to build a beautiful two thousand square foot log cabin in the mountains of New Hampshire.

            Jim picked up his coffee. “I couldn’t sleep last night either. Kept tossing and turning, wondering what number today was…,”

            “The date?”

            “No, it’s kind of a private joke in our home. I track the number of days I’ve worked and…”

            “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about your retirement plans. Bill told me and said that when the time approaches, they’re going to get a pool together on what that secret number is!” They both laughed.

“Still got a lot of time for that to happen!”

“So, you couldn’t sleep either?”

“No, don’t know why, just one of those mornings. I kept thinking of all the projects I’m working on at home. Refinishing the basement, planting some white pines in the back yard, that sort of thing. Thought today would be a perfect day to work outside.”

“It sounds like it,” she agreed.

“I finally quit arguing with myself and decided to make this day number five thousand, one hundred seventeen. Another day closer to that log cabin!” He stirred his coffee and tossed the plastic stirrer into the garbage. “How was your weekend? I never did get a chance to ask you yesterday.”

            “Too short, but aren’t they all? My boyfriend and I went to see his parents.”

            “Where do they live?”

            “Danielson, Connecticut. It’s a cute little town in the northeast corner of the state not far from Rhode Island. It’s about an hour east of Hartford. We had a nice visit. It’s such a beautiful area. So many trees!” She took a sip of her coffee.

            “That’s what I miss living near New York. But one day! My wife still talks about getting a bed and breakfast, but I don’t know if I like the idea of strangers spending the night all the time.”

            “That’s because you live in New York.  People in New England have a different attitude about people.”

            “So, what did his parents think?”

            She shrugged her shoulders as she sipped on the steaming coffee. “I don’t think they’re thrilled that I’m Jewish.”

            “Typical. People get so worked up about stupid things, convinced that you’re not going to meet in heaven.”

            “Exactly. They’re Catholic. I don’t know where everyone thinks Jews go after they die.”

            “Same place as Muslims, Hindus and Lutherans!” They both laughed. “Seriously though, don’t let that stop you. That’s their problem to deal with. What do your parents think about it?”

            “I think they share the same view as David’s, only from a Jewish perspective.”

            “Sometimes I think religions cause more prejudice than they cure.” He looked over and noticed Ed Cohen, the CEO walk onto the floor and toward his corner office. “Looks like it’s time to get to work.”

            Vicky looked past Jim in time to see Cohen disappear into his office. “Is he ever cheerful in the morning?”

            “No, but after working for Ed all these years, I like the guy.”

            “Why? He’s not very friendly.”

            “Ed’s not had the easiest life, and wealth can buy you things, but it can’t bring happiness. I know that’s a little overused, but it’s so true. He lost his wife and daughter to a car accident quite a few years ago and I don’t think he has much in his life except work. He’s a generous man though. He always gives a nice Christmas bonus.”

            “Christmas bonus?”

            “Well, he calls it an end of the year income adjustment. He always encourages holiday decorations, no matter what your faith.” Jim checked his watch. It was 7:45 a.m. Life was going to change in one hour. That’s how life was. Always the same day after day, and then never the same again. Except for illness, which left a trail of symptoms and hints of coming attractions, life generally cruised along with total unpredictability, and when it appeared too routine, it stopped being routine.

            “I guess we better appear busy,” Vicky added.

            “Not me. I’m going to read the paper for ten minutes before I get to work on the Anderson project. Ed’s okay. Don’t let him scare you.”

            Vicky smiled, refilled her cup and then left for her tiny cubicle. Jim went to his desk. Outside the sun was shining brilliantly on the water. The morning sky was nearly clear with only a few scant wisps of clouds. It was starting out to be a beautiful Tuesday morning, and from the 101st floor, they could see nearly forty miles in any direction.  

            The elevator bell dinged and the door opened followed by the exit of a tall young man. Thomas Glenn was twenty-one, had short blonde hair, a pierced left ear, and a persistent smile that nothing seemed to erase. As the elevator door closed, he headed straight for the freshly brewed coffee. He hated his name, which was reversible as he called it. Having two first names was frustrating, and new acquaintances always got them turned around, calling him Glenn one moment and Tom the next. Sometimes he didn’t even bother to correct them. A second elevator dinged and the door opened.

            “Hey Tommy!” a voice boomed into the early morning office.

            Tom Glenn turned around to see Bill Freeman stepping off the elevator, holding a black leather briefcase in one hand and a magazine in the other. “Yeah, what’s up?” Tommy replied.

            “I finally remembered that magazine.” He held it up as evidence. The cover sported a motorcycle, and Tom could see it was the latest issue of Cycle magazine. Bill walked briskly to the break area.

            “Hey great!” Tom said, as he grabbed two Styrofoam cups. “Is that the issue with the article on the new Yamaha?”

            “It’s in there! I think you should consider buying it. You need a bigger bike if you’re going to go cruising with us next spring.” There was a group of North Tower employees who formed a loosely held together motorcycle club that focused on touring the New England area. There were only about nine members, and on any given ride, about half were present.

            Tom laughed as he poured two cups of coffee. Bill came up to the break area, handed Tom the magazine and grabbed his cup of coffee. “Hey thanks. Appreciate it.” He took a careful sip of the hot liquid. “Think your wife will let you buy it?”

            Tom laughed as he flipped open the magazine, trying to locate the table of contents. “I would think it’s only fair. After all, she must have an equal value in shoes!” They both chuckled at the remark.

            “Yeah, what is it with women and shoes? I have a brown pair, a black pair, and a pair of tennis shoes.”

            “Got me. But every woman I’ve met is the same way.” He located the table of contents and quickly flipped to the article. “Now that’s a sweet bike!” He stared down at the photo as Bill looked over his shoulder.

            “Sure is, but I’ll stick to Harleys.”

            “Where is the spring trip next year?”

            “P-town,” Bill said, referring to Provincetown Massachusetts on Cape Cod. “We’re planning for late May, early June. We’ll probably set the date in March and make motel reservations then, too.” Just then they all noticed Ed Cohen coming their way. He had a walk that quietly said he was the boss, but as usual, his facial expression was a blank page waiting for writing.

            They all turned and said good morning in what sounded like rehearsed unison.

            Ed nodded hello and glanced at the magazine. “Motorcycles, huh? If I was younger, I think I’d buy one.” Both men looked up from the magazine with surprise. Neither knew what to say.

            Ed smiled. His smiles were always weak, as if his facial muscles had very little practice making such expressions. His frowns, which were not all that frequent either, were much more pronounced, outlined with deep creases and wrinkles. “You look surprised. No, shocked.”

            “I am,” Bill replied through a weak grin. “I didn’t know you even liked motorcycles.”

            “I wanted to buy one many years ago, a Honda, but my wife didn’t think it was a good idea with us just starting to raise a family. She wanted me around, I guess.” The remnants of the smile quickly evaporated.

            “It’s not too late,” Tom said. “They’re a lot of fun, and great for reducing stress. There’s nothing like being out there feeling the wind.”

            Ed rubbed his chin, his brow wrinkled in thought, and then he walked over and poured himself a cup of coffee. He always preferred it black and couldn’t understand why anyone drank it any other way. He took a sip of coffee, set the cup down and picked up the magazine.

            “Humfff,” he said, as he flipped through the pages. “They sure have changed since my younger days.”

            “Malcolm Forbes owns a few motorcycles,” Tom said.

            “Really?” Ed replied, suddenly interested.

            “So does Jay Leno,” Bill added.

            “Hmmfff! No Hollywood type ever impressed me with their preferences and habits,” Ed shot back, still looking through the magazine. “When did you say this trip of yours was?” He looked over at Tom.

            Tom looked surprised and caught off guard. His mouth hung open as if it had frozen just before getting out the first syllable of a short word. “Ah, well, we were looking at sometime in the spring.”

            “When?” Ed wanted to know.

            “May or early June. By then, the weather is usually a little nicer.”

            Ed nodded as he flipped through the last few pages of the magazine. He stopped suddenly, folded the pages over and looked at an ad. “They make three wheelers?” he asked, looking over at Bill.

            “Yes, they do. You can buy one for about fourteen thousand, or more depending on what you want. Harley makes a nice side car setup for twenty-eight.”

            “Hmm, a side car. Guess three wheels would be easier to learn on, wouldn’t it?” Ed asked, still looking at the picture of the trike in the magazine.

            “Much easier. They ride a little differently, but you still get the feel of riding a motorcycle.”

            Ed continued to study the ad for the longest time. Bill and Tom remained silent, sipping their coffee and glancing at each other, both wondering about the sudden interest and friendly socializing. Ed was never a very sociable type, certainly never one for small talk over coffee. Work time was spent on work talk. It’s not that he was unfriendly, just a very private individual who appeared as if he didn’t know how to conduct himself outside the business world.

            Ed closed the magazine and handed it back to Tom, and then picked up his coffee. “Maybe it’s time I start living. It’s a shame to have so much money to live on, but so little to live for. Maybe we could stop at a dealership some weekend and you guys could make sure I don’t get ripped off by a salesman who sees me coming for miles.” He smiled, and this time his grin was wide enough to touch his eyes.

            “Be glad to,” Bill answered.

            “Sure, sure, that’d be great. I’m thinking of buying a new bike, too,” Tom said.

            Ed looked at his watch. It was already past eight. “Guess I better get to my desk and set an example.” He winked at the two men and walked to his office.

            “Now if that wasn’t something!” Bill remarked, as he watched Ed walk away.

            “Maybe he’s finally coming out of his depression. I’m sure that was a helluva blow, losing both his wife and daughter in the same accident. How many years ago was that?”

            ”Maybe fifteen, sixteen years ago. I would think a person doesn’t completely recover from something like that. I feel for the guy. Maybe now, he’s finally getting around to living again.”

            “I wonder if he got on medication?” Tom thought about it a moment. “Guess we better get to work,” he said. They took their coffee, Tom tucked the magazine under his arm and went into the mail and supply room. He did all the odd jobs, and was more or less an administrative assistant of sorts. Cohen gave him the job because he was going to class part time for engineering. It was all Tom could afford, but he was hoping to eventually attend night school full time.

            Angela Hurst was probably one of the best administrative assistants in New York, if you believed what Ed Cohen had to say about her. He occasionally joked that if anything happened to him, she’d probably be the best one to run the company. It was a comment that didn’t set well with some of the men, but not one could honestly disagree. She was smart, witty, efficient, could spell like she had a Webster’s crammed into her skull, wrote extremely professional letters, kept the office running smoothly, had a flawless filing system and was always cheerful and optimistic. Ed paid her top dollar. If he lost Angela, it would take two people to replace her position. She was Ed’s assistant, the receptionist and the office manager. As an extra bonus, she was attractive. She had long brunette hair that looked so full and filled with highlights, she looked like a TV commercial for shampoo. Everyone liked her, and for good reason. She was simply a good person. Angela was thirty-five, married to a fireman, and had two children, a girl who was thirteen, and a boy who was nine. Her mother babysat while Angela and her husband worked.

            “Ang, could you come here a moment?” Ed called from his office.

            Angela got up from her desk and walked into Mr. Cohen’s corner office. She had a walk that attracted every male eyeball within sight. “Yes, what can I help you with?”

            Ed swiveled his large leather chair around, crossed his legs and looked up at Angela. “I was thinking of getting a motorcycle. What do you think?”

            “A motorcycle?” she asked, surprised.

            “Well, a three wheeler, or trike. Or perhaps a motorcycle with a sidecar.”

            She smiled. “What brought all this about?”

            “I don’t know. I just got up this morning with a feeling about life. I decided I’ve wasted enough of it. It’s time to live a little, do the things I’ve always wanted to do. Who wants to die with a long, exhausting list of regrets? What do you think?”

            Angela nodded. “I think you should go for it. My husband wants to get a motorcycle, but right now that’s a luxury we can’t really afford. Maybe in a few years.”

            Ed chuckled. It sounded so familiar. Life swept by like a series of fast forwarded movies that hid the entire plot. Then, before we know it, we’re staring at retirement, dealing with growing health problems and aches and pains and we know for certain that life just isn’t going to get any better. “I agree. I think I should. Next Spring I want to travel more, have fun, do things with people. I live in this big apartment across from Central Park and I don’t even know anyone in the area. I’m ashamed to say that. Aside from the wonderful people I work with, I’m a stranger in this city.”

            “It’s never too late to change,” Angela replied. “What got you on motorcycles? Was it Bill and Tom?”

            “No, no, neither.” He paused, and rubbed his chin in thought, then folded his arms across his chest. “It was me. I wanted one years ago, when I was about your husband’s age, but I didn’t get one, probably for the same reasons.” He paused. Memories sometimes stung, and any memory of his lovely wife and daughter were difficult to think about. He nodded his head a few times. “Yup, I need to do that. Just wanted to know what you thought.” He looked at his watch. It was 8:27. In eighteen minutes, the floor was going to tremble and roll like a record earthquake.

            Angela returned to her desk, walking past mostly empty cubicles. Most people didn’t arrive to work until much closer to nine. In New York City, commuting was both an art and a science, and it was nearly impossible for everyone to arrive at work by eight. The subways, bridges and highways could only be choked with so much traffic. Between eight and nine work got done, but it was more often than not, a warm up for the day. Emails got answered, papers organized, yesterday’s work glanced at, but rarely did anyone get too intensely involved. Things always changed after nine when everyone had arrived at their desks.

            At 8:39, Vicky went into the break area to make fresh coffee for the later arrivals. She tidied up the area, wiped a few drips of coffee off the countertop, and then prepared a fresh pot. As she glanced out the window at the brilliant morning, she noticed a jet flying low. She’d never spotted a jet in that area of the sky before. Flight paths and flight times were very routine. If most people checked an area of the sky the same time each day, they’d be surprised at the consistency of jet trails streaking across the sky. You couldn’t set your watch by them, but a jet was usually within a few minutes of their schedule. Still, having been a New Yorker for such a long time, a person can tells signs like a woodsman looks at a broken branch to track an animal through the forest. She continued looking out the window. The jet was in the distance, but no matter what she told herself, no jets had ever flown in that area before. Not at this altitude. As the jet drew closer and the image grew bigger, it seemed even more odd. Wasn’t that a dangerous flight path for any jet? There were millions of people down there, here! She looked at all the tall buildings that had suddenly become road spikes for a hijacked jet. The jet grew larger and larger and Vicky continued watching. She couldn’t turn away if she wanted to. Something was different in a subtle way, but it wasn’t the out of place jet that really bothered her, it was the feeling in her gut that kept her standing there watching.

            The jet grew larger, and closer. It turned slightly, adjusting its flight path. If it hadn’t been such an insane thought, she could’ve sworn the jet was aimed right for her. But, that was impossible. It had to be. The distance was too great to really be certain of such things. It was probably a trick of the mind, a lack of sleep, a little fatigue playfully tossing around thoughts of fantasy. It was difficult to realistically conjure up images of the impossible. But still, that jet loomed larger and closer, moving quickly, much too quickly and she was certain it was coming right for her.

            “Hey Ang, come here a minute!” Vicky yelled, never taking her eyes off the window. It was 8:43 and thirty-two seconds.

            “Be right there. What’s up?”

            “I’m not sure. Maybe I’m seeing things.” The early morning light might be playing tricks, casting shadows in just the right way to make something appear differently. She still wondered.

            Angela walked over to the window where Vicky was standing. “What are you looking at? Is Spiderman out there?” She giggled. It was always like Angela to find humor anywhere she could fit it in.

            “No,” her voice trailed off to silence as she stared at the rapidly growing image. It was getting closer. It had to be! “See that jet out there? Isn’t it flying low? Have you ever seen a jet flying so low?” Her words came out quickly, like they were fired from a shotgun.

            Angela stepped closer to the window, held a hand over her eyes like a visor and searched for the jet. “Oh, I see it.” She squinted in the morning sun. “It does seem to be flying awfully low. I wonder if they’re having engine problems or something.” She leaned closer to the glass for a glare free look. “They could be coming in for a landing.”

            “Doesn’t it look like it’s coming right for us?” Vicky pressed.

            Angela nearly pressed her face against the glass and stared intently. “Yes, it does.” Suddenly she felt something disturbing inside. It was a hard, hot raw feeling of rising panic. It was 8:44.

            The jet loomed larger and closer, shooting past the massive configuration of buildings. “Something is not right. Not right at all,” Vicky said. She took a step back from the window. The jet continued flying in a straight path, and it appeared headed right for the North Tower. That was impossible, but here she was watching it about to happen.

            “Oh my God!” Angela screamed, suddenly realizing the jet’s trajectory. She took a few steps backward as the jet grew closer and closer coming at them like a giant missile.

 

United Flight 11

 

            Dan looked over Lisa and out the window. That was definitely New York City below, and they were flying too low and too close to the buildings. Three passengers had been murdered, and that event kept everyone else in their seats. Dan had guessed the woman’s scream earlier in the back of the jet was a reaction to the murder of the two pilots. What else could it be? he thought. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. And the phone calls. Another mystery to add worry. This was not a normal hijacking. These terrorists had something else in mind.

            There were pockets of crying throughout the cabin, anonymous sounds hidden behind seats. People whispered, some got up and were escorted to the bathroom, one man asked for and received a couple tiny bottles of vodka to drink. He gulped them down and remained in his seat, staring out the window and whispering almost silently to himself. Perhaps he was praying. Dan couldn’t be certain.

            “Why are we flying so low and so close to New York?” Lisa asked, leaning toward Dan.

            He saw the growing fear in her eyes. “I’m not sure, but I have a sick feeling about this,” he answered, staring out the window.

            “What do you mean?” Lisa was looking pale, the color had drained from her cheeks and there were growing creases scratched onto her face.

            “I’m not sure.” It felt like a lie. He had a feeling they were going to crash somewhere, but the thought seemed too unreal to legitimize, but there it was, refusing to surrender. He looked at the phone and considered calling his wife again. Some people had remained on the phone the whole time. Dan imagined the reliving of pain when that credit card bill came in the mail. It seemed like a very morbid thought, a stupid one, mixing money and grief, but those kind of thoughts burst into his mind at will now. He looked at his watch. It read 8:43. He looked out the window again. The huge buildings below really did remind him of giant toys, an elaborate train set up in someone’s huge basement. At this angle, the city didn’t look real. Tiny cars moved sluggishly on the congested streets below, mirrors and glass occasionally glistened in the morning rays. Long, thick shadows cast by the skyscrapers left many streets still in the dark. Tiny red taillights glowed far below. He wished he could see where the jet was headed.

            Suddenly the jet banked slightly, leveled a little, and then banked again. The passengers reacted with less calm.  A few women screamed, most groaned, or called out. One man, a Muslim who sat three rows behind, began praying. Everyone grabbed the armrests tightly.

            Then he saw it, the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It loomed like a huge blockade to their left. It had been a target before, he suddenly remembered. Dan immediately noticed their altitude definitely appeared lower than the 110-story building. He knew what was going to happen.  

            “Say a prayer Lisa,” he said with urgency. He felt palpitations ripple and flutter through his chest and suddenly felt short of breath. Dan quickly looked behind him and noticed two terrorists in coach were both standing in the aisle. He turned and looked forward. The curtain was open and he could see there were two more terrorists standing in the first class aisle, each one holding tightly on to a seat.

            “Why? What’s wrong? What’s going to happen?” Lisa’s words shot out like machine gun fire.

            Dan looked at Lisa. Her face was scratched with terror. Her cheeks were pasty white, and her eyes screamed the truth of what she knew in her heart. Behind those eyes there was a rapid display of images and memories. There was a spooky blankness to her eyes, they looked like a window to a parading past.  They reminded him of funeral home eyes. Then she blinked and Dan took his cue. “We’re going to crash, I think we’re going to crash! These terrorists are going to try and bring down the World Trade Center.”

            “Oh my God!” Lisa screamed. Other passengers turned and looked at her, but most had retreated into some internal world of their own where they sat quietly with their personal thoughts.  Lisa began crying and tears poured from her eyes in a way he had never seen before in a person. They were not single tears but more of a tiny stream of grief that flowed down her cheeks. “Please, you must be wrong! We can’t be, we just can’t be.”

            She leaned into Dan and he held her, but looked over her shoulder and out the window. Lisa’s whole body shook as she sobbed. The buildings rapidly grew larger and closer.  The jet engines were straining, going full throttle. The entire jet shook as if they had just encountered violent turbulence. The plane banked slightly, but did not level off.  Dan looked out the window, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to close his eyes tightly, hold Lisa as close as he could and brace for the enormous impact he knew was seconds away. Lisa continued sobbing, and he heard others doing the same. Tears moistened his own eyes though he tried to push them back. Facing death with tears seemed both natural and wrong at the same time. Every thought was jumbled and mixed up. Someone was screaming into a phone, saying ‘I love you so very much.’ Some were whispering prayers. A person yelled, ‘oh my God!’  He held her close and tight. He could suddenly see one of the World Trade Center Towers, he wasn’t sure which one. In seconds, it grew huge, sprouting like it had come out of nowhere, dwarfing everything around. The roar was now deafening. Sunlight glistened off the windows in spots of blinding reflections. Many offices were lit, but a few stilled looked quiet and dark, waiting for their occupants to arrive.

            Then instantly it was there. The north tower filled the window. He noticed people going about their normal office routine, sitting at desks, walking around cubicles. In the span of less than a second, his line of vision changed from seeing a large section of the tower to seeing only a few floors. Suddenly, time seemed to slow. His mind took crisp and clear snapshots of images inside the windows. He saw two women standing by the window a few floors up, staring, one covering her mouth in shock. A few sat at their desk in the glow of a computer screen, some talked on phones, others stood conversing with co-workers, or were walking, totally unaware of what was going to occur. In an instant, Dan thought it odd how such things happened, catching people off guard, suddenly destroying life’s routine.

            And then it hit with a deafening blast.

            The sound blew into his ears with a crushing deafness, and then he heard nothing, but could sense the vibrations of the impact. Metal scraping metal, glass shattering, and a roar that would drown out the sound of a train locomotive or approaching tornado. Everything happened in an instant, yet flowed by totally unattached to the clock. Perception was warped and time had ceased to be a tool of measurement. The last second of his life slowed, and suddenly the noise had dissolved into a background whisper that his brain did not seem to register.

            He felt the jarring as the wings ripped off. In an instant a shadow darkened the cabin as the still intact fuselage torpedoed into the tower going over six hundred miles per hour. He saw cubicle dividers explode and be swept away. Papers, chairs, desks all became airborne, and in the mixture of items, he could see people suddenly plucked from their innocent postures and flung about like weightless feathers. Many stood still, in shock over what was happening. Dan saw one woman running in the opposite direction. A man was following close behind. It was so very odd some of the detail his mind could pick out from the blurry, compact and explosive mass. The man who was running was nearly bald. He wore gray pants and a blue shirt. His red tie was swept over his shoulder and waved in the air. In an instant, the explosion consumed him.

            A blinding light filled the cabin, accompanied by the ripping, deafening roar of the explosion. At that moment it seemed everything began to short out. His hearing was gone. The jet bounced and rocked violently. He no longer heard the piercing music of people screaming all around him. The fuselage began to disintegrate like pieces of paper mache’ being struck by a baseball bat. The blinding orange light from the fireball stormed into the cabin, followed by an intense, searing heat.

            The explosion ripped the passengers violently from their seats and flung them forward like weightless objects, smashing through whatever obstacle was in their path. All of the seats were yanked from the floor and went crashing forward. The overhead compartments shattered, flinging debris into the cabin. The intense heat and fire devoured many in an instant, melting everything it touched or approached.

            In the cockpit, Atta held tightly onto the controls. He watched the approaching tower with a soul deep intensity. When the nose of the jet hit the glass side, the wall immediately disintegrated. The jet’s windshield shattered and sprayed Atta with tiny glass shards that cut his face and ripped into his body as he was tossed forward. The nose of the jet collapsed and the fuselage crumpled from the impact. His bloody face smashed into the control panel and in an instant, obliterating his features in a spray of shredded flesh and blood. He let out a loud groan as the impact squeezed the air from his chest. A woman was standing by her desk and holding a cup of coffee when she suddenly looked up at the crashing sound. In a blink the nose of a Boeing 767 smashed into her at over 600 miles an hour. In less than a second, forty-five people on the 90th floor vanished as the huge fireball devoured the entire acre of office space.

            On the impact side of the tower, there was a huge fireball and thick gray plume of smoke. Out of the opposite side of the building, a similar explosion followed. Office contents, papers, desk chairs, tables, desks, lamps, file cabinets, ceiling tiles, and window glass rained down to the street. The lighter debris caught the gentle air currents of the early, sunny morning, sprouted wings and floated gracefully toward the street, raining down on New York like an enormous ticker tape parade. Speeding past the flying mass of spreadsheets, reports and file folders, a man with arms flailing and legs kicking fell rapidly to the street below. A woman on the thirty-ninth floor was standing by the window, trying to steady herself against the trembling building, as Robert Murphy fell screaming to his death. She dropped her coffee and let out an ear piercing scream. Heads bobbed up behind cubicle walls as if they were all balanced on giant springs that were suddenly released.   

            The time was 8:48.46 a.m.

            The explosion from the jet fuel blew out every window on several floors above and below the point of impact. The stairwells, surrounded only by drywall, disintegrated into a mass of rubble that coated the steps, making the exit impassable. Smoke filled the office space, then in a blink, the remaining office contents immediately burst into flames, fed by remaining jet fuel.

            Dan held tightly onto Lisa. Huddled together, alone with their thoughts, with snapshot images that rapidly paraded through their minds, they crashed into the seats in front of them, sliding forward with the speed and force of a giant piston. A single, large tear spun away from Lisa’s cheek and landed on Dan’s lip. He tasted its saltiness, thought of his beautiful wife, and then the two of them were devoured by the crash and the fire.

They felt nothing, except for two seconds of fear, a brief deafening sound, and the bee sting of the impact that lasted far too short a time to register as pain. And then they felt peace, they heard the whispers of bliss, and as their bodies were torn apart by the enormous forces of the impact and explosion, they were no longer there to sense anything of this world.

            Floors collapsed with a thunderous noise, crushing office workers while they sat at their desks, reading newspapers, filing papers or talking on the phone. They heard only a loud thud before the explosion erased their world.

            United Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 92 people onboard, 92 souls with countless memories and many loved ones left behind, was gone forever. On the west coast in Los Angeles, people expecting visitors from Flight 11 were shutting off alarm clocks, or having their first cup of coffee, eating breakfast, or taking their morning shower, each one of them thinking about the reunion they would enjoy at the airport.  

 

 

 

World Trade Center, North Tower, 101st Floor

 

            On the 101st floor, nearly all of Cohen Electronics twenty-eight employees had arrived. Three people had called in ill, and five others were taking vacation time. One person was to attend his mother’s funeral that morning and stayed home.

            Angela watched as the huge 767 raced straight for the World Trade Center. The jet banked slightly as it turned toward the tower. Her screaming immediately caught everyone’s attention. People stood up and peered over their cubicle walls, several stepped out from behind their cubicles into the aisle, looking toward Angela for a hint of what was wrong. No one needed an explanation. They could all see the jet coming straight for the tower. Both Angela and Vicky began slowly backing up from the window. Vicky covered her mouth and held her breath. 

            It approached the tower with what seemed to be the swiftness of lightning. Every second it grew larger in the window. Distant one second, and huge the next. The other office workers raced toward the two women. Some simply stood behind their tiny, cubicle walls, hopelessly wondering if they would offer even the smallest safety from an impact. As the jet nearly filled the entire view out the window, Bill Freeman, whose office faced the approaching 767, thought he saw a single pilot in the cockpit. In the split second of that visual encounter, his brain took a haunting snapshot. In the time it took to blink, the jet had disappeared.

            There was a huge THUDDDDDDDDD, the size of sound everyone recognized as not good.  The entire floor shook. The explosion shattered the windows and sprayed shards of glass across the office. Suddenly walking or standing was like being on the deck of a ship during a violent storm. And then everyone felt it, the swaying of the tower. It was not a back and forth sway, the gentle kind so often felt on extremely windy days. It was a rapid tilt that touched every nerve and rubbed it raw. Many stood still and held their breath as they felt the tower continue to move. People curled their toes in an instinctive, vain attempt to grip the floor.

            “It’s tipping over!” Vicky screamed. She wrapped her arms around herself and braced for the inevitable. 

            “It can’t! It can’t!” Angela yelled, feeling slightly dizzy from the movement.

            No one moved, they simply stood still and went along for the ride. Their minds conjured up cartoon-like images of a slight movement that would topple over the 110 story building. Seconds slipped by like sluggish minutes do when you stare at your watch. Finally, the swaying slowed, giving way to a vibration.

            The jet exploded and sent shock waves through every corner of the building. A huge, orange fireball erased the panoramic view of New York City. There was a roaring SWOOOSH sound followed by a billowing cloud of smoke and dust. Papers fluttered in the wind like injured birds that would fall to their death. As the office workers stared, they could recognize some objects. Aside from the waterfall of paper, Bill saw a stapler shoot through the air. Jim stared with disbelief as a dented, black file cabinet shot past the window, and Angela saw a desk and chair shoot into the air. She couldn’t be certain, but it did appear as if someone was still sitting in the leather desk chair.

            “Oh my God! What the hell has happened?” Ed Cohen shouted, as he walked out from his office. The floor was littered with objects, that only a few seconds before, had sat on desks.

            “A jet, a jet crashed right into the tower!” Vicky said. She was crying now, and the sobbing made her speech shaky and stop and go.

            “A jet? You have to be kidding?” Cohen responded. But he knew she wasn’t kidding. 

            The swaying had stopped, but the sensation of having felt it still teased the nerves that tried to verify it was no longer present.

            The entire office fell silent for a brief moment as everyone contemplated what had just happened. Cohen was the first to break the brief silence.

            “We need to assess the damage, determine exactly what is going on.” He looked around the large, open office. Every eye was watching him. “George, Nick, and umm….” Cohen turned his head and scanned every face. “David, why don’t you check out the stair wells, call security, and let’s stay calm and first find out what our situation is before we panic.”

            The three men left for the stairwell. Nick told the other two he would call security.

            The North Tower continued to bleed thick smoke from its wound. Small groups of the office staff gathered and talked about what had just happened, recalling their fear, what they had seen or felt, and above all, the unbelievability of it. Some returned to their desks and made phone calls, amazed the phone lines still worked. There was an odd mixture of urgency, panic and calmness that was about to be eroded away. Cohen walked over and stood by the window. Debris still floated in the sky as thick, choking grayish brown smoke bellowed out of the building.

            “I had a hard time getting through to security,” Nick said as he rejoined the gathering. “They’re still assessing the damage and what’s going on. They said to sit tight for now and keep them informed of any problems we encounter.”

            “Thanks Nick,” Cohen told him.

            “I smell smoke!” Angela said loudly. As if on command, everyone started sniffing the air.

            “I smell it too,” Vicky added.

            “So do I,” Jim and Bill both said in unison. Others nodded in agreement.

            “Got problems!”  George said as he returned from the stairwell, David following on his heels, both walking quickly. “The stairwell is filling with smoke, and it’s thick. It’s also hotter the lower you go. We couldn’t go more than a flight and a half down.”

            “There’s one helluva fire,” David added, obviously winded from the stairs and short, brisk walk.

            Everyone started talking again.

            “What are we going to do?” one woman shouted. It was Clara from the accounting department. Normally very calm and quiet, she looked too tightly wound and ready to burst if anyone did so much as poke her in the ribs.

            Cohen turned around and stepped away from the broken window. He looked toward the area of the stairwells and noticed that thick smoke was now finding its way to their floor. “It looks like we better come up with a plan, and soon. Nick, call security back, tell them our situation and find out what they would advise we do. And hurry!”

            Nick ran to his office to make the call.

            “That smoke is getting thicker,” Jim began. “If we can’t go down, and I assume we can’t because of fire, we’ll need to go up.”

            “And how will that help?” Leslie asked.

            “It’s better than frying,” Jim shot back. “Besides, we can get up on the roof and hopefully a helicopter can rescue us.”

            “Let’s wait and find out what Nick finds out from security,” Cohen suggested. He noticed the thickening smoke that was creeping up the stairwell. “Is that door closed?” he asked, referring to the stairwell.

            “It’s closed,” George told him. “But the smoke is pretty thick. It’s probably also coming up the air vents.”

            Conversation groups had split up as everyone paced the floor, looked out the window, went for coffee or a soft drink, or simply stood quietly. Only a few people were saying anything. Wind blew into the numerous windows, stirring papers and blowing them onto the floor. The air was quickly becoming chilled. 

            Tom Glenn was standing alone by the window, envious of the beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the low seventies, and here he was trapped high above the streets of New York with no apparent way out. It didn’t look good. He stared out a window that was still intact; grateful for a quiet moment alone that he knew would not last long. Tom reflected on his life, shocked by the calmness he felt as he faced certain, or maybe just probable death. Giving up so quickly was not his trait. Maybe there was something to faith that couldn’t be measured, quantified or fully proven. That’s why it was faith. As he stood there staring out the window, he felt a giant hand of calmness wrap around him. He stood silently, arms folded across his chest, when he noticed a thin, jet trail. Against the backdrop of blue, it was difficult to see anything flying. He leaned closer to the window to cut out the glare, squinted his eyes and stared into the distance. Among the clear skies, he noticed the metallic sheen of a jet. He stared at it for the longest time. It was a distraction from his increasingly morbid thoughts. The plane grew larger and closer. It was flying too low.

            “Does anyone have a radio?” Tom yelled suddenly, still staring at the jet. It was 8:59.

            “We’re hunting for one now,” Bill yelled back.

            Tom continued staring and was soon joined by others from the office. Jim stood beside him looking through the wisps of smoke and the growing haze that was encircling the building. “What are you looking at?” Jim finally asked.

            “A jet. Over there,” he said pointing.

            Jim held a hand over his eyes and peered out the window. “Oh, I see it. Looks like it’s coming,” he paused. “right for us!”

            “You don’t suppose…..” Tom began.

            “Yes, it is. Hey Bill, did you find a radio yet?” Jim yelled

            “Yeah, there was one on Hugh’s desk,” Bill shouted back from across the office. Bill turned up the volume, leaving the radio plugged in on the desk. Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen to the emergency broadcast. In less than a minute, their worst fears were confirmed.

            The smoke was growing thick, looking like a morning fog in the office. By now, it was covering the nearly acre of office space, and getting thicker.

            “We need to get off this floor,” Cohen said firmly as he walked up to the group now crowded around the radio.”

            “There’s another jet coming this way too. Look!” Tom said. He walked closer to the window, with everyone following.

            “This is amazing. That’s not the right word. Right now, I don’t know what is,” Cohen said. “I never would’ve thought of using planes as weapons.” He shook his head as he stared at the jet. It was close enough to see windows. It was 9:02. By now, the curtain of smoke was thicker and no longer transparent. People were beginning to cough and hack.

            “I just quit smoking two weeks ago,” Martin Cain said. He coughed again, and by now, his eyes were beginning to sting. “I really wish I had a cigarette.”

            “Let’s get off this floor, and now” Cohen ordered. His eyes were watering now.

            “Look!” Bill yelled, his arm outstretched and his finger pointing to the window. They all turned and looked as the huge 767 jet came up on the south tower. It banked sharply and turned toward the tower, then disappeared behind it. There were screams as the jet crashed into the South Tower. An enormous fireball erupted, spraying the air with more office debris. Bill thought he saw one or two people falling in the midst of the smoke, flames and mass of office confetti.

            “Oh my God! What is happening?” Tom yelled as everyone crowded around the windows, staring at the huge plumes of smoke erupting from the tower. More debris continued to flutter to the ground. While they watched, their office continued to fill with thickening smoke. They were all thinking the same thought; two jets implied maybe three, or even four. They were a city under siege, and there was no telling what would come out of the skies next.

            “We need to evacuate this floor,” Cohen said urgently. “The smoke is getting too thick. Are the phones still working?” More and more people were coughing and hacking.

            “I can’t reach security. The line’s been busy,” Tom said in rapid speech.

            “Keep trying,” Cohen answered. “Now, let’s get everyone together in the center area. Bill, why don’t you and a couple others go upstairs and see what’s going on up there. And hurry. We need to move quickly.” He coughed, and felt the slight sting of smoke in his eyes. It was growing hazy like a crowded bar on band night.

            Bill grabbed a couple of other men, Hugh Lawrence and Pete Murray and rushed to the stairwell. As soon as he opened the door, smoke poured into the office like thick cotton that could be picked apart. “I need a towel or something!” he shouted. Hugh Lawrence ran to the janitor’s closet, running like a tight end racing for the winning touchdown. He was fifty-one, fully gray and slightly balding in the back, but he ran like a twenty year old. For his five-eleven frame, he was carrying an extra forty pounds, and was noticing it now, but he kept running, ignoring the pain in his legs and the ache in his lungs. Hugh opened the closet door and quickly rummaged through the contents. He tossed out mop heads, pushed aside rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, allowing them to spill onto the floor. He found nothing except tiny cleaning rags the size of a washcloth. He grabbed a handful and ran back toward the stairwell.

            “This is all I could find,” he said, out of breath and puffing hard. He held out the handful of rags.

            Bill took the rags and looked at them. “I guess this will have to do. Go soak these in some water, and hurry.”

He handed them back to Hugh, who ran to the break area, placed them under a full stream of cold water and returned, water dripping from his hands. “Here you go.”

            Bill took the rags, handed one to each of the other two men, and motioned for them to follow him. He walked quickly into the plume of smoke and disappeared. The other two men followed, covering their faces and trying to see through the stinging, blinding smoke. Bill found the steps and began hurrying up to the next floor, holding on blindly to the rail. On each floor, Bill pushed open the door to frightened faces. He noticed most people were huddled near the long, tall, narrow windows.

            “How are you folks doing?” he asked as he stepped onto the 105th floor. His eyes were burning fiercely now, and he was coughing.

            “It’s not good.” a man said. He looked to be about forty. Maybe late thirties. Bill couldn’t tell with all the fear scratched onto his face. “We’ve broken open some windows for air. We’ve seen some jumpers from the lower floors. Man, it must be hot for people to jump like that. The fire is moving this way.”

            Bill studied the man’s face. Pete and Hugh stood behind him. “We better keep going up. I don’t think we can go down, not with several floors on fire. I’m sure that jet fuel is burning like a mother.” Bill turned, opened the stairwell door, and the three men covered their faces and climbed higher. As each took another step higher, they wondered what was going to happen next. Were firemen on their way up? Would it make a difference? Would they even arrive in time? One by one, they each began to wonder if the tower would even remain standing.

            The 911 desk was under a barrage of phone calls. The lines were overloaded, and operators could only imagine the horror that was occurring.

            9:09.21 A male called and stated that at the South tower, people are jumping out the side of a large hole, and no one is catching them.

            9.0943 Caller from the 104th floor of the South tower, all stairs are blocked.

            9.10.22 South tower, stuck elevator on floor 104. People trapped and yelling from

inside.

            9.12.18 Male caller states that there are about 100 people on the 106th floor. Requests instructions on how to stay alive.

            9.15.34 Observers noticed several jumpers from the windows of the North Tower.

            Bill, Hugh and Pete returned to their floor and quickly began leading people up to higher floors, which provided only a marginally better situation. Only about twenty made it before the smoke in the stairwell became too choked with smoke.

            9:17.39 A male caller states the stairs on the 105th floor have collapsed.

            9.19.58 Evacuation to top floor of the North Tower begins.

            The top floor of the North Tower was crowded with people. Each of them reeked of smoke that was quickly filling the entire floor. People sat, rubbing their eyes, crying, holding onto a bottle of water or soft drink, and sitting against the wall in shock. A small number kept running around the acre sized office floor desperately trying to find a way out. But 110 floors is a long way to safety. No one remained near the elevators. Listening to the cries and screams of people trapped became too much to bear.

            9.22.23 Male caller states he is on floor 84 of the south tower. Says he cannot breathe when suddenly the call is disconnected.

            9.32.14 South Tower, people gain access to roof, hoping to be picked up by a helicopter.

            Cohen and his remaining office crew huddle near broken windows, trying desperately to breathe fresh air. The floor is rapidly filling with smoke and growing hotter, as the flames crept closer and closer.

            “It must be over a hundred in here,” Cohen says, wiping his forehead.

            “At least,” Bill replies. “Think we’ll get,” he stopped and coughed, trying to clear his lungs. “Think we’ll get out of here?”

            “Doubt that,” Tom answers quietly. He wipes the sweat from his face using his shirttail. “I hate this. I hate dying like this.”

            “I wish I could tell you that you were wrong, but I can’t,” Bill replies.

            Angela and Vicky remain huddled together near a window crying quietly. Angela continues staring at the other tower, looking for signs that a rescue might be taking place somewhere, one that would be repeated for them, but nothing happens except for a raging fire and thick, billowing smoke.

            “Oh my God!” Angela yells. “Look! It’s falling over!” She screamed louder than she had ever heard herself, and many others joined her.

            “Oh God!” Bill yells. Everyone on the floor turns and stares out the window. They watch as the top few floors break away in unison as a single block and begin to crumble and fall over. As the top of the tower tips and begins to fall, the floors beneath it collapse, and suddenly there is a huge plume of brown, gray smoke and dust ejected into the air. They stare in shock as the South Tower collapses almost perfectly, one floor pancaking on top of another, leaving a thick cloud of dust where the tower once stood. .

            10.12.35 A male caller from floor 105 states he can barely breath.

            “We’re going to die!” a woman screamed. The top floor of the north tower filled with sobbing, crying and very little conversation. 

            “I never thought something like this would happen,” Bill said in a low, defeated voice. He leaned toward the broken window and took in a deep breath of air. It Stunk and still smelled like smoke. He coughed as the air filled his lungs.

“It’s amazing,” Ed told him. He repositioned himself on the floor, moving away from shards of glass. “I should’ve lived life differently after my wife and daughter died. I’ve wasted so much time.” The words sounded out of place and foreign. “I should have enjoyed my life,” he added in a sigh.

“We never know how to really live life until most of life is gone,” Bill told him. “I suppose I should react differently to all this.” He looked around at a room filled with heartbreak. People were on the phone, tears rolling down their reddened cheeks, frantically trying to reach loved ones, talking to their spouses, parents or children, some were still calling 911, screaming into the phone, desperately looking for an escape. Bill had given up. He had seen a couple of people falling past the windows, and it was a sight that was tattooed on his brain, a moving image he kept replaying no matter how hard he tried to stop it.

            “We never act like today is the last day,” Tom said with resignation. “There’s always tomorrow, always tomorrow. Everything will get done tomorrow. We don’t say I love you because of tomorrow. We don’t take time to smell the roses, because of tomorrow. And then suddenly, today, this moment, and maybe a few minutes more is all we have left, and tomorrow is no more than a dream that will never come true.” He hacked and coughed, feeling the smoke burning deeper into his lungs. The air was getting worse and the heat was growing unbearable.

            “So true, so true,” Bill agreed. “People will never learn to cherish life, will they?”

            Tom nodded in agreement. He was tired of talking. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts.

            Angela walked over, pushed aside some glass with her foot, and sat down. “I wonder if my husband is down there,” she said, looking out the window at the mass of fire and police vehicles. Her husband was a fireman, and from the looks of the scene, every fire station in the city had responded.

            “Did you get a hold of anyone?” Bill asked her.

            “I tried. Kids are in school. My mom’s not home, and can you believe it, I can’t remember the number to the fire station! My mind just won’t work right, and I have to pee every few minutes.”

            “Fear, anxiety. It increases blood flow to the kidneys. They work overtime,” Bill explained, wondering why he was bothering.

At that moment, her husband was racing up the stairs with scores of other fire and police officials. He was on the forty-fifth floor, knowing that Angie was many more flights up.

            “I talked to my wife,” Bill said, his voice nearly flat and void of feeling. He was too stunned to feel anymore. “I told her I’d try to get out and not to worry. I don’t want her last memories of my voice to be panic.”  

            “I’ll bet that was difficult,” Ed told him. He wiped his eyes and stared out the window at the column of smoke and dust that was slowly blowing away. There was once a 110 story tower outside that window, and now nothing but a memory stood there. It was almost impossible to comprehend. He checked his watch. It read 10:25. The second hand was sweeping past 6, and he stared at it a moment, feeling that every second was more precious than he had ever imagined. Why did this have to happen for him to value life so much? He suddenly realized how worthless money truly was.

            There was a loud rumble coming from the floors below. It violently vibrated the floor beneath them. The building shook slightly. As a floor collapsed, it weakened the structure even more. The sides of the tower were similar to an exoskeleton; it held the building up. The floors that were attached to it transferred the weight to the outer skin of the tower. As each floor collapsed, the sides weakened and began to bow outward. The raging fire in the floors below reached over a thousand degrees. The steel began to sag, the rivets weakened and one by one, they failed. Parts of the lower floors began to buckle.

            Elevators swayed suddenly, and trapped occupants screamed, banging on the doors begging for help that was not there. Some trapped in higher elevators had already succumbed to the fire and smoke. 

            “What’s that noise? What is it?” Angela yelled. She sat up and began coughing. Sweat poured down her shiny face.

            “The fire,” Ed replied. “Try to sit back and breathe slowly,” he told her. He knew, the building would not last much longer. Watching the south tower collapse, even though it was hit second, foretold their fate. He was sure of it. The thought gave him an inkling of what it must be like to sit on death row. Only here there were no appeals.

            There was a loud crashing sound and a huge plume of thick, grayish smoke bellowed up forcefully from the stairwell. Everyone leaned into a window and sucked in what little fresh air they could. The floor beneath them shook and vibrated slightly as lower floors began to fail. The screaming continued in short bursts, following by quiet sobbing.

            One man, not from Cohen’s office, got up and walked over to a desk and grabbed a large leather chair. He wheeled it closer to the window; picked it up with strength only a dying man can possess, and tossed it through the tall, narrow plate of tinted glass. The window shattered and the chair disappeared as it fell to the ground.  Everyone turned and looked. The man calmly walked over to the window, kicked away the larger shards of pointed glass at the window base, and calmly jumped.

            “Oh my God!”

            Several women screamed and the sound was piercing.

            “Damn it’s getting hot in here,” Tom commented, trying to ignore what had just happened. Beads of sweated covered his face. His shirt was soaked. “It must be a hundred-twenty in here.”

            “Reminds me a little of Phoenix,” Bill answered. The temperature was rising quickly. There were more rumblings from the floors below, only louder this time. The building felt as though it had moved slightly. Everyone looked around, studying the fear in each other’s face. They were eyes of terror, resignation and sadness. They were eyes that had given up hope and were merely waiting for the inevitable. It amazed Bill how death could be faced so calmly, almost peacefully. He never would have thought it. Only a few continued fighting the inevitable.

            There was another loud rumbling and this time the screams on the lower floor rose like thick and choking smoke. The floor shook violently. Pencil holders and other small items danced across desks. A lamp fell to the floor, its sound barely noticed. The tower shook and trembled, and loud THUDDDDS filled the air. The noise rose up and became a loud and thunderous roar that filled everyone’s hearing.

            Suddenly it felt like sitting in a huge elevator whose cable had just broken. There was a brief moment of weightlessness as the floor beneath them collapsed. It buckled unevenly, first one side buckled, the center followed and then the entire floor gave way. Almost in unison, everyone threw up their arms like they were roller coaster riders racing over a sudden drop. Nothing but piercing screams filled the air.

            Bill glanced over at Ed Cohen and saw a look of peace on his face. He knew he was going to meet his beloved wife and daughter whom he had ached for all these years. The floor dropped several feet, nearly two stories before slamming hard into something. Furniture that had become briefly airborne came crashing to the floor. And then, that feeling of weightlessness again. Glass shattered. Desks and office furniture moved about as if everything had suddenly sprouted legs and was running for safety. Loud crashes from below drowned out every other sound. Suddenly there was a horrible feeling of falling as the lower floors finally gave way and collapsed. Bill grabbed onto the window blinds to keep from sliding across the buckling floor, but they immediately gave way and fell on top of him. Ed Cohen simply let the crumbling floor toss him about. His expression never changed, and the last time Bill saw him, he was sure Ed was smiling, even if just a little. Tom rolled away into a blast of smoke and disappeared. Orange flames erupted, shooting up through the broken floor before retreating briefly, then reappearing even stronger. In the rapid span of a second, the heat grew unbearable, and what didn’t immediately catch fire began to melt. The screams were snuffed out as smoke and fire enveloped the top, collapsing floors.

            The crumbled 110th floor began falling, riding a wave on top of the other floors beneath it. Every time the sandwich of collapsed floors fell onto another floor, there was a backbone, jarring thud before the next floor gave way, and it continued like that, one floor collapsing onto another. Each jarring thud came in rapid fire succession, and for those still conscious, it sounded similar to a machine gun going off, only a little slower. The noise was deafening, and those who were still alive, could not even hear their own thoughts as the tower continued its rapid collapse.

            At 10.29.42 all calls from the north tower were disconnected. 595 souls left for home, leaving the earth in a flood of tears and sorrow that only their loved ones could truly comprehend, and many could not even do that.

            And somewhere in the collapse, Angela met her husband.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fish Dinner

 

            School children and parents were often unaware of the cruelty of their ways, or the anger they made simmer in a young child because of their teasing or lack of parenting skills. The old saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ is perhaps the biggest lie a child is ever taught in kindergarten. The pain from stick and stones fades quickly and rarely leaves scars. But words echo in the mind for a lifetime until the scourge of Alzheimer’s or another dementia finally erases them from the past.

            Words hurt Donny Baker. The school kids called him Dumb Donny because he wore glasses and needed braces. He looked nerdy as a young child, and when adolescence finally began sculpting a man’s body from a child’s, the look didn’t really go away so much as solidify into an adult nerdy look. His parents couldn’t afford braces, and the large, front crooked teeth remained that way. The biggest challenge they presented, aside from social settings and getting dates, was eating sweet corn, and Donny learned to hate sweet corn, even the Green Giant brand from the can that was off the cob. Corn only reminded him of his looks and all the teasing he endured. He refused to even touch corn bread or corn tortillas. He held a hatred for anything that reminded him of his appearance and all the cruel teasing.

            Home was not the sanctuary from teasing. His parents weren’t much better than the kids at school. His father was never home; he was either working at the factory, at the bar after work, or chasing whatever female that would pay attention to him and the drinks he paid for. His mother simply stayed home, drank and watched game shows. It was a blessing they never had a second child. Donny figured it was his fault. Who would want a second child when their first turned out to be such a failure?

            When he graduated high school, Donny went to trade school for a while to learn to be an auto mechanic. His dad thought it was a stupid idea and would remind his son what a failure he was putting Legos together. How could he assemble anything mechanical? Donny dropped out and got a job at Pete’s Pets near Kissimmee, south of Orlando. It was there he found comfort in animals that loved him unconditionally, animals that never insulted him, or hit him, or teased him about his looks. Giving back love still remained a problem, so he stayed away from anything he could hold and cuddle, and raised fish.

            His parents died young, the result of abusing their bodies with cigarettes and alcohol. When Donny was thirty-two, he had buried both parents, his mother last, sold their very modest home, auctioned off their belongings, and took the money and bought his own place a few miles outside of the small town of St. Cloud. He didn’t want neighbors nearby, they only snooped and talked about you, and made too much noise when a person wanted quiet.

He dug a huge pond in the backyard by hand, seventy feet wide and over 8 feet deep by the short dock. The task took three months, most of it working in the thick, humid summer heat; but each shovel full of dirt, every droplet of sweat was fueled by years of hurt and anger. The digging felt good, and when he was finished, he leaned against the shovel and beamed with pride at the finished hole. The edges were steep with no shore line, and on the house side where the dock would go, it was eight feet deep. The shallow end would be five feet deep.

            The pond took days to fill with the hose. He added filtration equipment and a heating system for the winter months, using some of the money he inherited, and then began adding Piranhas he raised in aquariums in his home. Donny studied everything he could find about the fish, and after a while, considered himself an expert. He studied about all the animals that were sold at Pete’s Pets, and customers looked up to him as if he was a pet genius of sorts.

            Piranhas had a bad and undeserved reputation, and for that reason, Donny could identify with them. Often portrayed as fish that hunt in huge schools that will strip a carcass down to the bone, they were often shy fish that preferred to hunt for food alone. One fact was true; they had razor sharp teeth designed to chomp off pieces of flesh in a single bite to be swallowed whole.

            In the house, he had numerous aquariums for raising Piranhas. He quickly found they did better in small numbers unless the aquarium was large with sufficient hiding places. They became cannibalistic in larger numbers. On more than one occasion, a tank housing four would suddenly have three, with no trace whatsoever of the fourth, missing fish. 

            Piranhas are not the king of their jungle. They are hunted by larger fish, river dolphins, crocodile or caiman, river turtles and otters. While usually quiet and aloof in the Amazon River and its tributaries, the locals can recall endless and true stories of horses, donkeys and men devoured within minutes after wandering into a hungry school of fish. The red, churning water of such an event was an image no witness could ever forget. 

            Because of Donny’s love of the Piranha, and his desire to study them as close as possible, nearly every finger bore a scar, some more than one.  The tips of his left index and middle finger, and the tips of his right index finger were missing. He thought the look simply went along well with the thin, black hair, buckteeth, an overbite and big ears.

            Pete Skinner owned Pete’s Pets. He was forty-nine and recently divorced from a woman who decided she had had enough of his obsession with anything that walked, jumped, slithered or swam. She wanted a normal life and a normal house that wasn’t shared with ‘critters’ as she called them. She was sick and tired of finding frozen brine shrimp and other delicacies in the refrigerator, so she filed for divorce, took fifty percent of what they had, and moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to family.

Pete was stocky from eating too much and moving too little. A few beers every evening also helped the waistline grow over the years. He was a decent boss who treated Donny well. In many ways, he felt sorry for the younger man who didn’t seem to have a friend in the world. He kept to himself, never talked of going out with girls, but he treated the customers great, always willing to demonstrate his knowledge. In fact, Pete was certain that Donny knew more about the pets they sold than he did. He often invited Donny over for a simple dinner, but each time Donny turned him down. Still, he kept asking.

            “It’s been a slow day,” Pete said as he tidied up behind the counter. Pet stores were never known for excelling in cleanliness, especially the stand-alone types that weren’t inside a shopping center or mall.

            “It’s Monday,” Donny acknowledged. “It always gets better later in the week.” Donny was busy cleaning an aquarium that housed about a dozen South African tree frogs. They were colorful frogs, with bright reds and greens, and some he knew, were extremely poisonous if accidentally eaten.

            “Yeah, I suppose it does. I’ll be glad when tourist seasons swings into full gear.”

It was May, an awkward time for Florida. The snowbirds had gone north, and with school still in session, families and kids weren’t vacationing yet.

            “We’re doing okay,” Donny told him. He finished wiping the glass sides, and then replaced the lid over the aquarium. He tapped gently on the glass. “There you go little guys. All clean!” Donny smiled, grabbed the bucket and sponge and put them away in the back room.

            The front door opened and a bell chimed to announce a customer had entered.

            “Good afternoon!” Pete said with a wide grin. “How are you today?”

            “Oh, just fine, thank you,” the man said. He looked to be about Donny’s age.

            “What can I help you with, or would you prefer to look around? We don’t use high pressure tactics here. We sell little friends, not used cars.” He smiled again.

            “I’m looking for an interesting fish. My wife left me not too long ago, and I decided to get something she would never let me have.”

            “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, I mean your wife leaving you.”

            The man waved his comment away. “Don’t worry about it. She was a nagging bitch anyway.”

            The comment took Pete by surprise. What did a person say to that? “What kind of fish are you looking for?” Pete finally asked.

            “Something different and exotic,” the man answered, as he looked around the store.

            Donny returned from the back room after hearing the conversation. Any lead in to talk about Piranhas was welcomed. “Hello there,” he said beaming. He always smiled with his mouth closed, which was difficult to do with buckteeth. It took a lot of training in front of the bathroom mirror, but he had perfected it a long time ago. “Interested in Piranhas?”

            The man looked at Donny for a long time before answering. It was a stare of recognition. “Do I know you? You look familiar.”

            “Well, I’m not sure. How would you know me?” Donny suddenly felt uncomfortable. The conversation was moving toward social talk. He didn’t want to be known or recognized. He wanted to be left alone.

            “I don’t know for sure.” The man rubbed his chin briefly. “Where did you go to school?”

            “High school?”

            The man nodded. “Yeah, high school.”

            “In Orlando.” He stopped and studied the man’s face. He did look familiar.

            “Not at Cypress Creek High School?”

            “The one on Bear Crossing Road?” It was a stupid name for a road, and an even dumber response to a question.

            “Yeah, that’s the one. What year did you graduate?”

            “Eighty-nine,” Donny said slowly. Meeting anyone from his past was the same as thinking about it. He preferred the past stay dead and buried like his parents.

            “You’re kidding? Me too.” The man smiled, walked up to Donny and held out his hand. “I’m Scott Morris.” The two shook hands.

            “Glad to meet you. I’m Donny, this is Pete,” he said sheepishly, pointing to Pete Skinner.

            After Donny released his hand, Scott stepped back a little and looked at Donny. “Donny Baker, right?”

            “Yes, that’s right.” Donny wanted to run into the back room and hide. Scott was the high school’s star quarterback. He was a brains in class, good looking and dated half the cheerleaders. The two couldn’t be more opposite.

            “Donny Baker,” the man said, saying the name slowly. “Well, how have you been all these years? What’s it been, fifteen years now? I haven’t seen you at any reunions.”

            “I didn’t go to any. Guess I’ve been busy.”

            “Hey, we’ve got to get together and talk. Most people I knew from Cypress Creek have left the area. After fifteen years, people lose touch.”

            We were never in touch, you jock bastard, Donny thought. “We’ll have to do that. About that fish, do you like Piranhas?”

            “You know, I’ve always been intrigued by those fish. Man eaters!” he said with a chuckle.

            “They are amazing fish. Generally though, they have a bad reputation they don’t deserve. They mostly either stay to themselves, or in very small groups of less than twenty. In the wild they’re more likely to nibble on the fins or tail of a fish than to eat something whole.”

            “Really?” Scott began to look very interested. Suddenly Donny was the smart one who knew all the answers, and Scott was the stupid one. Stupid Scott. It had a nice ring to it.

            “Come over here and I’ll show you a few.” Donny lead Scott to a fifty-five gallon tank that housed two, large silvery Piranhas. “We have smaller ones too,” he added.

            Scott bent down and studied the fish. “What do they eat, besides fingers,” he said with a chuckle. There was something about that laugh that Donny hated. It reminded him of high school, but he couldn’t recall exactly why.

            “They do eat fingers, if you’re not careful.” He showed Scott his hand.

            “Wow, they did that?”

            “Both hands,” Donny added, holding up the other hand. “You really need to be careful. When these fish are hungry, they’ll eat each other.”

            “That’s really cool. What do you feed them?”

“Smaller fish, small pieces of meat, frozen brine shrimp, things like that. They’re really pretty easy to care for.”

            “Wow, they are cool looking. I’d love to have a few. Wouldn’t it be a blast to sit back, have a few beers and watch this thing devour some fish?”

            “It doesn’t usually happen like that. They’re shy. They usually eat when they know they aren’t being watched.”

            “Oh really?” Scott stood straight. “Bummer. But they are cool looking.”

            “Do you need a tank set up too?”

            “I’ll need everything,” Scott answered.

            “I have quite a collection of Piranhas at home. In fact, I have a small pond of them in the back yard.” He suddenly had an image flash through his mind, one of pushing Scott into a hungry school of Piranhas. He held back a wide grin, the kind that would bare his buckteeth.

            “You’re kidding? Wow, that would be a cool thing to see. Any neighbor cats ever fall in?” He chuckled again.

            “Ah, no, no they don’t.” There was that laugh again. It was beginning to poke at old memories. “Perhaps you’d like to stop by, see the pond, have a beer and talk about old times.”

            Pete found his opening and jumped in. “Why don’t you cut out early and show Scott your pond. I’m sure he’d find it very fascinating.” Donny needed friends, and here was an opportunity. Perhaps this Scott fellow knew of some single girls.

            Donny looked at Pete, and then checked his watch.

            “Oh, don’t worry about the time. You work hard. Cut out early and don’t worry about losing anything on your paycheck,” Pete told him.

            “Really? Well, first let’s see what Scott needs to buy.”

            Donny showed him all the equipment he might need. He ended up selling a fifty-five gallon aquarium, filtration system, heater, gravel, and other supplies for a total of four hundred twenty-two dollars. Scott was disappointed when he learned he’d need to set up the tank and get it stabilized before he could buy the fish.  Donny helped him load the purchase into his car, and then told him to follow him home. It was a fifteen-mile ride south, ‘to the middle of no where’, he told Scott.

            As Donny pulled into his dirt and gravel drive, a tiny cloud of dust erupted into the air. The old car bounced over ruts and came to a stop beside the back door. 

            Donny got out of his car carrying a small, paper bag. “The pond’s back here,” he said, and started walking towards the back yard. The yard was scrubby, not landscaped at all except for around the pond. Bushes bordered the pond, including a few Banana trees, a Hybiscus, and a couple of palm trees, but it was bare by the short, ten-foot dock.

            “Wow, this is cool. You have Piranhas in there?” Scott said as he walked closer to the edge of the pond. He stepped cautiously as if the water almost had the power to draw him in. “I don’t see anything.”

            “They’re in there. I planted lots of weeds and other plants to give them plenty of hiding places. I worry they’d start eating each other if the pond was nice and clear like a swimming pool.”

            “I guess that makes sense.” He stepped closer as Donny walked up behind him.

            Donny opened the paper bag and pulled out a large can of brine shrimp. “They love this stuff,” he said as he walked out onto the dock. Scott followed close behind.

            “Shouldn’t you have some railings or something? Don’t you ever worry about falling in?”

            “I’m careful,” he said. He opened the container, walked to the very edge of the dock and then got down on his knees. “I like to watch,” he said. He brought the container over the water and then turned it upside down. The contents fell into the water with a hundred tiny splashes. In seconds, the surface began churning, and it turned to boiling water as the hundreds of fish devoured the food. Within ten seconds, the food was gone and the water began to settle. Hundreds of tiny, circular waves expanded to the shoreline.

            “Wow! That was amazing! How many are in there?” Scott stepped back a little.

            “I’m not sure. There must be hundreds, perhaps a few thousand. I have no idea really. They breed on their own. I’m thinking of digging a bigger pond, but they are getting expensive to feed.”

            “What else do you feed them?”

            “Small fish, gold fish mostly. And sometimes, I toss a rat or mouse in. That’s always interesting to watch.” Donny replaced the lid on the container and put it back in the bag to throw away later. “Care for a beer?”

            “Sure. This hot sun calls for one.”

            “Come on inside. It’s air conditioned, but I’ll need to turn it on. I leave it off when I’m at work to save money. Electricity in Florida isn’t cheap.”

            “That’s for sure.”

            They went inside where Donny got them each a beer. After he turned on the air and closed the windows, they went into the small living room and sat down. The house was sparsely furnished, but was relatively clean and uncluttered. Scott walked around the room looking at all the aquariums in the house. “This must be food,” he said, stopping at a small tank that housed rats.

            “I raise my own. I have a few more in a spare room. I don’t like to keep them out here. In fact, I’m thinking of moving that tank into the other room.”

            Scott sat down and chugged on his beer. “Nice little place here.” 

            “I like it.” He took a long drink. They talked for a while, steering away from high school discussion, for now. Scott was a bank teller, a far cry from the success he enjoyed in high school and bragged he would be in life. He was twice divorced, had herpes, had been arrested once for domestic assault, which he claimed never happened. His wife was simply angry over an affair. The more Scott drank, the more Donny learned about his life. And like most jocks, Donny thought, he loved to talk about himself. It was almost a totally safe conversation. They finished several beers, and then Donny got out a half-full bottle of whiskey and they downed a few shots. Maybe it was the years of loneliness, the high school classmate that reminded him simpler times when he didn’t have to fend for himself, or just someone to talk to beside the fish. Donny almost enjoyed the conversation. Until Scott got too drunk to hold his tongue.

            “Didn’t people call you Dumb Donny?” Scott asked as he took another shot of whiskey. He was beginning to slur his words.

            “Ah, yeah, some did,” Donny answered.

            Scott laughed. “I remember now. You never went to a football game, did you? Too bad. You missed some great ball.”

            “No, I didn’t. I was never interested in sports, I guess. My dad never took me to a game. My mom was a drunk.”

            “That’s common,” Scott slurred. “Didn’t guys always snap the towel at your dick in the locker room?” He chuckled again. “They always did that if you had a tiny dick,” he added.

            Donny sat in the recliner holding the cold beer between his hands. “That wasn’t me. Perhaps someone else.” Being ugly was one thing, but no man ever admitted to having a tiny dick. He took a long sip of his beer, rested it between his legs, and then grabbed the beer and took another drink. Sitting still was getting to be difficult. “How about if we go outside and feed a rat to the fish? It’s dark now. They eat better in the dark. They feel safer.”

            “Hey, want to?” Scott stood up and almost fell over his own feet. “Gimme another beer. I don’t want to see this sober.” Donny didn’t think there was any chance of that happening. He grabbed another beer for Scott and they went outside. On the way out, he turned on the rear porch light that was aimed at the pond.

            As they stepped off the tiny, rear porch, a dim cone of light cut through the growing darkness. Crickets and bugs made their evening songs, and stars filled the sky. It was still in the mid seventies and a light breeze stirred the air. Donny walked onto the wooden dock, followed closely by a staggering Scott. The water looked black as ink.

            “How can you see anything? It’s pitch black.”

            “It needs to be dark for the best results. But you’ll see the water churn up, and the blood. Let me run in and get a rat.”

            “Hurry. I probably better be headin’ home soon.”

            Donny stepped around Scott on the narrow dock and ran into the house. A minute later, he returned with a paper bag and a flashlight. “I brought this for you,” he said, handing the flashlight to Scott.

            “Oh, thanks man. That will make it more fun.” He smiled as he looked at the flashlight.

            Donny carefully stepped around Scott and walked to the end of the dock. “Now don’t shine the light until I say so. Let them hear the splash first, and then when they start eating, go ahead and shine the light on them.”

            “Gotcha,” Scott said as he swayed on the dock.

            Donny opened the bag and reached inside. He grabbed hold of the small rat, pulled it out and bent down closer to the water. “Get ready,” he said. He extended his arm over the black, inky water. The rat squirmed and wiggled, but Donny held firm. He lowered his arm just slightly and then released it.

            There was a splash. The flashlight beam went on and Scott pointed it on the water. The little rat began swimming furiously, first in a circle, then away from the dock. Suddenly the water began to churn. The biting fish pulled on its legs, sending it partially under water. It had stopped swimming as all of its paws were being eaten. It squealed loudly, a piercing scream of sorts. Donny looked away briefly.

            “This is so cool,” Scott said, grinning.

            Donny didn’t think so, not really. It was nothing more than part of nature. How things worked. It was no worse than slaughtering cattle for a hamburger.

            The water churned violently, and in moments, the rat was pulled under. The water boiled rapidly, spraying droplets into the air. Then suddenly the churning slowed to only bubbles and tiny waves, and then nothing.

            “That’s it,” Donny said, grateful it was over.

            Scott continued shining the light. The beam moved across the water as he swayed in his drunken stupor. “‘Member that cheerleader I dated, Pat?”

            “I guess so,” Donny replied, barely recalling anything from high school at that moment.

            “Her name was Pat,” Scott slurred.

            “You said that.”

            “Someone didn’t like her and called her Pat the Rat. They wrote it on her locker.”

            “If you say so. That was a long time ago.”

            “I just ‘membered that someone said it was you. Is that true?”

            “Ah, that was a long time ago. I don’t even remember anyone named Pat.”

            “I think you do!” Scott pointed the light beam into Donny’s eyes. “You’re a fuckin’ liar!” He tossed the light aside and it fell into the pond with a splash and took a step closer to Donny, who was only standing a foot away from the end of the dock. “It was you, wasn’t it? You hated jocks, didn’t you? And cheerleaders too, you hated everyone, didn’t you? Now I remember!” He pushed Donny, but it was a half-hearted push. In his anger, he had forgotten where he was standing. The darkness erased all boundaries, no end to the dock, no black, cold, inky water on either side.

            “You’re drunk,” Donny said.

            “I’m right, aren’t I?” He shoved Donny again until Donny found himself on the very end of the dock.

            “Stop that!” Donny yelled. This was his house, goddamn it! He went to shove Scott, but Scott had raised his arms in preparation. They grabbed each other and struggled. Donny pulled Scott towards him, and then tried to push him away. Scott lost his balance and tried to regain it, but in his drunken state, he quickly over compensated. Scott teetered one way and Donny the other. Both of them waved their arms wildly, trying to regain their balance. In the darkness, it was impossible to see the dock beneath their feet.

            “Ahhhhhh!” Scott yelled, his arms flailing. “Ah, shit!” he screamed as he tumbled off the dock and into the cool, black water.

            “Dammit!” Donny yelled. He looked down at the solid black surface of the water as he felt his feet leave the dock’s surface. A second splash followed. Donny struggled to find the edge of the dock. The distant porch light only cast dark shadows across the pond, and the dock was nothing but a different shade of black. Despite knowing its depth, he still tried to find bottom. And then he felt it.

            There was a stinging like hot needles stabbing into his legs as the fish found flesh and began ripping through his clothes.

            “Ow! Goddamn it! Ouch, ah shit, that hurts! Damn it!” The frenzy started.

            Scott began swimming toward the dock, but in his drunken state and in the darkness, he actually swam away from it toward the pond’s center. He felt the tangle of weeds wrap around his legs which worsened as he panicked. Suddenly tiny razor blades dug into his skin.

            “Goddamn it you sonofabitch! Ouch, motherfuck!” Suddenly, like the answer to a dinner bell, every fish sensed food and hurried to the splashing. Using razor sharp teeth, they grabbed onto pieces of clothing, chewing rapidly through to skin. A Piranha will devour large pieces of flesh whole until it is bulging with a meal. The fish swarmed around each of them, and in seconds, an overcoat of hungry Piranhas covered their bodies. Some fish were themselves devoured in the frenzy.

            Scott tried grabbing the fish and slapping them away with his hands. When he brought a hand above water he saw the dark shadows of several Piranhas hanging on to fingers, to the fleshy portion of his palm, chewing and biting off bits of flesh and then dropping into the water to swallow them whole. The water was churning violently, looking like a full boil.

            As the fish chewed large holes in their clothing, they entered and begin to feast on the flesh. It was like falling into a pool of hot acid. Within seconds, some were gnawing on leg bone. Both men were screaming now, unable to curse or find any words to match their fear. Scott let out an ear-piercing scream when a swarm of fish found first one testicle and then the other. In a few quick bites, his penis and scrotum were devoured. He felt the blood flow from his brain, and if it had not been for the darkness, he would’ve seen stars.

            Donny waved his arms, trying to keep something above water, when one of them struck the dock. He grabbed hold and was suddenly aware that his hand was now missing three fingers and fish were biting and holding on to what flesh remained. He tried to grip the wooden plank, but there was no strength left in his hand. Burning needles of pain shot up his legs. He was feeling faint. The pain had found every single nerve ending lighting them all on fire. The hundreds of fish biting all at the same time were more than his brain could sort through and register. It simply felt as if every area of his body was enduring the maximum amount of pain it could possibly comprehend. Within seconds, he fell unconscious and slipped under the water.

            Scott continued screaming, but there were no neighbors to help, and help couldn’t be close enough to save his life. His shirt had been ripped to tiny threads. The fish had eaten away at his abdomen and begun entering the bloody cavity. He felt a pulling inside his gut as the fish tugged on his intestines. He tried to kick his legs in the water, but nothing moved in response. He couldn’t imagine that his legs had already been devoured, but they were gone, as the fish continued to chew away at the fleshy thighs that still remained. The water continued to boil and splash, and Scott kept trying to fight away the fish, but there were too many of them. As he slipped lower in the water, the fish attacked his face like a thousand tiny, red-hot ice picks. They began chewing on his nose and cheeks, finding his tongue and eyes and stabbing them with tiny needles. Scott tried to scream, but nothing came out except silence. He felt consciousness slip away quickly,

and in seconds his vision went black. He thought about high school, and his dying brain conjured up images of a much younger Donny, with tears in his eyes as the other jocks teased him, the times they pushed him around, snapped towels at him in the locker room, pushed his books out of his arms and laughed as papers went flying across the crowded hallway.

            It wasn’t funny now. It shouldn’t have been funny ever. As Scott fell unconscious, his last thought was, how was he going to explain all this in heaven when he met Pat? She had died two years ago in a drowning accident. She had been his first love, in many ways, his only love, the one every high school graduate never stops thinking about no matter what their age. Pat was the one who made him want to be a better person, but she rejected him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Scent of an Angel

 

            “Flight two forty-five for Houston now boarding.” The voice boomed through the hallway like a command to action.

            The people crowding the waiting area suddenly stood and began wrestling with their luggage, gathering up their newspapers and reaching inside pockets or purses for their tickets, and moving toward the rapidly growing line. A few type As, always in a hurry to stand and wait, were already in a line of sorts, and they rapidly fell into formation like a row of soldiers readying for inspection.

            Brad Williams watched the line growing longer as he held a cell phone to his ear. He studied the lengthening line, wondering if there would still be overhead space when he reached his assigned seat.

            “We’re boarding now, honey. Tell the kids I’ll see them in about,” he paused and looked at his watch, “four hours. Don’t hold dinner for me.” It could easily be seven by the time he got home if he didn’t have to wait too long to get his luggage, if the line out of long term parking wasn’t held up by everyone using credit cards, and if traffic on the expressway wasn’t snarled by an accident. It seemed a lot to hope for, but Brad was an optimistic person.

            There was a long pause and he wondered if the connection had been broken. He stared at the growing line and looked down at his small pull-behind suitcase. It didn’t take up much space, but everyone in line had luggage larger than his. Those overhead compartments filled quickly.

            “You there?” he asked, still watching the line.

            “Yes. I just had a funny feeling, that’s all.”

            “What kind of funny feeling?” He bent over and pulled up the handle on his pull behind, checked to make sure his two hundred dollar briefcase was securely attached, and walked slowly to the growing line.

            “I don’t know.” Another pause. “Are you feeling okay?”

            “I feel fine. Just a little tired, that’s all. It’s been a long trip. What kind of feeling?” Cheryl too often felt this way before something bad happened. Two years ago before his father died suddenly from a stroke, she sensed something. Three years before that, she knew something was going to happen to her brother Eric. A week later, he was dead, victim of a drunk driver. But sometimes when she was on her period she had similar feelings that resulted in nothing but a little worry and lost sleep. He didn’t know if it was the hormone changes or the chocolate she ate that made her intuition go haywire. The last question he was going to ask was, if it was that time of month. It was a question no man should ever raise unless he was offering to stop at the store for tampons and sanitary napkins.

            “That feeling. You know.”

            He did know, and as he watched people board the plane he wondered whom it would be this time, if indeed it wasn’t that time of the month. There weren’t many relatives left. “Look hon, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you as soon as I get to my car.”

            “Okay. I love you. I’ll save some dinner for you.”

            They said goodbye and Brad turned off his phone and stuffed it into his suit pocket. One thing was odd. She didn’t say, ‘have a good flight.’ It was as routine as telling their teenage daughter to drive carefully when she left the house, car keys in hand. Like a superstitious spell believed to ward off evil.

            Brad stepped into the still growing line, ticket in hand and after a few minutes, he settled into his aisle seat.

            In the past when flying on business trips was a novelty, he always requested a window seat. He enjoyed looking out at the world with all the wonder of a child, seeing everything in miniature, watching tiny semis crawl along thin ribbons of highway that stretched to the horizon. But, after a hundred thousand miles of flying, countless delayed flights and late arrivals, he changed to requesting an aisle seat toward the front. It meant a slightly quicker exit upon landing. Maybe it only saved him five minutes, but that meant five more precious minutes with his family. Brad stuffed his suitcase into the overhead compartment, grateful for the space, and settled into his seat. There was something relaxing about getting the boarding process over with. It was almost as comforting as having a good bowel movement. Such simple pleasures seemed so underrated in life. He found himself having more thoughts like that since becoming middle age. It should probably disturb him, but pleasure was pleasure wherever you found it. He settled back into his seat and closed his eyes.

            “Excuse me, I have the window seat.”

            Brad looked up and saw a pretty, thirty-something brunette holding a large purse that could almost double as a suitcase, trying to avoid being trampled by a family of four shoving their way down the aisle, luggage and stuffed animals in hand.

            “Here, let me get up.” Brad stood and stepped into the crowded aisle among all the passengers trying to stuff their suitcases into the overhead compartments, and slamming them shut one after another as if in rehearsed unison. It was a welcomed sound. It meant they were closer to take off.

            The brunette smiled, held her purse close to her chest and squeezed past Brad into the window seat.

            Brad got a whiff of her perfume and instantly recognized the scent. It reminded him of his wife Cheryl.

            “Is that Angel you’re wearing?”

            She looked at him, her face drawn with tightened lines probably placed there by countless and annoying pickup lines. “Yes, it is.” Her smile seemed tense and forced.

            Brad noticed the look and worried that his comment was misinterpreted. “It’s my wife’s favorite. In fact, I picked up a new bottle today. She’s almost out.”

            Her smiled widened as Brad sat down. “It’s my favorite too. Do you travel a lot?”

            “Too much. Every week. And you?”

            “Rarely, especially after, you know.” She didn’t want to say 9/11. No one flying ever wanted to say those words. It was more forbidden than talking about slimy worms and fish guts at the dinner table.  There was something about flying that made the most reasonable, educated and science oriented people become superstitious. “My name’s Christine,” she added after a short pause.

            “Brad Williams.” They shook hands and he noticed her long, red nails and the softness of her touch. Just like his wife. Brad looked up as one of the flight attendants walked down the aisle, head turning right then left, checking for fastened seat belts, secured luggage, upright tray tables and probably for anything even remotely suspicious. When she came to an open overhead compartment, she lowered the door and pushed it shut.

            “I hate flying.” With effort, Christine pushed her large purse under the seat in front of her, and then fastened her seat belt.  “But, it’s the fastest way to get home and see my family.”

            “Are you from Houston?”

            “Not originally. My dad moved there when I was seven. I was born in Boston.”

            “That’s quite a move.”

            “My mom died of cancer and I think my dad was looking to escape memories. He never did re-marry. Too bad. I think he’d be a great catch for some older woman. Normally, I drive to Houston because I hate flying so much. But my dad sent me a ticket for my birthday.” She smiled then looked up as the flight attendant began going through the pre-flight safety instructions.

            “I could recite those in my sleep. You can always tell the business travelers. They don’t pay any attention.” He chuckled briefly.

            “I suppose I should listen, since I’ve rarely flown, but really, what can you do in a plane crash anyway?”

            She was probably right, but it wasn’t something he wanted to think about at the moment. He’d heard the odds of dying in a plane crash were one in three million. The odds of winning the lottery were greater, and he knew someone who won the lottery. He didn’t know of anyone who died in a plane crash. It was not a comforting thought. Brad shrugged his shoulders and looked around the cabin, trying to visualize what kind of flight he was going to have. A child was fussing five rows back, and across the aisle and two rows back, an infant was sleeping in its mother’s lap. That wouldn’t last long. Somewhere behind him, a baby started crying and Brad checked his watch, wondering how long it would be before he could ask the flight attendant for a drink.

            After several minutes of taxiing on the runway, the captain announced they were number one for take off. A minute later the jet picked up speed and began rumbling down the runway, the tires making a clop clop sound as they rolled over seams in the tarmac. Brad loved the rush and the sensation as the acceleration pushed him back in his seat. It was the best part of the flight.

            Christine turned and looked out the window at everything speeding past them at over a hundred fifty miles an hour.  As the jet accelerated, nearby objects shot by in a blur. The jet had reached the point of no return. Even if the pilot wanted to abort the take-off, there wasn’t enough remaining runway for a safe stop.

            Christine gripped the armrests tightly and stared forward. Suddenly the jet’s nose pointed upward and it was airborne. Within seconds, the landing gear folded with a loud whine and disappeared into the belly of the jet with two loud ka-thumps.

            “What was that?” Christine’s eyes widened.

            “Just the landing gear. Nothing to worry about.”

            “Does it always make that much noise?”

            Brad smiled and thought back to his first flight. He jumped at every noise and constantly bothered the flight attendants with questions. “Yes, everything’s fine. Don’t worry.” But his wife’s statement rang in his mind like an ominous warning. What was she sensing? He’d feel better when he was home, even though driving in city traffic carried a bigger safety risk. He’d been on a business trip when Cheryl’s brother Eric died. He didn’t travel much then, maybe every month or so, not like now. At the time, it seemed he couldn’t hurry home fast enough, and by the time he walked in the front door, the house was filled with relatives he hadn’t seen in years, and Cheryl was alone in the bedroom crying.

            “I’m sorry I’m being such a pest. When I get nervous, I talk a lot.”

            “That’s okay. I haven’t talked to anyone in days except about profit margins and market initiatives.” He grinned, welcoming the distraction. “Relax. The most dangerous points in flying are take-off and landing.”

            “I guess that’s good. One down, one to go. Thank God we don’t have a layover.”

            Brad nodded and pushed his shoulders back into the seat and tried to relax. The drone of the engines was such a lulling sound. He wondered why they didn’t make sound machines with that noise. On board a plane, it always made him sleepy. Except today.

            “How does your family adjust to your travel?”

            “They tolerate it. Both my kids are teenagers so they’re never home anyway, but I don’t think they like it either. It’s hard to borrow money from dad when he’s a thousand miles away!” Brad chuckled and Christine giggled. It was a light and cheerful sound, one that helped to erase worry and tension. He needed more of those sounds in his life.

            “How about your wife? Oh, I’m sorry. I’m getting too personal.”

            “No, no it’s fine, really.”

“I’m a little nervous.”

            “Well don’t be. I fly over a quarter million miles a year, with not so much as a close call.” Suddenly, he felt like a compulsive gambler stuffing quarters into a slot machine. Stand there long enough and three lemons are bound to show up. “Actually, all this travel has been on my mind lately. My wife hates having me gone so much. And with the kids getting older, we’d like to spend more time together.  So tonight, I’m going to surprise her.”

            “And how’s that?”

            “I’ve accepted a different job with my company. It’s a lateral move, no pay raise but I won’t be traveling near as much as I do now.”

            “Good for you! I’ll bet she’ll be thrilled with the news.”

            The flight attendant came by with the beverage cart and they each ordered a drink to go along with their tiny complimentary package of salted peanuts.

            “I remember when you got a meal on this flight. Now you’re lucky to get two packages of nuts, and you have to practically beg for a second one.”

            Brad took a few long sips of his drink as he wrestled with the tiny package of peanuts. He tried to remember when his wife had her last period. It wasn’t something she announced like a weather forecast, but there were always signs any slightly attentive husband couldn’t miss. 

            Suddenly the jet shook violently and their drinks went flying as if bouncing on springs.

            “What the hell was that?” Christine shouted.

            “Turbulence,” Brad told her as he leaned forward and looked past her out the window. “It’s pretty common over thirty thousand feet. Looks like some thunderheads out there. Here, take my napkin. My drink was almost empty.”

            She thanked him and began mopping up the spill with the tiny square napkins.

            “I hope we don’t have any more of that.” She stuffed the soaked napkins into the empty cup.

            Brad noticed the seat belt sign had blinked on and decided they were probably in for a bumpy ride.  He saw that Christine’s belt had remained fastened as had his.

            “Hello ladies and gentleman, this is the captain. It looks as though they’re having a few storms below us, so we’re climbing up to thirty-three thousand feet to try and get over this bumpy air. Please remain seated with your seat belts fastened. It probably won’t be too long before we find some smooth air again.” The mic clicked off and Brad noticed that Christine was gripping each armrest so tightly that her knuckles had turned white.

            “Don’t worry. This happens all the time,” he tried to reassure her. He swallowed hard and noticed there was a lump in his throat as if he had swallowed a small rock.

            The cabin shook and bounced as the jet hit more turbulence. There was a loud thud from the rear of the jet, but the cabin noise muffled it as the jet bounced and pitched.

            “What was that?”

            “What?”

            “I heard a noise.”

            “Just turbulence. Want me to get a magazine for you?”

            “What I’d like is another drink,” she replied nervously. Her eyes had widened and some of the color had drained from her face.

            Brad smiled, pushed himself back into his seat, closed his eyes and tried to relax. The flight attendants busied themselves stowing the beverage carts, picking up empty cups and handing out napkins for the passengers to clean up their spills.

            “I thought the captain said he was going to a higher altitude.”

            “He did. Why?” Brad saw the worried look on her face. Deep lines etched the soft features of her face and her eyes were wide circles. Suddenly she appeared older, almost his age.

            Christine looked out the window then turned toward Brad. “Unless those clouds are rising, I think we’re losing altitude.”

            Brad leaned forward and looked past Christine. The clouds did look as though they were going higher. That was impossible, so the jet must be losing altitude.

            “Something’s not right.” He scooted to the edge of his seat and turned around to look for a flight attendant. There was none in sight. They were probably buckled in waiting for smoother air.

            Suddenly there was a loud bang from the tail section, a noise easily heard over the drone of the engines. The jet bounced as if its wheels had suddenly run over a fallen tree on a runway.

            Except for a small number of passengers who appeared to be sleeping, everyone began looking around the cabin, their eyes studying everyone else’s reaction in an effort to gauge if they needed to worry. The growing hum of conversation became louder.

            “What was that?” Christine looked at Brad, her eyes pleading for some rational answer and reassurance.

            “I don’t know.” He looked up at the ceiling and pushed the call light. It lit with the faint sound of a bell. “I’m going to find out.”

            Turbulence buffeted the jet and somewhere several rows back, a baby started crying, the noise muted by the loud drone of the engines and the conversations that were growing in number. But the hum of the engines was no longer a lulling sound that soothed like white background noise. Fear stoked minds cross-examined every change in sound, and passengers began exchanging opinions on what they thought was wrong. 

            The jet banked slowly to the left then went level again.

            “Something’s wrong! Something has to be wrong! What’s wrong Brad?”

            Brad turned around and looked behind him; he saw the worry in everyone’s eyes, and then noticed a flight attendant slowly working her way down the aisle, weaving like a drunk as the jet bounced over invisible bumps. “Just stay calm,” he urged, but he felt anxiety welling up in his gut feeling like a gallon of battery acid. He noticed the man across the aisle was still sleeping, his head rolling as if his neck was made of soft rubber.

            “Can I help you?” the flight attendant asked.

            “Yes, what’s going on? We’re losing altitude and if that banging noise happens again, I’m going back by the beverage carts and help myself to the liquor drawer.” He felt panic dancing on his nerves and decided that he needed to calm down, at least for Christine’s sake.

            “We’re just hitting a little turbulence,” she answered, but there was no confidence in her voice. In fact, her face was pale and drained. Not long before, she had stood up and reviewed safety procedures with the confidence of a real flight veteran.

            “Turbulence doesn’t make funny banging noises,” Brad told her.

            “Just stay seated. We should be through the worst of it soon.” She smiled, but Brad could tell that is was forced, working upstream against the frown muscles.

            “Have you talked to the captain?”

            “Everything’s fine. Please don’t worry. As soon as we can resume beverage services, we’ll pass out drinks compliments of the airline.”

            Brad nodded and tried to settle back into his seat. They’re going to get us all drunk and then plunge us to our deaths, he wanted to say.

            Three rows back there was a retching noise, and a minute later the acrid smell of bile and partially digested food wafted toward the front of the plane. Suddenly the cabin felt tiny and stuffy, filled with a variety of odors as varied as the number of passengers.

            They sat in silence as the jet bounced, banking first one way then another. More people were vomiting and Brad wished he had another drink. The odor reminded him of his college days, of a bar he frequented where the bathroom was never cleaned, and the pervasive odor of urine, vomit and stale beer was simply part of the establishment’s ambiance. He leaned a little closer to get a whiff of Christine’s perfume, but even that aroma was rapidly losing its battle against the growing stench.

            After several minutes it became apparent the pilot was having trouble controlling the aircraft. It seemed the jet wanted to pitch to the right and nosedive. Every few minutes the pilot pulled the aircraft back into line, but it felt like a difficult, and losing battle. Suddenly he remembered the flight that crash-landed in Sioux City. There was a problem with the tail section and the pilots had to steer the plane by adjusting the engines on each wing. Though it did crash land on the runway, there were survivors. It wasn’t a comforting thought and he kept it to himself.

            As the jet pitched one way and then another, its movements became more violent and erratic. There were moans, brief screams and the murmur of conversation in the cabin. Some discussions had grown louder, and Brad could pick out specific voices and sentences of a few passengers with growing worries and opinions. One man yelled, wondering what the hell was going on here? A woman screamed, her piercing voice cutting through the noise with all the sharpness of a razor blade. Everyone kept looking around, studying other faces for some expression of hope and confidence. But every face was drawn with fear and tension. Two babies began crying and their mothers cried along with them.

            Suddenly the jet bounced so violently that for a brief moment the wings appeared to flap like a bird’s. There was a sudden drop in altitude and Brad felt the seat belt dig into his lap as he experienced fleeting weightlessness.

            “Oh my God, we’re going to die!” Christine shouted. Others in the cabin echoed her words and the sounds of the engines became a distant hum.

            “It’s only turbulence. Try not to look out the window. Pick some spot and stare at it.” His words came out in almost a stutter and he thought of Jimmy Stewart. But Jimmy Stewart could talk like that and still sound bold and confident.

            He needed to use the bathroom, but wondered if he dared get up. The jet bounced violently again and its nose pitched down, hitting pockets of air as if they were huge rocks in the sky. A person waiting for a vacant lavatory fell to the floor with a grunt. The jet rolled to the right and Brad kept waiting for a correction. He gripped the armrests and waited, but the jet slowly continued its roll. He felt Christine’s weight crushing him as the jet rolled over. The seat belt dug into his lap, squeezing him with a vice-like grip and pushing against a nearly full bladder. People screamed as purses and brief cases rolled along the floor. Spilled change scattered across the aircraft. As the plane continued its roll, Christine fell over onto Brad. She reached up and grabbed his shoulders, pushing him further into the aisle. He felt the right armrest dig into his ribs like a dull knife. The armrest bent outward against his weight and both Brad and Christine moved further into the aisle.

            “My baby!” a mother screamed, and Brad knew what had happened.

            The jet continued rolling over. Bodies fell from their seats and flopped against the side of the cabin with dull thuds, their sounds nearly swallowed whole in the noisy chaos. In mere seconds that lasted a lifetime and an instant, the jet was upside down. Brad winced and wanted to scream, and wondered briefly if he was screaming. An amalgam of chaotic noise filled the cabin, a thick soupy mixture of voices and aircraft noises that confused hearing and thought. The seat belt dug deeper, slamming into his gut like a prizefighter’s punch and he wondered if it would hold. The nose of the jet pointed lower and lower, shoving an intertwined Brad and Christine forward into the back of the next seat. Brad winced and tried to push himself back into his seat, but found it impossible.  He turned his head toward Christine, his face now smashed against the seat back.

            Her face was only inches away. He could still smell the sweet perfume she was wearing. Its aroma was so out of place and foreign, yet there was something comforting about it at the same time. He saw the horror on Christine’s face; her skin was pale and drained of blood. Blue veins were visible beneath her skin looking like thin wires. Her eyes were wide, and her facial muscles tensed to the point they looked ready to rip loose. Christine’s mouth was open, and she gasped for air in quick breaths. As the jet accelerated, there was a loud whining noise. Objects flew past him and he heard them land with loud crashes, sometimes accompanied by groans or screams of pain. As the jet accelerated in its nosedive, the seatbelt loosened its knifelike grip.  The brief weightlessness lifted Brad and Christine into their seats.

            Brad couldn’t wait any longer, and let his bladder go. A sudden flash of warmth flooded his lap as the urine soaked his pants He wondered briefly if Christine had noticed, and almost immediately decided it didn’t matter at all.

            “Brad! Brad! We’re going to die!” She was shouting, but the sound was cut to a whisper in the noisy cabin.

            There were more screams, it was constant now. He caught a glimpse of someone falling forward, their body gliding almost effortlessly along the ceiling that was now the floor. It was such a strange view. Seeing a sight that is so alien plays tricks on the mind, and Brad wondered if they were truly upside down. More objects began falling. He gripped the armrests and watched in horror as purses, books, eyeglasses and countless other objects flew past him with all the force of professionally thrown baseballs. Several magazines flew by, their pages flapping as they sailed past looking ironically like clumsy planes with broken wings.

            The whine became louder, like a thousand high-pitched screams as the jet accelerated in its descent. He knew now that there was no hope. No one controlled the jet. It was hostage to the forces of gravity and the fierceness of air currents. He had the answer to the question that everyone considers from time to time, even if only briefly before burying it again beneath layers of denial; He knew how he was going to die and exactly when. It was a fact now, and there was no time for denial or anger or bargaining. The fact of his death had slammed into his thoughts and it wasn’t going to negotiate feelings. In the terrified panic that was strangling his gut, Brad had quickly accepted the fact he was about to die. It took only seconds, and he felt a strange sense of gratitude for that. Maybe it was because there was no choice, but from listening to the screams and panic of many other passengers, he decided that a person always had a choice on how they reacted to any situation. Brad thought of his wife Cheryl, he pictured her face, her smile, the ‘look’ of disapproval that every married man knew, the last time they made love and how it left the sweet smell of the sea in their bed, the smile and kiss she greeted him with, the soft touch of her hands, her beautiful, long feminine nails, the smell of her hair after a shower, his two children Wendy and Jim, their giggles, the goodnight hugs he always cherished, their angelic faces when they slept, how pitiful and yet cute they appeared when they were ill, Christmas mornings and the excitement that filled the whole house, playing Uno and building with Legos and the trip to Disney World. Memories paraded through his mind in an endless string of images. He’d never see any of them again, at least not in this life. He believed in God and Jesus and heaven, but it was so easy to have faith when it wasn’t tested, when there was absolutely no time for denial or bargaining with God. There was simply no time for anything except remembering. It made no sense to spend his last few moments yelling. He winced in pain and wanted to scream, but oddly, as intense as the pain was, it seemed tolerable. There was simply no real comfort in screaming or fighting a battle he would lose; there was only comfort in remembering. Suddenly the jet shuddered and a loud ripping sound overstepped all the other noise. Metal creaked and groaned and then there was a long screaming EEEEEEEK as the left wing ripped apart and fell away into the sky. The sound pierced his ears like a thousand hot needles. Brad and Christine both looked out the window at where the wing had been. Spraying fuel coated the window and dimmed the cabin briefly. And then there was a huge orange fireball. The brief, blinding flash of light painted the cabin white, but after it subsided, the bright glow of orange flames still flooded the cabin. For the briefest of moments it reminded Brad of the warm bask of a sunset. Flames flickered and waved, and within a few seconds, the heat invaded the cabin with its hot breath. The jet began to spin wildly out of control; clouds and patches of blue sky rolled past the window, and suddenly green sections of earth flickered in view. The jet was now flying toward the earth in a corkscrew formation.  Flames and smoke trailed along the broken section of wing.

A few passengers screamed louder, but the number had diminished greatly. Dishes and pillows, blankets and purses, cans of soda and beer went sailing through the air like errant missiles, bouncing off the sides of the cabin in strange trajectories caused by the spinning jet. He heard snapping sounds followed by bodies being hurled through the air. People slammed into seats, rolled briefly along the sides or the ceiling, hitting with muffled thumps. Sometimes there were groans, but often, the limp bodies simply bounced around like lifeless manikins. The spinning shoved him back into his seat, then pulled him against one armrest, and then the other, then tossed him violently into the seat in front of him and then repeated. He felt Christine’s body hitting him then falling away, and heard the clumps and thuds as her body slammed into one thing after another.

            A woman bounced off the ceiling right above them, her foot sliding across his hair, and then just as suddenly the limp body disappeared from view. A briefcase smacked Brad on the side of the head and for a moment, his vision dimmed and tiny points of light floated before his eyes.

            “Oh my God, oh my God!” someone yelled.

            A woman behind him began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. A man joined her, but following a crashing noise his voice was silenced. There were fewer voices now, mostly just groans and whimpers, and the whining sound of a jet screaming toward earth. 

            The jet continued to spin and objects rolled around on the ceiling for a few moments like clothes in a dryer before spinning off in one direction or another.

            “Where’s my baby?” a woman screamed, then just as suddenly, she fell quiet.

            By now there were no infants crying, and most voices had been silenced. Brad glanced across the aisle and was surprised to see the three seats still filled, the passengers still alive, all conscious with eyes widened and staring forward like so many deer looking into headlights.

            “Oh God help us!”  someone yelled.

            Another body flew past so quickly, Brad couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman.

            “Christine, do… you… believe… in…. God?”

            She was crying and occasionally a tear spun off and landed on his face.

            “Yes… I… do,’ she answered sobbing.

            He reached over and grabbed her hand. In the spinning jet, such a small movement was difficult and complicated, like moving in a torrent of water. “At.. least…. I…. won’t… have.. to… feel.. alone… when …I …die.” The spinning motion of the jet and the seatbelt pushing on his chest made his words come out in puffs.  “Thank… you…….. for… wearing.. Angel……. today. ….It…. reminded…….me…… of….. my…… wife.”

            “She’s…. lucky… to…. have….. you.”

            “She…. was…. lucky… to.. have… me,” he corrected.

            “You’ll… always… .be… together… Heaven’s… like… that.”

            Suddenly there was the loud screech of ripping metal as the other wing sheared off. A huge orange fireball erupted, filling the cabin with a blinding brightness. The jet begin to spin faster. The whine of its descent was so intense it created a sharp pain in his ears. He could feel a tingle inside each ear as if his eardrums were vibrating beyond capacity.

            “I…. hope…. so,” he answered.

            “What?” Christine yelled. The noise now made conversation nearly impossible.

            “I… said, …I ..hope… so!” Brad yelled.

            The prayer had ended and the cabin was almost void of conversation, filled only with the roar of a thousand sounds. Thuds and bangs rattled off like slow gunfire, as objects spun around the cabin sounding like tennis shoes in a dryer. There was an occasional scream or moan, some muffled conversation that sounded like people yelling from inside a styrofoam box. Brad was feeling dizzy from all the spinning, and spots still floated across his vision. He looked out the window at the growing landscape that spun rapidly past. He could see a farm and large green and golden fields that were growing bigger every time they raced past the window. They seemed close enough to touch. As the plane spun around the window was filled with green, then gold, then green then gold until it became a blur. He saw treetops not far away before they disappeared.

            As the nose of the jet plowed into the field at nearly a ninety-degree angle, the pilot and co-pilot instinctively gripped the armrests and clenched their teeth. The two men crashed into the instrument panel, their faces instantly crushed and erased into a blotch of crimson. The force fractured their skulls into pieces no larger than a nickel, and the mass of bone and flesh merged with the crushing metal and glass. The jet began folding upon itself like a giant accordion. The seats were ripped from the floor as one row immediately cascaded down upon the next, crushing each passenger with such force that they were as thin as a suit on a hanger. Within a fraction of a second, moans and voices were silenced with the suddenness of a switch. The noise was deafening as the metal crumbled like foil. Brad looked forward, and in that fraction of a fraction of a second, he saw the forward section of the jet rush toward him with such speed it was mostly a blur and then it was over. In nearly an instant, the entire fuselage crumbled and the metal was shredded into tiny pieces that sprayed across the field or were buried several feet beneath the surface. He heard no sound. He felt a slight sting on his forehead and then all pain and sound was erased. An image of his wife’s face appeared in his mind. It was a frozen image, unmoving like a photograph. In the silence, the image faded like the brightness of a camera flashbulb. But as the brightness faded, and his wife’s image dissolved, it was replaced by blackness as dark as ink. The world had become dark and silent. His skin registered no sensation, no pain or heat. He never felt his arms being pulled from their sockets, or his legs being crushed. The force of the impact was so immense, that a body’s flesh simply disintegrated, appearing much like the spray of a water balloon on a concrete driveway. In the darkness and the silence, Brad saw a very distant, but slowly growing white light. He began to feel something. His skin felt slightly chilled as it once did on a cool autumn evening when he went out for a walk without a jacket.  

            Immediately upon impact, a huge fireball engulfed the entire jet, blowing an enormous explosion into the air. The seats melted instantly. Clothing dissolved and clung to the skin. In the violent impact, muscles were torn from bones. Arms, fingers, heads and torsos were flung forward throughout the cabin in a shower of flesh and debris.

            And then there was an eerie silence, except for the soft crackle of the flames that sent black clouds of smoke billowing into the air; smoke that looked so thick that it appeared as if huge wads of black cotton were being flung skyward.

            The fire crackled, engulfing everything in an inferno of hell, charring it to a midnight black.

            The fire crackled with all the humility of a campfire. The quiet seemed misplaced, mocking the tragedy that lay within the charred ruins of the jet.

            Allan Stiles, an air traffic controller noticed that a blip on his screen suddenly disappeared.  The pilot had radioed they were having mechanical problems and that he was descending to a lower altitude. But there had been no panic in his voice, and he requested no emergency flight plan. Allan was very comforted by that for personal reasons. The pilot’s voice had remained calm, in fact, very calm. He kept his radio responses brief, saying only they were busy.

            But, Allan knew in his heart the thick lump in his throat was telling him the truth. He knew what flight it was and who was on it. And the fact the jet had disappeared from radar and was not responding to radio calls, confirmed his fears. It was going to be a horrible day, the kind that makes international headlines, and the world would have no real idea what emotional pain the survivors would be suffering.  The only thing the world  and press would care about would be getting the most graphic pictures they could obtain, and an interview with tears would lead the story. Allan swallowed hard because he knew the truth before the world did, but the world wouldn’t really care nor understand about his personal loss.

            Allan thought about the Angel perfume he had purchased yesterday as a gift for his fiancée Christine, one that would never be given.

            Next week he would be going to a funeral, not a wedding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

Di(v)e in Key Largo

 

            Bob Matthews and his best friend Lee Sommers loved the ocean. It bordered on an obsession or addiction that required increased doses. Whenever there was an opportunity to get away from the blistering summer sidewalk heat of inner city Miami, they took it. Most often, they traveled to the Keys, but they weren’t ones to ignore the gulf coast of Florida. Both were hitting the forty-year mark within a couple of months, and ever since they were best buddies in high school, they vowed to never let age slow them down nor knock the hellion from their souls.

            Since their days at Miami Central High, they frequently skirted on the edge of trouble, always pushing to find the scent of intolerance. Moderation was never a consideration in much of anything. That’s not where the fun and excitement were. But because of their excellent grades and their skills on the football field and basketball court, they could always talk their way out of detention, suspension or any other punishment that Fred Winer, the school principal threatened. Winer figured that a winning season made a better career move. To the disappointment of their parents, neither went to college, but because of their computer savvy, they made more than a respectable living writing programs and working as consultants. The bottom line was, income and not level of education bought respect in their families.

            Despite parental warnings and worries, they took up scuba diving while in the ninth grade. Few kids in their blue-collar neighborhood could afford such a luxury, but Bob and Lee worked everyday after school to fund their new addiction. Their parents couldn’t understand the attraction of the sport, and in an effort to detour their interests, they purchased state of the art computers for their sons. It only provided a future means to the same end. If scuba diving had become as popular as driving, they probably would’ve taken up some other sport. They were two men who wanted to be called anything but normal.

Nearing forty was a cross roads for any man. It was a time of self-reflection, and a time to plan out all those things to do before age made them even more difficult to accomplish. Growing restless and looking for a bigger fix to feed their excitement high, they began to explore the riskier sport of night diving. Having tried that for several months, it seemed only natural to go one step further and try cave diving. In Florida as in most places that value life, it was strongly recommended that no diver even enter the water with a light, and nearly all Florida dive resorts and state parks enforced a ‘no lights’ rule for divers unless they were certified in cave diving. The ‘no light’ rule was instituted to prevent naturally curious divers from exploring a cave just a little bit, following the siren call of their light’s beam into what could be their last dive. More times than not, rules only made the forbidden fruit more attractive. Having found night diving to be extremely exciting as well as challenging, cave diving seemed to be a natural progression.

            In the past fifty years, nearly four hundred U.S., Canadian and Mexican divers died in underwater caves because they failed to heed the recommended safety instructions.  Bob and Lee knew these facts, as well as countless other diving statistics, but they had spent most of their lives cliff walking, as Bob fondly called it. Life on the edge or no life at all, he often told Lee. Someday he wanted a T-shirt with that saying written on it.

            “Couldn’t ask for a better weekend,” Bob said, brushing the sandy blonde hair out of his eyes. He looked out the window at the liquid turquoise water as they traveled on A1A across Barnes Sound. The hot sun shimmered brilliantly on each wave crest and it reminded him of diamonds sparkling. Lee was driving and the sunroof on the Trans Am was open to the hot, salty air. The sky was the color of faded denim, and the horizon was a crisp, clean line void of any haze.

            “Can’t wait to get on the boat and grab a beer.”

             “You got that right,” Bob agreed.

            Minutes later, they parked at the marina and began unloading the food and supplies onto the yacht. They completed this task with great efficiency, having done it countless times over the years. Using a small, collapsible dolly, they brought three loads to the boat and were finished.

            The boat was a used Fairlane Squadron 65 two-station motor yacht. Two stations meant there were two areas for steering the boat, an upper one, open and exposed to the elements, and a lower, enclosed one for when the weather had an attitude.  The boat was plush and luxurious, with a two-tiered saloon and full width stateroom below. Aft on the lower level were tan wraparound leather lounge seats, a television, wet bar and ice-maker. The saloon’s satin-lacquered finish of American cherry gave the interior a rich and warm feeling. The carpeting was off-white and though not thick, felt soft and plush against bare feet. Up three stairs and forward was a huge lounge seat and burl elm table for sit-down dining. To starboard, tucked behind a glossy, full-height cherry partition was a fully equipped galley, with a miniature side-by-side refrigerator and freezer, ample counter space and a four-burner stove and oven.  There was also a small microwave. Across from the galley, a spacious dinette commanded a grand view of the outdoors with wrap-around windows that faced aft. To the starboard side was the lower station where the ship could be steered if one did not wish to be out in the elements. This station was rarely used.  Below deck were the staterooms, each with a queen-sized bed, a tiny closet, sofa, bathroom and shower. Behind the head of the bed, mirrors lined the contoured wall. The bedrooms were small by land based home standards, but on a boat, space is a premium, and bedrooms were used for little else except sleep and sex. On some trips, sleep was a low priority.

            It was an impressive boat, and most importantly, a babe magnet according to Bob who cared about these things. He often joked to his friends who owned Harleys that you couldn’t screw a woman on a Harley. One biker, Chuck Freedman, disagreed and offered a video as proof. Bob took his word for it. Watching a two hundred ninety pound biker having sex while wearing leather chaps was enough to turn off any man permanently. Having a babe magnet mattered a lot more to Bob. For the past three years, Lee had a steady girlfriend. Before that, he was married for ten years. It wasn’t a good marriage from the start, and despite Bob’s determination to make it work, the marriage ended abruptly when his wife left him for another woman. Lee cried on Bob’s shoulder for fifteen minutes before he started laughing. He joked he didn’t know if he should get married again, or simply find a woman he hated and buy her a house. He divorced the lesbian, made up his mind that it wasn’t him that turned her off to men completely, and never looked back. But cruising through the dating scene unattached didn’t feel right. Lee preferred the companionship and friendship of one woman. He didn’t ride on multiple boats and he didn’t mess around with multiple women.

Bob seemed an exact opposite. He often joked about changing his name to Warren, as in Warren Beatty.  His personal record probably came nowhere near the actor’s, though all of his conquests were beautiful women by anyone’s standards. Lee often wondered if this widening difference in their life styles wouldn’t one day derail their long friendship. Whenever they double dated, Lee’s girlfriend never knew whom she was going to meet. Bob was with a different woman nearly every month.

            Their real homes were hardly larger than the yacht, in lower middle class neighborhoods, not well-kept, and rarely used. They spent little on decorating and even less on maintenance. When they weren’t at the small office they leased or out meeting with clients, they were on the boat. Only the threat of severe weather drove them to their land-based homes. If bad weather persisted for too long, both became edgy, irritable and at the point of considering Prozac. The boat was a joint venture as was their business, BobLee CompuTech. Lee had wanted to name their company LeeBob, but Bob successfully argued the name gave it a hillbilly hick sound, and that didn’t fit with the high tech work they were doing. Lee agreed, but he still liked the name because of the sharp contrast it invoked. What did it really matter? He was getting rich, he didn’t care if they called it Billy Jo Bob Tech. The money was green and the boat and the ocean were beautiful.  It sounded so much like a Jimmy Buffet song.

            It wasn’t long before the engines were started and they were backing away from the dock.

            While Bob sat in the upper station helm guiding the boat out of the marina, Lee carried the scuba tanks down to an empty bedroom they used for storage. Filled, each aluminum tank weighed about thirty-five pounds, and Lee carried two at a time as if they weighed half that amount.

            “Everything’s stowed. Need another beer?”

            Bob held up his nearly full can, and then replaced it in the cup holder. “God, but I love this boat.” He grabbed the can and took a long pull from it, feeling they were now out of the marina and pretty much out of line of sight of any possible authority figures who may be watching. Drinking and boating were givens in Florida, but one didn’t flaunt it. If age taught them nothing else, it taught them to be discrete and always in fear of authority.

            “Too bad we couldn’t bring Sarah and Jill.”

            Bob nodded and took another long sip from his beer. “I don’t think they’d go for this night diving thing. If you ask me, Jill doesn’t like diving.”

            “No, but she sure looks great in a bikini.” Lee smile and tipped up his beer until it was empty. He kept putting off the marriage proposal, and she seemed to sense that. Next weekend he’d have the boat to himself. It seemed like an appropriate time and place for a proposal. Bob tried to talk him out of it. Why ruin a good thing? He always said. A bachelor is lucky he often argued; he can be wrong and never know it. Lee always laughed at the comments, but the fact was, forty was putting up a good-sized mirror in front of him, and he couldn’t help but look at who he was and what he had become. Settling down a little, maybe even having kids was a growing attraction. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became with the thought of having kids to take on the boat, or to Disney World, or for that matter, anywhere.

            “Besides, I don’t think they want us cave diving. Sarah was reading about it on the Internet. Started quoting all these facts and figures, reminding me that we aren’t certified in cave diving.”

            “Hell, we’ve been diving for over twenty-five years. Who needs to be certified!” he waved his hand in the air so quickly, that had there been much beer remaining in the can, it would’ve spilled on the deck.

            “That’s what I told her. If you start quoting stats on anything, it’ll scare the hell out of ya. Look at all the people who are scared to death of flying, yet it’s a helluva lot safer than driving.”

            Lee nodded and looked out across the nearly flat surface of the ocean. The lowering sun danced slowly on the gently rolling ripples and the liquid turquoise looked like some luscious, sweet blue-raspberry drink that begged to be tasted. “Another beer?”

            Bob nodded and handed Lee his empty.

            An hour later, they dropped anchor about seven miles east of Key Largo near the French Reef.

            Lee was the better cook of the two and prepared dinner.

            “Not bad,” Bob said, stuffing his mouth with a fork full of the stir-fry. “Can Jill cook as good as you?”

            “Better actually,” he said, and then laughed.

            “When are you two going to get married?”

“Soon.” Lee smiled and finished swallowing his food. “I’m going to ask her next week. I think.”

            “What d’ya mean, you think?”

            Lee shrugged his shoulders and continued eating. Three beers stoked the fires of on an appetite.

            “You’re not getting cold feet are you?”

            “No, that’s not it.” He was more worried if being married would affect their friendship. Once that ring goes on the finger, there are household chores to do and the demand for quality time with the wife. Not that he minded, he loved Jill’s company. Maybe it had something to do with nearing forty and accepting a little maturity into his lifestyle. 

            “Well then, what is it?” Bob looked across the table at Lee and suddenly a thought occurred to him.

            “I know. Say no more. Don’t worry. We’ll always be best buds, no matter what. Hey, we’re getting older. One of us has to settle down and get married, maybe have a couple of rug rats. You try it first, and if you’re not completely pussywhipped in twelve months, maybe I’ll follow you down the aisle!”

            They both laughed and Bob tried to imagine himself married. Marriage wasn’t too hard to picture, it was the staying loyal part that worried him.

            “You two make a good couple,” Bob added with sincerity. “You’re both about the same age, have similar interests, and she’s laid back. Me, I like younger women, their stories are shorter!”

            They laughed and ate their meal.

After dinner, they cleaned up the galley with an attention to detail that would impress any woman, then sat on the upper deck and drank a couple of beers, and watched the sun sink lower in the sky. The few clouds that floated slowly across the sky became canvases for the sun to paint with brilliant colors of crimson and orange, and with tints of blue and purple. As the sun fell lower, dark blue and purple colored the eastern sky until finally, stars begin to blink on. When black crept into the sky, they picked up their empties and then retired for the night. They wanted to get up early and begin searching for the few caves that were in the area.

            After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and plenty of juice to reduce the risk of dehydration from diving, Bob and Lee gathered their needed gear.

            “Do you think we should have bought a tether?” Lee asked.

            “The few caves around here aren’t that large,” Bob answered flatly, and then continued checking his gear, making sure the regulator was working properly and the light was operational.

            Lee looked out at the stillness of the water, enjoying the tingle of the cool breeze on his skin. The ocean was calm and the boat rested quietly on the surface, sitting as stationary as if on dry land.  “I suppose you’re right,” he finally said. The peacefulness of the morning should have been reassuring, but it wasn’t.

            They donned their neoprene wet suits, which took several minutes, then strapped on their knives and weight belts, checking everything carefully. Once in the water, it was not a good time to discover problems. The ocean remained calm, almost mirror-like except for fine ripples that marred the nearly perfect surface. A couple of stray seagulls flew near the boat, circling briefly overhead. Naturally curious birds, they were always looking for a free handout. A few feathery wisps of clouds hung in the sky and the sun felt hot with just the hint of a breeze stirring the air.

            They pulled the tanks on and fastened them, donned their fins and approached the stern.

            “Don’t be getting bold down there,” Lee warned. “We don’t need to be taking any unnecessary chances.”

            “You’re starting to sound like a forty year old. You must be serious about getting married.” He chuckled.

            “I’m serious about living. Cave diving is risky.”

            “Okay, I hear ya. No lectures.” Bob grinned, a wide grin that touched his eyes. He gave Lee a thumbs up and then slipped on his mask and adjusted the fit.  He bent down and picked up the red and white divers down flag that was tethered to a small anchor, and tossed it overboard.  He looked at Lee and nodded. “Let’s go!”

            They placed their mouthpiece, Bob fastened the light to his belt and they slipped over the side into the water.

            As always, Bob lead the way heading straight for the French Reef. Many boaters stayed clear of the French Reef because coral formation is chaotic and random, making navigation difficult. Although the reef area was well charted, the sporadic placement of coral formation required a boat to be only several feet off a charted course to risk a collision with the razor sharp coral. Although satellite navigation was extremely precise, no one wanted to bet their boat or their lives that every single piece of coral was accurately charted. It was one reason the area appealed to Bob. It fell in line with taking risks and living on the edge.

            A graceful stingray glided effortlessly through the water in search of food. For a moment, it seemed to consider the two intruders into its world, then with the gentle wave of its wings, turned and moved away, flying gracefully like a strange jet in liquid air. Large masses of brain coral dotted the sandy bottom. As the divers approached the main reef, they came across thick formations of Elkhorn, Star and an occasional Pillar coral. A school of colorful, majestic angelfish glided by, darting one way then another, almost in perfect unison. A few Parrotfish were busy nibbling at the corral, ignoring the two divers.

            Bob motioned toward the main reef. As they went deeper, they could see the dark shadows that hung like thick curtains beneath the reef overhang. It was here that small caves existed. There were very few true caves in this area of the Keys, they were more caverns than anything else; a cavern simply an area with an overhang where the diver is still within sight of open water. A cave may penetrate thousands of yards into the earth, and open water and the entrance are not within sight. Underwater caves have claimed hundreds of lives because divers, confident with light in hand, would venture into the darkening unknown and lose sight of their entrance.  Within the weightlessness of an underwater cave, it was too easy to become disoriented, not knowing which way was up or down. Confusion often produced panic, and panic increased oxygen usage. Many divers ran out of air frantically searching for the entrance.

            A long, moray eel poked its head out from behind a large piece of Elkhorn coral, its mouth open as if it were about to speak. It hung motionless in the water, briefly considered the divers and then slithered away.

            Bob swam closer to the overhang and motioned for Lee to follow. He looked around, and then approached the overhang for closer inspection. Bob turned on the light for a better look. It wasn’t a cave, simply a large overhang. He shut off the light, and pointed to his left and waved for Lee to follow. The two divers swam slowly along the large massive reef looking for anything that might indicate the presence of a cavern or cave.

            The water was still and silent, except for the bubbling of air that followed them like a quickly evaporating trail of smoke. The visibility was about fifty feet, and distant objects lurked in the shadows like monsters hiding behind a bluish tinged fog. A large, beefy Grouper floated past, and then disappeared behind the large reef. Bob kicked his legs and swam deeper toward the edge of the reef to get a closer look. He stopped, rested his feet on the sandy bottom and unhooked his light. He aimed at the dark shadows beneath the overhang, and then turned on the halogen light. The beam cut through the darkness like a dull saber. He swam closer, pushing the beam of light deeper into the cavern. Bob turned around and nodded at Lee. This was it, the cave that divers have talked about.

            Lee floated cautiously several feet behind Bob. He deeply regretted they did not have a tether. He knew Bob. The man still harbored the invincibility and cockiness of youth. That happens when a person refuses to grow up. He watched as Bob swam slowly into the cave. A good sized red lobster moved sluggishly away and a small school of angel fish darted around him into open water. As Bob swam deeper beneath the overhang, he noticed a large rock that seemed oddly out of place, almost as if it had been placed there.

            He followed his instincts and moved closer, motioning with his hand for Lee to follow. 

            Bob grabbed the rock and peered behind it into a deep blackness. He brought the light up into the opening and as the beam cut into the still and quiet darkness, he saw what appeared to be a long cavern. He waved to Lee and moved closer and the two hung onto the large rock trying to see beyond the reaches of the light.

            Bob switched off the light and motioned with his hands that they should move the large rock.

            Lee shook his head decisively, his eyes a firm ‘no’.

            Bob nodded and proceeded to grab hold of the rock and pull. Silt and sand that had settled on its surface floated into the water like puffs of liquid smoke. Lee watched for a moment, and then found a place where he could get a grip and pulled. As the rock moved slightly, it produced a soft, muffled crunching sound. Bob pulled hard, then put his feet against the side of the reef and pushed with his legs. He groaned and strained. He had to move this rock. Suddenly, it had become an obsession, an insatiable, curious desire to discover what was on the other side. Perhaps pirates had buried treasure here. Far fetched most likely, but gold doubloons had been discovered off the Keys, enough to make some millionaires. The pursuit of riches had also cost some their lives. The rock moved slightly, stuck on something, and then moved again. It was now getting easier. He turned and looked at Lee. They had been diving together for so many years, they could communicate with very little effort. The look in his eyes said enough, and on a silent count of three, they pulled together.

            Suddenly, the rock rolled in silence onto the sandy bottom. Silt exploded into the water and hung in near stillness like a thin veil.

            They both stood on the bottom and caught their breath. A rush of bubbles escaped from their regulators and rushed to the surface.

            Bob gave a thumbs up, grabbed his light and turned it on. He pointed it into the cave, straining to see how deep the tunnel was. He waved his hand to indicate that he was going in. Lee motioned that he would wait outside the cavern. Bob nodded in agreement. If Lee kept sight of the entrance and him, it would work like an invisible tether. Not ideal cave diving techniques, but better than nothing.

            With light in hand, Bob swam into the cave. The jagged entrance was about three feet wide, but once inside, the cave gradually opened up as he went further. After several feet, the cave had opened up to nearly eight feet, but it still felt cramped. The sharp, narrow beam cut dimly through the darkness. He proceeded further, shining the beam on the walls, watching as small fish darted by, some slowly, almost hypnotized by the sudden brightness. His movements stirred up more sand and silt that continued to cloud the water. Bob turned and looked behind him. Lee was little more than a vague shadow of darkness against the deep blueness of the water.

For a moment, he stopped and floated like a weightless astronaut. He considered the risks of going further into the cave. The walls seemed wide enough. There was ample room to maneuver and Lee was only several feet behind him. However, in the thick magnifying lens of water, distances were always deceiving. He decided to continue. As his movements disturbed the stillness of the cave, the water quickly filled with silt and the sides of the cave vanished from view. Swirls of brown spun in the cave like thick smoke. In the underwater weightlessness with no visual cue, Bob wasn’t sure which way was up, forward or back. His groped in the haze for something solid. His left hand touched rock, but he still couldn’t be sure if it was the top, side or bottom. Every movement stirred more silt, and the light brown clouds in the water grew darker like approaching storm clouds. He looked behind him hoping to see the dim light of the entrance, but it was gone, hidden behind a darkening, swirling cloud of silt. Every movement clouded the water even more.

Bob reached out, his hands rapidly trying to touch the sides. As he frantically kicked his legs, more sand and silt was stirred into the water. The light became as useless as a car’s high-beams in a thick fog; the tiny particles of sand, consisting of silica and specks of quartz, simply reflected back the beam, stopping the light like a nebulous but impenetrable veil. He felt panic tighten his gut. Bob noticed he was hyperventilating and he concentrated hard to regain control of his breathing. A thick stream of bubbles flowed from the regulator and his heart thumped in his chest like a drum. Bob closed his eyes and concentrated, focusing first on his heart rate, and then on his breathing. He visualized a peaceful sunset, sitting on the boat, beer in hand, enjoying the cool breeze and conversation with Lee. After what seemed like minutes, his pulse was slower and steady, and his breathing had slowed. When Bob opened his eyes, a thick cloud of silt still hung in the water.

For a long moment, he thought about what to do next. In his panic, had he turned around? Was he facing toward the entrance or pointed to go deeper into the cave? He couldn’t be sure. The silt seemed permanently suspended in the water. He could see individual specks hovering silently, barely moving. It would be hours before the water cleared. Bob pointed the light in one direction, then another, trying to determine which way he should go. He swept the area with the beam, but every direction looked the same.

Stay calm, he told himself. Stay calm. You can’t yell for help, you need to think your way out of this. He moved closer to study the walls, trying to recall some formation, pockmark or coloration of the wall that he remembered seeing before, anything to give him a reference point. Nothing looked familiar. He felt like a hiker lost in the woods where a thousand trees all looked alike.

Bob pointed the light away from the walls and watched the beam quickly disappear into the murky waters. His intuition told him to turn around and swim in the opposite direction. He was sure that in his brief moment of panic he did not turn around. He was almost sure. But, as he tried to recall every movement, there were blank spaces in his memory. Perhaps he did turn around. He did recall turning his head to look behind him. Had he turned his body too? It was so difficult to be certain, and doubt only breed more doubt. Perhaps he did turn around. Some movements are so automatic, the brain just does not commit them to memory. Almost certain he was facing the interior of the cave, Bob turned around slowly, trying to determine when he had moved approximately 180 degrees. With no reference point, it was only a guess.

With light in hand, Bob kicked with his flippers and moved forward. The bottom exploded in a cloud of sand as he moved deeper and deeper into the cave.

Lee waited outside the cavern entrance. He could no longer see a light. The water had filled with sand and silt, hiding even the walls from view. He checked his watch. Their air supply was running low. He bent lower toward the entrance, squinting his eyes in an effort to see something that wasn’t there. The longer he stared, the more his eyes played tricks on him. He thought he saw movement and shadows, but when he blinked hard, there was nothing but a thick cloud of sand and silt hovering in the water. There was no trace of Bob. He considered swimming back to the boat and finding a piece of rope or fishing line. He wasn’t going into the cave without some form of tether. He’d heard too many horror stories of divers who explored caves without the proper training and equipment. Drowning underwater, waiting for the last lung full of air to leave the tanks, with the next breath being nothing more than sucking seawater into his lungs, was not the way he wanted to die. Or see Bob die.

            When Lee looked at his watch and calculated the time it would take to get back to the boat, find a tether, don a fresh air tank and return to the cavern, Bob’s air supply would either be out or dangerously low. He’d need to either share his air or bring an extra. Every second of hesitation was rapidly narrowing his options. He could try entering the cave just a few feet, see if he could spot the light through the silt. As long as he kept view of the entrance, that would be okay.

            Lee swam several feet into the cave and then looked over his shoulder. The clouds of silt were worse than he thought. The entrance had almost vanished behind him. He immediately turned around and exited the cave.

            He looked at his watch. There was no time left to contemplate a decision. He kicked himself off the sandy bottom, and with every ounce of energy he could muster, kicked his legs like motorized scissors and cut through the water toward the yacht.

            It seemed as if the water had turned thicker, like the consistency of jello. Lee’s legs began to ache, his muscles were feeling tight and strained and his calves began to cramp. He finally saw the shadow of the yacht, took some deep breaths and pushed himself harder. Almost like a fish jumping out of water, he propelled himself above the water’s surface and grabbed the ladder. With arms that felt tight and rubbery, he pulled himself onto the deck. Lee yanked off his flippers, spit out his mouthpiece and hurried into the boat to find something to use as a tether.

            Bob kept swimming, trying to locate the entrance. He had finally broken through the thick cloud of silt, but immediately saw no exit from the cave. The passage appeared to have narrowed and he wondered if he hadn’t gone deeper into the cave. Bob turned off the light, hoping that in the darkness he would see the distant glow of the entrance. Immediately the cave became black, as if the water had suddenly turned to thick ink. Bob looked around, straining his eyes to see the tiniest ray of hope, some lighter shade of darkness that might indicate the entrance.

            There was nothing but complete blackness.

            He turned on the light and continued. His movements had stirred more silt into the water, and as he moved through the cave, he noticed that the walls were narrowing. Bob checked his pressure gauge. It read 550 psi. He’d hit the red zone. He was rapidly running out of time.

            Bob continued, but with every kick of his legs, more silt stirred into the water and a heavy feeling in his gut told him he was making a huge mistake, going in the wrong direction. He continued, but by now, he had lost all measurement of time. It may have been seconds, or minutes, he couldn’t be sure. Finally, he stopped.  He had made a mistake, he was sure of it.

            Bob turned around, every movement stirring a thicker haze into the water. With his left arm outstretched holding the light like a beacon, he hurried toward what he hoped was the direction of the entrance.

            His tank was running low and he noticed that he was breathing too fast. Way too fast. And where was Lee? Had he left, gone back to the boat? Was he lost in the cave too without a light? This had been a mistake. A big mistake. He should’ve listen to Lee. For once in his life, he should’ve listened to Lee.

            After each breath, his lungs still hungered for oxygen. It was a deep hunger, a lingering starvation that stretched all the way to his toes. He tried to slow his breathing but didn’t seem to have any control over it. He was running out of air. A growing sense of euphoria was wrapping itself tightly around his thoughts. He was growing lightheaded. His legs ached and were beginning to feel like thin ribbons of rubber. His arms were growing heavy, and holding his arm out with the light was getting to be a growing effort. Bob pushed himself, moving his legs in what now seemed like slow motion, the kind of slow motion that haunted people in their nightmares when they were trying to run from something terrifying. Each movement brought aches and muscle cramps. As he drifted through the cloud of silt, he bumped into the side of the cave. His fingers holding the light were cramping and feeling weak. He hit the cave wall again and this time the light dropped from his grasp and fell onto the sandy bottom with a muffled thud. Bob stopped, and looked down at the light. The beam shot through the thick veil of silt looking like a headlight shining in a thick fog at night. He watched as swirls of silt danced silently in the beam. There was almost something beautiful about it, serene and peaceful. He could see tiny, individual specks of the silt, some of them floating and reflecting like tiny chips of diamonds. He reached out with his hand and waved it through the water. The silt swirled around, forming little eddies and whirlpools. He waved his other hand through the water and watched the silt dance and move through invisible currents. Now it looked as though the light was a distance away. His sense of up and down had vanished in the weightlessness. Was that a motorcycle coming through the fog? It reminded him of the time when he and Lee had taken their motorcycles to the Smoky Mountains. It had become very foggy after sunset and Bob frequently checked his mirror to make sure that Lee was right behind him. For miles, all he saw was a dim headlight cutting through the gray thick fog.

            But the light didn’t move or bounce over the ruts in the road. It was still, and the world had grown silent except for the sound of air bubbles escaping from his regulator. Such a peaceful sound, like white noise on a quiet night when sleep was elusive. The light continued to grow and seemed to almost burn an image in his thoughts, like the afterglow of a flashbulb. He hung there in the water, floating as weightless as a cottonwood seed in the nearly still air of Spring. A tunnel seemed to form around the growing light. Not a tunnel of rocks and coral, but one with a smooth surface, as white and brilliant as the light itself. And the light was such a great distance away. He could no longer reach out and touch it. It seemed to be fading and moving away. While he watched, the tunnel grew longer and the light more distant.

            The tunnel fell silent and the light dimmed. Bob tried to take a breath but nothing filled his lungs. He strained to fill his lungs, but there was nothing. Bob released his mouthpiece and floated, watching the light as it moved away. His lungs were burning, feeling hot and on fire. His chest ached now, and the burning worsened, but he didn’t seem to care. He needed to breathe, to fill his starving lungs again.

            Bob opened his mouth and took in a lung full of salt water, then immediately convulsed, his body twisted and jerked, his lungs felt like a thousand hornets had flown inside and were stinging him. The seawater engulfed his lungs, burning the soft and tender tissue. His heart rate became extremely rapid as his body tried to push blood through the lungs in a futile search of oxygen. When his pulse neared two hundred, the heart surrendered. The seawater filled every space of his lungs, and the soft spongy tissue became heavy and laden with the ocean. His heart rate became erratic, and his pulse quickly slowed. The white tunnel grew bigger and filled the entire cave, and some force was pulling him through it.

            Peace filled his mind and there was a soft touch on his shoulder. He was sure that he turned to see who it was, but no one was there, yet the touch was comforting and reassuring. As he drifted through the tunnel the slight chill of the water was replaced by warmth, and then there were voices, familiar voices of people he hadn’t seen in years. They were people who had died, but now they seemed so close.

            Lee grabbed his shoulders and shook him, but Bob’s limp body hung unresponsively suspended in the water. Bob’s eyes stared blankly behind the facemask.  He desperately pushed his mouthpiece into Bob’s mouth, but his lifeless lips wouldn’t accept it.

            Lee replaced the mouthpiece, took a breath and reached down and grabbed the light and tied the rope around Bob’s waist, then began swimming. He followed the thin fishing line that would lead him to a fishing pole at the entrance, pulling his friend behind him as quickly as he could.

 

 

 

 

 

Dying for a Cigarette

 

Craig Morris knew he should give up cigarettes. He’d been told for five years by his physician, and four years, three hundred sixty-four days by his wife Ellen. She’d been visiting her mother the day he went to the physician. It was the only day of peace he’d known. First, she took bacon away from his breakfast. It had been a regular item on the table every Sunday morning since they married twenty-five years ago. Then the butter disappeared and margarine took its place. Two-percent milk found its way into the refrigerator, and even though he didn’t eat eggs, she brought home artificial ones called Egg Beaters and began fixing those for breakfast every Sunday. A bagel with cream cheese was nothing but a memory.

It was almost enough to make a man want to get up early and sneak out of the house to attend church on Sunday morning. Sometimes there were donuts in the lobby.

When Ellen did buy beer, it was the light, reduced calorie kind. And if he wanted  a handful of nuts or chips, he’d have to stop at the bar on the way home from work when they had free snacks during Happy Hour. It would drive any man to drink.

Craig had cut down on his smoking, going from a three pack a day habit down to one pack, and sometimes less than that if Ellen was gone visiting her mother. For some reason when he was alone, he didn’t have much of an urge to light up. There wasn’t much fun in doing something he shouldn’t when no one was there to nag him about it. The doctor had warned him that if he didn’t quit, a heart attack was about as certain as crooked politicians in Washington. His cholesterol had been too high but there was medication to help that. Still, nothing could unclog the arteries that years of hard living had plugged up, and that’s what worried Ellen.

Despite her nagging and constant fussing about his health, Craig loved his wife dearly. He often told folks that thirty years ago when they met, he had caught an angel flying low.

“I’m going shopping later today. Is there anything you’d like?” Ellen opened the dishwasher and began putting away the clean dishes. It was a task she forbid him to do.

“Yes, a pound of butter, some chips, pretzels and a six pack.” He was about to add cigars to the list but decided against pressing his luck.

“Can’t you think of something that’s good for you?”

He could, but it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “Get whatever,” he growled.

Craig left the kitchen and went outside to the garage. It was every man’s last refuge, a place where the wife didn’t dust or vacuum, or arrange tools according to size and function. It was a place where a man could get dirty and tinker without being told what to do.

For a while, he casually worked around the garage, changing the lawn mower oil and replacing the spark plug. When he was through with that, he walked out behind the garage and lit one up. That first drag felt good and the years of nagging and special diets disappeared for a moment.

“Craig! Craig! Are you out there?”

So much for peace and quiet.

“Yes, dear.”

“What are you doing?”

He took a long drag off the cigarette then tossed it into the air. It hit the ground in a tiny shower of sparks. “Seeing if the grass needs cutting,” he yelled back.

“I’m sure it will sooner or later whether or not you watch it grow.”

Craig grumbled and started walking toward the house. Suddenly a sharp stabbing pain gripped his chest like a tightening vise. His lungs felt as if the air had been sucked out of them. He stopped and gripped his chest with his right hand. He wanted to yell out to his wife, but he felt frozen. In his mind, the words screamed, but he couldn’t find the air to mumble a syllable. Then just as suddenly, the pain began to subside. It no longer flowed down his left arm like hot acid in his veins. The vise loosened its death grip and Craig could breathe again. He stood still for a long moment until the pain had completely disappeared.

Craig wiped the sweat from his brow and realized that his shirt was nearly soaked. He couldn’t go inside looking like this. Ellen would ask questions and quickly come to a conclusion, and in a few minutes he’d be sitting in the emergency room waiting hours for the youngster physician of the day to examine him.

As a light breeze stirred the air, Craig lifted his shirt away from his body so that the breeze could dry it.  The pain was totally gone as if it had never been there. Perhaps it was only a touch of heartburn. Beer had been bothering him lately. His two nightly beers, (three if Ellen wasn’t watching closely), was always followed by a Pepto-Bismal chaser.  Sometimes he took a double shot of that. After a couple of minutes, Craig went into the house.

“Any chores you want me to do?”

“I don’t think so, unless you want to tackle that leaky faucet in the basement sink.”

He considered her suggestion for a second. “Anything else?”

“Not unless you want to go grocery shopping with me.”

“I think I’ll stay home and work on the faucet.” He hated shopping, except on Tuesdays; that was the day the grocery store was least occupied with other human beings. He loved his family, but when it came right down to it, he hated crowds, and that included family reunions. And especially any gathering with the in-laws. He figured they were family that never really belonged to us, except maybe in times of inheritance.

Ellen reached into her purse that was sitting on the kitchen counter and retrieved her lipstick. She removed the cap, twisted the tube until a half-inch of red lipstick appeared, then proceeded to apply it.

“Why do women need to wear lipstick to go shopping? Having a thing going with the bagger?” Craig chuckled.

“Unlike men, women like to look nice when they go out. Your idea of dressing up is putting on clean socks.”

“Glad to see you’ve still got a sense of humor.” Craig smiled and watched his wife put away the lipstick. She reached into the purse trying to find the little pouch that she kept it in. She tilted the purse on its side for a better look and quickly tucked the lipstick safely away. “I guess I’m off.”

He already knew that. “Okay, drive carefully.” He bent over to kiss her goodbye.

“Not on the lips. Here,” she said pointing to her cheek.

He lightly kissed her check and smelled the sweet perfume that she was wearing. Despite all the complaining about her, she was a wonderful woman. No one else would’ve tolerated him all these years.

“Have a good shopping trip.” Craig smiled, almost sad to see her go.

“Are you okay?”

“Never been better.”

Ellen gave him a puzzled look that wrinkled her nose, then turned, grabbed her purse and went out the door.

Craig watched his wife leave and a feeling swept over him like a cold chill. It felt as though he was watching her leave for the last time.  He shook his head as if that would throw off the thought, then grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and went into the living room.  He popped open the can of beer and sat down in his favorite chair. It was a fifteen- year-old Lazy-Boy, well worn in just the right places to accommodate his large body.  After setting the beer down on the end table, he fished under the cushion for the remote. Before he could turn on the TV, the phone rang.

“Dag nabbit! Can’t have one moment of peace around here.” Craig got up and walked across the room to the phone. “Hello.”

“Daddy? It’s Beth.”

“Well hello, how’s my little girl?” She wasn’t little any more, but a woman of twenty-two would always be his daddy’s little girl.

“Doing well. How are you doing?”

Her voice sounded different somehow.

“Fine. Is something wrong?”

“No. Just thought I should call you.”

There was a brief pause, a moment of silence that spoke its own language.

“Now don’t tell me that. I know better. You don’t just call unless you’ve met a new boyfriend or need money!” He chuckled and Beth joined him.

“No, nothing like that. Can’t I call you for no reason?”

“Sure you can. You’ve never done it before. Maybe you should try a few calls like this, let me get used to them.” He chuckled again. “Your mother’s not here. She just left for the store.”

“That’s all right. I really called to talk with you. You feeling okay? Any problems?”

“No, why do you ask?” Did she sense something that he didn’t? That chest pain would’ve toppled a lesser man. He was surprised he hadn’t keeled over.

“I don’t know. Just felt I needed to call.” She paused, wondering if she should say more. A few minutes ago, her chest hurt and she immediately thought of her father. The  two sensations seemed connected, and her intuition told her to not ignore it.

“I’m glad you did. When are you coming home to visit?”

“Next weekend. I won’t have any exams to study for, so I’ll be able to spend more time with you and mom. How about if you make some of your chicken on the grill?”

He said he would, and they talked for several minutes more.  When Craig hung up the phone, he couldn’t help but wonder about the timing of the call. Several times, she asked if he was feeling all right, and each time he reassured her that he was doing fine. The words felt like a lie and there was little conviction in his voice. He didn’t even believe it himself.

After he settled down and watched a couple of TV shows, and finished his beer, the chest pain started. It was a mild pain at first, easy to ignore, and then immediately, sharp, shooting pains followed. The stabs of pain erased his breath like a punch to the abdomen. The beer fell from his hand and Craig leaned forward in the chair clutching his chest. He tried taking deep breaths, but every time he inhaled, the pain worsened.

“I’m home dear!” came a sing songy voice from the kitchen. Thank God, Ellen was home.

“Ellen,” he gasped, but the words came out weakly as if someone had tightened a belt around his chest. “Help!”

Ellen walked into the living room, and after one look, ran to Craig’s side.

“Oh my God! What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”

“Chest pain,” The words came out in a lethargic gasp as if there was no air behind them. “Call 911.”

“Oh my God. Oh my God!” Ellen ran to the phone and dialed 911. “Hurry up dammit! Answer!” She looked at Craig, her face scratched with lines of worry. “Yes, my husband’s having a heart attack. I don’t know, just now I guess. I just got home. He looks like he’s having trouble breathing.” Ellen watched her husband as he gasped for air. She gave the address, then in the middle of a sentence, hung up the phone and rushed to her husband’s side.

“Oh God, it hurts.” The pain was pushing down his left arm like a hot knife. His shoulder felt like a gorilla was squeezing it. The pain worsened, pulled the breath from his lungs and he toppled onto the floor.

“Oh! Oh God! Help!” Ellen knelt beside Craig. “Talk to me, say something. Oh God, don’t take him. Please don’t take him.”

“I hope they….. ah…. hurry.” The words were weak, nearly lifeless.

Ellen sat on the floor beside him, grabbed his sweaty hand and rubbed it. “Oh please hurry. Oh please God. Oh please hurry.” She kept listening for sirens, but only traffic sounds filtered through the opened window. “They’ll be here any second. Just hang on, just a little longer.” She could feel her own heart racing. It felt like a squirrel was running loose in her chest. Ellen rubbed his head, feeling the thinning strands of hair flow between her fingers.

Four minutes later, the ambulance arrived. They worked quickly assessing Craig, starting an IV and putting him on oxygen. He was semi-conscious, drifting in and out of some ethereal door between earth and the next world. By the time he was loaded on the stretcher, his lips were blue and his skin a pasty white.

“Do you have anyone to take you to the hospital?” one of the EMTs asked.

“No, not right now. My neighbors are all at work and my daughter lives out of town.” She held her hand up over her mouth, and looked at her husband through the blur of tears.

“Why don’t you ride along with us. I don’t think you need to be driving right now.” The EMT noticed his partner looking at him, but it was a brief stare, one that said that was not standard procedure.

The hospital was five miles away. Ellen didn’t even noticed the wail of the sirens or the lumber truck quality ride of the ambulance. She focused her attention on the nearly lifeless person who was her husband. The monitor showed an erratic and fast heart rate. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but it didn’t look good. Consistency in anything in life was good, and his heart rate had no consistency.

As the ambulance pulled up to the emergency room entrance, Craig opened his eyes and immediately turned his head toward his wife as if he knew exactly where she was.

“Craig!” Ellen cried and large teardrops rolled down her cheeks. 

“I love you, Ellen.”

“I love you, too.”

“Beth called just before this started.” Their eyes locked with all the intensity of two souls parting after a lifetime. “It’s ok, Ellen. It’s ok.”

Ellen didn’t notice that they had stopped and the two EMTs were waiting to bring him into the emergency room. She leaned over and kissed Craig on the lips, which were cool and blue.

By the time Craig was brought into the emergency room and hooked up to the monitor, his heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation. The two large ventricles, or chambers of his heart had ceased to beat in an organized manner, instead they moved as an uncoordinated quivering muscle. With ventricular fibrillation, there was no effective blood flow throughout the body. The brain cells were energy hogs, and twenty-five percent of the heart’s blood flow went to the brain. Without oxygen, The brain cells would begin dying by the millions.

“Epinephrine!” a doctor shouted.

A nurse gave the doctor a syringe with a large, three-inch needle as another nurse quickly pulled the curtain closed around the gurney.

With the skill that comes from experience of having watched too many patients die, the physician touched Craig’s chest, found the desired location, and plunged the needle through the chest into his heart.

The heart monitor showed no change.

“Let’s shock him.”

The nurse readied the defribrillator and then handed the physician the two paddles. A small amount of gel was applied to each paddle to assist in conducting the electricity and the two paddles were rubbed together to spread the gel.

“Clear!”

KA THUNK

Craig’s entire body flinched as the electricity surged through his nearly lifeless body.

The physician watched the monitor for a response. There was an immediate spike, then a tiny squiggle indicating continued fibrillation.

His whole being seemed filled with an immense, overwhelming peace and serenity. There was no feeling of warmth or cold. He no longer had an awareness of his surroundings, only a sense of people working frantically to prevent his movement into someplace he now preferred. It was if he was moving into a new world that his whole life had meant to prepare him for.

He no longer felt like a spiritual being having an earthly existence, but an earthly being now trying to have a spiritual experience. For the briefest of moments there was an awkwardness, like he didn’t really belong to either world, but was caught in the undertow that was now pulling him away from what was familiar.

The sensation of having a body began to fade, and was quickly replaced by a simple sensation of being. He felt no boundaries, no limitations, no pain, no negative feelings at all. It was like being a breath of air exhaled into the endless vacuum of the universe. The sense of peace was almost overwhelming. It was like nothing he had ever experienced nor dreamed of.

He had no cares, no worries, nothing pressing on his thoughts. There was no sense of sadness or remorse. His loved ones who were left behind, would see him again. The time he needed to wait would pass in an instant and seem like no real time at all. He knew that without so much as a thought. It was instinctive knowledge of the soul that was no longer weighted down by an earthly existence and all the doubts and questions that come with it. Only those still living would feel that weight of time and the dark unknown of death so often shrouded in fear. A lifetime, even one that spanned a full century or more was not even a blink in eternity. Time was simply a measure of something, a measure of the earth’s rotation around the sun, or its rotation around its axis. Days and years meant nothing in the other world, a world that watched a universe expand, and bore witness to the formation of galaxies and planets and watched life evolve. Time had no relevance; it didn’t dictate rest and activity, meals or anything else that could be scheduled.

There were distant whispers, and though he could not determine what was said, the voices were familiar and comforting.

Although there was no darkness, nor noticeable shades of white or gray, there was a brightness that was more intense than staring at the sun on a clear summer day. Craig knew that he was moving toward the brightness and that it was good. The brightness widened and seemed to envelop his seemingly endless being. Events unfolded without the meaning or measurement of time.

As the brilliance of light enveloped him, Craig suddenly saw his entire life. It didn’t parade past him like a movie, or a flash of a million postcard images. There was simply an awareness of its meaning, an awareness of all his shortcomings, his strengths, his triumphs and failures. He suddenly saw his life for what it was, saw the hidden motivations for his behaviors, the truth behind each lie, and the lies behind what he held as truth. He knew every psychological motivation for his behaviors, the meaning of anger that was merely a façade to cover a deeper hurt or fear. He suddenly understood the behaviors of others, what caused their reactions, their sharp words or easy tears. It amazed him and didn’t, that his life could be reviewed so quickly.

In that instant, he knew exactly why no human being held even a fraction of the knowledge needed to judge anyone.

In the intense brightness, there was no sensation of warmth or cold.

Though no one was near him, he heard the growing whisper of voices and felt the presence of power, love and knowledge. There was no longer any fear of rejection, but an overwhelming sense of unconditional love and acceptance.

The murmur of voices grew louder and he recognized them as very familiar. Then suddenly there was a hushed silence, as he felt the warmth of a gentle hand touch his. He knew he was in the presence of greatness, yet did not feel small or insignificant. All his notions of religion, of God and of Jesus fell away as truth filled his being.

God embraced him.

Craig looked beyond the brightness, beyond the warm embrace. God was not what he had ever imagined, not what religions preached and zealots warned about. It was closer to what the hippies of the 60s chanted.

God is love. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God-Speed and Good Luck

 

He always considered himself a lucky man. And he was. The kind of luck measured in a draw of the cards or a winning lottery number. In most cases, luck was something you wanted, and if you didn’t have it, you envied your neighbor whose grass really was greener.

In death luck is always present, but it’s the ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ kind of luck. Still, shuttle commander Paul Stone was lucky even in death. Seconds after the explosion, he fell unconscious as the intact crew compartment plummeted toward an ironically, calm and serene ocean surface. The ripples from the splash would touch every shore of the planet.

Like most astronauts, Stone spent time in the Air Force, not as a pilot initially, but as an engine mechanic. He finally entered the pilot training program and did a tour in Viet Nam. After discharge, he headed for NASA. The day of the tragic explosion, his wife, four children and mother were in the VIP box watching the launch. Paul’s home was only minutes from the Cape, and he spent every spare moment fulfilling his roles as father and husband. Because the astronaut training program requires a person remain in excellent physical condition, Paul worked out daily and watched his diet. He looked more like a pro boxer than an astronaut. His wife enjoyed the washboard abs and the broad shoulders and beefy arms. Naturally muscular, he was difficult to fit, and because of his size, six foot two, NASA almost turned him away.

            Lift off was less than a minute away. The six crew members of the shuttle Artemis were busy with last minute systems checks. No matter their experience or position on board the space shuttle, nervousness tattooed its mark on every emotion the astronauts felt. It was normal. Even seasoned entertainers got the jitters before performing on stage. No matter how far technology had advanced, space travel remained dangerous. A contest of grade school children named Artemis, after a Greek goddess. Robbie Holbrook from Chicago won the contest, which included a week at Space Camp in Houston. Paul Stone met with Robbie and was impressed with the young boy’s knowledge and enthusiasm for space travel. He told Robbie he wouldn’t be a surprised if he read about Robbie Holbrook traveling to Mars in twenty years.

Robert McCoy was the shuttle’s pilot. He was an experienced astronaut, this being his fourth mission. He spent time in Nam, and then flew commercially for a short while before heading for NASA. His wife Lynn and his daughter Emily were home in St. Augustine watching the launch. This time Rob insisted they stay home, though normally they attended every launch. Emily was in a play that evening, and it would just be too much, Rob argued. Emily sat in a crowded classroom at the Neil Armstrong Elementary School watching the launch. Her mother sat beside her. They held hands, and Lynn was embarrassed by her sweaty palms. She imagined holding her hands out and having puddles form in them.

            Allan Hoyt was Mission Specialist 1. He was part of the new breed of astronauts. Not even a pilot, Allan was a scientist who refused to fly home to Salt Lake City to visit his parents. He either took the train or drove. Despite his intense fear of flying, Allan held no fears about space flight. As with all potential astronauts, he underwent comprehensive psychological testing before admission to the space program, and still endured teasing from his fellow astronauts. He specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology. An experienced black belt in Karate, he was no geek, but he was a man who trusted science more than he trusted God. His easy nature, soft features and kind smile made him a shoe in for crewmember. In the small confines of a space shuttle, personality is nearly as important as knowledge and experience. A lifelong bachelor, Allan had a marriage planned for July. He was always a busy man. He loved reading, building wooden ship models from scratch from a set of plans, and when inspired, he wrote poetry to his fiancée.

            Andrea Shaffer was one of two women onboard. She was a mission specialist with a background in electrical engineering. Shaffer was a space veteran, having flown on three previous missions in which she helped to deploy satellites into orbit.  NASA loved Shaffer. In addition to being extremely talented, Andrea had a charming and friendly personality, and a face the camera loved. NASA chief, Arnold Bolton estimated about fifty million men would watch liftoff just to catch a few glimpses of Andrea Shaffer. He had his own fantasies he kept to himself, and suspected many men in NASA shared his thoughts. In a time when TV coverage meant funding, looks unfortunately mattered. She was married, but the press rarely mentioned her husband. Bolton preferred it that way. A little mystery was enticing and helped TV ratings, which had decreased every year since the Apollo program. A spike in the ratings only occurred when there was a tragedy.

            Richard Elliot was also a Mission Specialist. He had been an Air Force pilot in Viet Nam, but had no interest in piloting a space shuttle. His love was bio-medical research, and he saw space as an intriguing laboratory with endless possibilities. Richard was single, often seen with a new woman monthly, and always a red head. Still, there were rumors regarding his sexual orientation. Everyone at NASA knew better. NASA personnel who worked with Elliot often referred to him as the Warren Beatty of NASA.

            Kari Neal was an experiment. She wasn’t a scientist, pilot or an astronaut, and until a few months ago, had never flown before. The highest she had ever been was on the ninth story of an office building in Burlington Vermont. The building was twelve stories, but Kari had no need to venture higher and wouldn’t even out of curiosity. The months of training was like a fairy tale come true. In real life, she was a schoolteacher, humbly teaching a class of thirty-four tenth graders. She added little real value to the mission other than publicity. Her mere presence on the shuttle flight would increase viewer-ship ten-fold. Between Kari and Andrea, shuttle launches were commanding big ratings. Prior to Andrea joining the crew, the evening news covered shuttle launches with a ten-second clip. Teaming her up with Kari Neal was intentional for simple reasons. Andrea was the most qualified for the mission, and she brought in male viewers. NASA chief Bolton even considered an astronaut calendar, but the idea didn’t go over well. The mid-morning launch would limit viewership, but this launch would be a launch that would be viewed over, and over unlike any other. 

            “Kari. You doing okay?” Paul asked. Kari was on the lower mid-deck. The commander and pilot were on the upper flight deck. They couldn’t see each other, but were able to maintain constant radio contact.

            “Doing fine, Commander,” Kari answered. She smiled, her eyes as wide as a child’s on Christmas morning. She had spent over eighteen months preparing for this flight until even emergency drills felt routine. She woke this morning feeling pumped up and confident, like all her dreams had come true at once.

There was a concern about the overnight freezing temperatures at the cape, unusual for this time of year.  Despite concerns, she was excited and confident at her 4:00 a.m. wake up. Now, she wasn’t as confident. Going up into the launch tower, she spotted icicles four feet long. Some longer. They dangled with an ominous look, like teeth from some giant, pre-historic carnivore. Watching them break loose and fall to the ground like tossed spears was especially disturbing for some reason.

            “Don’t worry, Kari,” Stone told her. “A little ice isn’t going to be a problem. The best rocket scientists in the world have been up all night talking. They know what they’re doing.”

            Kari smiled. “Thanks, Commander. I hope the all night talking had something to do with the shuttle.” They all chuckled and the level of tension dropped a notch.

            “Make sure you’re buckled in. We’re about T-minus 90,” Stone reminded.

            “I’m surprised no one’s been harpooned by a falling icicle,” McCoy said.

            “Maybe they have, but don’t think NASA would delay the mission over that!” They enjoyed a brief laugh, and then quickly re-focused on the pre-flight checks.

            It was exactly ninety seconds until liftoff. To seven people, life now measured no more than one hundred sixty-three seconds. Seven adult lives now dwindling down to final seconds, and none experienced anything more than a few pre-launch jitters. That’s how death often arrived. It lurked silently and under the cloak of invisibility and denial.

            For thirty seconds there was near silence in the shuttle. The primary activity was sitting still, alone with thoughts coated with excitement, fear and anticipation.  At T minus sixty-one seconds, Commander Paul Stone spoke.

            “One minute downstairs.”

            “Cabin pressure is probably going to give us an alarm,” Allan Hoyt observed. Caution and warning alarms were routine occurrences during pre-launch.

            “Okay,” Stone answered, looking at the gauge. “Okay there.”

            “Alarm looks good,” McCoy said. The cabin pressure was acceptable.

            “Good,” Stone replied. In the moments before launch, talk was minimal, as if they had to purchase words by the syllable. They were extremely busy monitoring the many systems, and in those last seconds, silent distracting thoughts raced through everyone’s mind. Some thoughts are shared, and others are reserved for late night campfires or discussions at the bar or dinner parties. Some thoughts are never shared at all.

            “Right engine helium tank is just a little bit low,” McCoy pointed out at T minus thirty-four seconds.

            “It was yesterday, too,” the Commander tells him.

            “Okay.”

            T minus thirty-one.

            “Thirty seconds down there,” the Commander says.

            They waited in silent anticipation for the solid rocket boosters and main engine to ignite.

            “Fifteen,” the Commander said.

            Seconds ticked by, and each one touched a nerve. Among the seven astronauts, the nerve touched something and caused a reaction; sweaty palms, frequent blinking, tightened fists, butterflies, a jittery feeling, but with McCoy, he simply felt nervous, that nebulous vague sensation that evades capture by words.

            “T-minus 10 seconds,” McCoy said. Counting simple numbers never absorbed so much emotion. A million things could go wrong. A space ship is a very complicated piece of machinery. However, engineers had designed redundant systems, so one component could fail and they’d still have one, maybe two backups.

            At T minus six seconds, the giant rockets ignited, their powerful rumble shook each astronaut to the point they could feel it in their tooth fillings.

            “There they go, guys!” His voice vibrated with the rocket. Stone felt an adrenalin rush that only a small number of human beings ever felt; the rush of being shot into space. A good fast sports car is a rush. Even watching NASCAR can get a person pumped up. Roller coasters were designed for adrenalin junkies. The best coasters make the riders feel like they cheated death. But, there was nothing like sitting on top of a rocket going faster than anything on earth. Even faster than a speeding bullet.  It was a rare astronaut whose heart rate didn’t scare the flight physician at least once.

            T minus two seconds.

            “All right!” Hoyt yelled.

            “Three at a hundred,” Stone said, referring to the three engines all being at one hundred percent thrust. 

            “Aaaaalll riiiiight!” Hoyt yelled again. It was T minus zero. The rocket was lifting off. Its acceleration was not too unlike parts of a roller coaster ride.

            “Here we go!” McCoy said.

            As the giant rocket thundered beneath them, the shuttle slowly took flight. The vibrations from the engines shook them in their seats, a vivid reminder of the power they were riding. For those few who had a window, they watched the tower slip past them at an ever increasing speed. Icicles, some three or four feet long, shattered and fell from the launch pad.

            Just over half a second from take off, a small plume of hot gases began to escape from the right solid rocket booster. Captured on film, the tiny jets of gas, dwarfed by the enormous rocket, went unnoticed. The o-ring, frozen in the low overnight temperatures was brittle and had lost its elasticity. The o-ring was designed as a buffer between rocket parts and to prevent the escape of hot gases. Just a few feet away was the huge, external tank that held the hydrogen and liquid oxygen.  During the stress of liftoff, the o-ring was like a shock absorber between tons of metal, only this morning, it simply cracked and broke as the solid rocket boosters ignited. With the enormous thrust and pressurized gases, the damaged o-ring sprung a leak.  Later, photographic data would show plumes of smoke spurting from a joint near the o-rings.

            “Houston, Artemis roll program.” Stone was referring to the rocket maneuvers to roll the ship slightly to aim it for trajectory around the earth.  

            “Looks like we’ve got a lot of wind here today,” McCoy said, looking out the window and the billowing clouds.

            “Yeah, looks like it.” Stone paused as he monitored instrument readings. He turned toward the window. “It’s a little hard to see out my window here.”

            “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five,” McCoy said, referring to the altitude and velocity report. They were traveling at half the speed of sound.

            It was now 35 seconds after liftoff. It had seemed like minutes, and at the same time only as brief as a blink. Fear and anxiety were great distorters of time.   

            “Point nine,” Stone said, referring to 0.9 Mach.

            “There’s Mach one,” McCoy said five seconds later.

            Hot propellant gases continued to escape as the o-ring, grease and joint insulation melted and burned away. Tiny puffs of black smoke spewed out the minute opening in timing to the vibration of the rocket joint.

            Sudden shear forces slammed into the shuttle, shaking the entire craft slightly. The guidance, navigation and control system immediately sensed the wind shear and countered their force. Like any seasoned pilot, Stone and McCoy rode out the turbulence without a reaction. They sat back in their seats that vibrated worse than a sleezy hotel bed with Magic Fingers. Kari Neal wanted a window for reassurance and at the same time, was grateful she didn’t have one. Flying blind was a little like hiding under the bed.

            It was T plus 41.

            “Going through nineteen thousand,” Stone said calmly. The shuttle was now at an altitude of 19,000 feet.  “Okay, we’re throttling down.” The shuttle routinely throttled down during the period when it would be subject to maximum dynamic pressure. At this point, the shuttle was sustaining pressures of 720 pounds per square inch. At a higher altitude where the air was thinner, they could safely throttle up. Until then, the ride would be a little rough.

            It was T plus 43.

            Hot gases leaking from the right SRB continued their assault on the large external tank, scorching the side of the external tank, and slowly chewing away at the thin metal skin. The large external tank consisted of two smaller tanks inside, one atop the other. The lower tank contained hydrogen, the other liquid oxygen.  The gases were ready to ignite.

            For fourteen seconds the entire crew was silent. The shuttle shook and thundered skyward, and teacher Kari Neil thought it was the best damn ride she’d ever been on. That is, when she wasn’t feeling on the edge of terror. This was a far cry from driving the family van to school in the morning. Kari looked around the cabin. She still had trouble believing she was in the shuttle Artemis on her way into space! It was simply amazing. In what other country could a young schoolteacher, wife of a plumber and mother of two from small farm USA, go into space? Her parents were so proud, they purchased a flag pole and flag for their front yard. Tomorrow, it would be lowered to half-mast. 

            Finally, at T plus 57, the commander prepared to throttle up.

            “Go for throttling up.” Now that the shuttle had passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressure, they could safely throttle up to 104% power without risking shaking the rocket into a pile of nuts and bolts.

            “Ready to throttle up,” McCoy echoed.

            “Feel that mother go!” Stone yelled. God there was nothing like this, he thought. He could hardly wait for the rockets to go to full power.

            “Wooooohooooo!” Allan Hoyt yelled.

            Stone smiled as he continued to monitor the instruments.

            The gases leaking from the SRB were now a thin white flame with the sharpness of a razor-edged knife. The outer shell of the hydrogen tank continued to weaken.

            It was now exactly one minute since liftoff. Only thirteen seconds remained of the ill-fated flight.

            “Thirty-five thousand going through one point five.” McCoy was giving the altitude and velocity report. They were now at 35,000 feet at a speed of Mach 1.5.

            It was now one minute five seconds since launch.

            “Reading four eighty-six on mine,” Stone said, referring to the routine airspeed indicator check.

            “Yep, that’s what I’ve got, too.”

            “Roger, go at throttle up,” Stone ordered.

            It was now one minute ten seconds since lift-off. The solid rocket boosters were at 104% thrust. The hot gases leaking around the o-ring fed a growing white-hot flame. Suddenly, the flame expanded as it sliced through the hydrogen tank. As the flame plume increased in size, aerodynamic forces deflected it rearward onto the lower strut. The flames shot around the strut and licked at the surface of the huge, hydrogen tank. Within milliseconds, the lower strut broke away from both the solid rocket booster and the external tank. The SRB, now out of control, swung violently around, hitting, burning and denting the shuttle’s wing. Tiles shattered and broke away. A white vapor pattern began blooming from the side of the external tank bottom dome.

The sudden shudder startled every astronaut as the rocket moved slightly in its trajectory. Alarms started going off throughout the cabin. Stone and McCoy heard them for only a second before the explosion.

Beginning at 72 seconds into the flight, a rapid series of events occurred so quickly, it would take NASA months to determine exactly what went wrong. Telemetered data indicated a wide variety of flight system actions in response to the leaking hot gases.

            “Uh oh,” McCoy said. That was the end of the transcript. There was no sound of an explosion, no screams of pleads to God. Simply silence. It could be anyone’s guess exactly what made McCoy react. He wasn’t exactly sure what the noise meant, but he knew with certainty that such noises during launch often mean serious, if not always catastrophic failure.

The rotating solid rocket booster immediately began ripping away at the hull to the external tank.  The bottom dome of the tank quickly failed, leaking a tiny amount of hydrogen that quickly found fire. The flame immediately followed the gas trail into the massive hydrogen tank. Because oxygen was lacking, there was only a small initial explosion that ripped a larger opening in the hydrogen tank, resulting in an immediate, massive release of hydrogen.

The large hydrogen tank sat below a tank of liquid oxygen. With the release of hydrogen, there was a sudden forward thrust of almost 2.8 million pounds, shoving the hydrogen tank upward and crashing it into the liquid oxygen tank. Simultaneously, the large solid rocket booster, now at full thrust, impacted the intertank structure and the lower part of the liquid oxygen tank. In the violent collision, the fuel-starved fire sucked in the liquid oxygen, resulting in an immediate and massive explosion. The shuttle was traveling at Mach 1.92 at an altitude of 46,000 feet when a huge fireball enveloped it.

The right and left SRBs separated from the shuttle and flew off wildly in opposite directions, a white plume of smoke trailing. It would be just over 36 seconds before the United States Air Force Safety Commander would detonate an explosion that would send the rockets harmlessly into the ocean.

            Time had stopped, or seemed to. Pictures paraded past each of the astronauts in slow motion. It was like the fading after image one sees when they stare into a bright flash bulb. Probably from dying brain cells, remembering the last image the eyes had registered. There was a dull, distant sound, almost like thunder far away in the mountains. The sound faded. For the briefest of moments, there was a deafening sound, and then silence.

            A bright orange glow filled the cabin in the first few milliseconds of the explosion. It felt warm, almost friendly like a welcomed Spring sun after Winter’s thaw. The normal vibrations of launch suddenly became jolting thrusts that jarred a person’s spine. Commander Stone watched as cracks spidered across the thick windows at light speed. He could feel a force behind him, hot and explosive. A force that felt like he was sitting on a giant spring that had just been released. An image of a roller coaster surfaced in McCoy’s thoughts.

            The back of the large shuttle was broken in half like fragile kindling. The main shuttle engines were still burning in defiance. In milliseconds, the shuttle broke into fragments, each large chunk sprayed outward trailed by a thick white plume of smoke.

            The large crowds along the coast first looked at the expanding cloud and fireball in quiet disbelief, many wondering in that first second if this wasn’t some new type of launch designed by NASA. As the fireball expanded it became quickly evident that the shuttle had been destroyed. There was a brief silence, followed by moans, oooohhhhs, and finally, the quiet somber music of tears and sobbing.

            Inside the shuttle, the six astronauts instantly knew that death was less than a breath away. They could all sense an intense heat behind them. As the shuttle broke apart, the crew compartment separated from the rest of the shuttle still intact. It tumbled over and over as it flew though the air. The still conscious astronauts held tightly in their seats as the crew compartment tumbled. From 46,000 feet below, the crowds saw the crew compartment as a tiny fragment of many trailed by a large, thick stream of white smoke.  The actual force of the explosion, while powerful and fierce, was not sufficient to cause death or even serious injury to the crewmembers. Some roller coasters in Florida packed more of a punch in their twists and turns.

            For an endless twenty-five seconds, the crew compartment continued in an upward trajectory for 17,000 feet, peaking at 65,000 feet. As it began falling toward earth, its tumbling had stopped and it continued its free fall upside down.

Pilot Robert McCoy activated his emergency oxygen. He had survived the jungles of Viet Nam, he wasn’t going to simply give up. He glanced over the control panel that was bent and twisted out of shape. Not even emergency power existed, except for the PEAP, personal egress air pack, which had its own power supply. McCoy looked around the darkened cabin. Next to him was a silent Paul Stone, sitting unconscious in his seat. He hung from the safety straps in the upside down cabin. At 65,000 feet, the crew compartment reached its peak projectory. For a fraction of a second, McCoy felt no motion. Then the compartment began falling. McCoy wished he had a parachute, but there was no way for an emergency egress. He cursed NASA for not designing better emergency escape procedures. McCoy took long, slow breaths and wondered why it even mattered. He knew when they hit the ocean, it would be like slamming into concrete. He’d never survive. McCoy removed the air mask then sat back in his seat as the crew compartment tumbled toward to ocean. It a matter of seconds, he was gratefully unconscious.

            Kari Neil was in the mid-deck, or lower compartment, along with Richard Elliot and Andrea Shaffer, both Mission Specialists. Neil and Elliot were seated side by side, and behind them and to Kari’s left, was Shaffer. The crew compartment continued its free fall upside down. In the time that was available, a brief moment of eye contact was denied as a last request. Neil gripped the armrests. She wanted to look at Rich, to say something, but the world around her began fading. Colors looked washed out and old. There were noises in the distance, like far off mumbling. She couldn’t make any sense out of what was being said. The voices were coming closer, the sound louder and more familiar. She knew the names behind the voices, yet for some reason, names were not important. She imagined their faces and saw her past. They faded from view as a bright light burned away their images. It was a warm and friendly light that welcomed her.

Time had ceased to exist. Things happened, events occurred, but there was no meaning of time assigned to them. Like words without the music. The damaged crew compartment rapidly lost air. In less than two seconds, the cabin interior had completely decompressurized.

            Each crew member’s helmet was connected to a personal egress air pack (PEAP) containing an emergency supply of breathing air (not pure oxygen).  The PEAP was designed for land emergencies. There was no real emergency procedure for an explosion of this magnitude. All contingencies had been considered, including a total systems failure or massive explosion. NASA assumed that no one could survive such an explosion. While later found to be false, upgrading the shuttle would have added substantial costs and weight and possibly at the loss of some Senate support. Of the four PEAPs recovered by rescue divers, three were activated.  Stone, the Commander of Artemis, did not stay conscious long enough to activate his PEAP.

            Andrea Shaffer felt her bladder let go. The urine’s warmth was overridden by the searing heat of the explosion. The seat and shoulder strap dug sharply into her shoulder and a sharp pain shot through her back like a large, burning hot needle. Her clavicle snapped like a toothpick, and needles of pain shot through her body.

For two minutes and twenty seconds, the crew compartment was in a free fall. It accelerated to a velocity of 207 miles per hour. When it hit the ocean, it impacted with a force of approximately 200 G’s, or 200 times the force of earth’s gravity. The impact ripped the seats from the floor flinging the astronauts into the ceiling. The small crew compartment folded into itself like an accordion. Seatbelts tore through their spacesuits like sharp knives. In an instant, the crew compartment became a nearly flat mass of twisted wreckage.

The ocean waves were but gentle wrinkles on the surface. The serenity of the peaceful morning seemed to mock the tragedy. A lone sea gull that was floating quietly on the surface was startled by the crash and took flight.

No one felt the collision with the ocean. No one felt their arms ripped from the sockets. The violence of the collision was enough to decapitate if the person was in the right position. It happened twice. Only body fragments were recovered, most of them small.

Death came quickly, and it came with mercy.

The crew compartment slammed into the ocean with such force it sounded like an explosion. A shock wave of water started outward, and in time, these larger waves would find shore. The compartment penetrated into the water’s depth about thirty feet. Metal crumbled like foil and the small crew compartment broke into pieces. Each body broke free from the restricting harness. The force of the collision was stronger than bone and tendons and ligaments, and most bodies were torn apart from the force. The crew compartment settled slowly to the bottom nearly two hundred feet below.  Pieces of the shuttle splashed into the ocean and followed the crew compartment to the ocean floor. The water’s surface was calm except for the growing circle of waves from the falling debris.

                       

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 |





One Response to 9/11-911

  1. Avatar of SavvyShort SavvyShort says:

    Just suspenseful and a really intense story just move up your chapters properly. I gave you a 5 but I felt it deserved more really good. Twin Towers I know too well my husband saw everything from the Hospital he worked in.So tragic.But thanks to your story it kept my attention.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment or you can