9/11: Surfs Up
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was on the Belt Parkway, headed out to surf Long Beach. The day was beautiful, clear, and bright with huge swells rolling in thanks to Hurricane Erin down south. The conditions were so perfect any serious surfer had to go, you couldn’t miss an opportunity like this.
At about 8:50 A.M. I passed under the Brooklyn promenade and noticed shredded paper falling from the sky like a heavy snow. Looking up I saw a deep black cloud trailing back to the first tower. Put on the radio and pulled off the highway at Atlantic Ave. to get a clear view of lower Manhattan.
There it was, the gaping hole in the W.T.C. belching smoke. On the radio an eyewitness was speculating that a small aircraft accidentally collided with the tower. I took a few pictures and got back on the road wondering about what I just saw. It looked bad but manageable. I started driving again, still headed to Long Beach.
On the way the radio reported that the second plane hit the other tower. I pulled off the road by J.F.K. to look from the top of my truck. The highway in the other direction was packed with police, fire, and undercover cars, streaming in the other direction. On the radio the announcers, getting more and more agitated, were relaying orders that every single civil servant and those on reserve report to their posts. Every single one.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Keep driving. Then the on-air witnesses suddenly cried out that the top of tower two, the second hit, was falling. Seconds passed and the whole fucking thing dropped. I felt sick. I didn’t know what to do, I was driving, listening, shocked. This wasn’t an accident. Then news rolled in from the airlines that four to five commercial jets had been hijacked, two already reaching their targets, the others still in the air. Then news of a complete government shut down, all planes grounded, borders sealed. We really were being hit by terrorists and I was going fucking surfing.
I kept driving as people began to jump from the floors above the impact zones. I kept driving, helpless. Then they hit the fucking Pentagon… shocking. The second tower drops, I was almost there.
At Long Beach things were bizarrely serene. The big waves arrived in beautifully organized sets, with perfect offshore winds and glassy water. Some waves were breaking well over our heads. The best surf of the season, by far. The only cloud in the sky was streaming southeast along the horizon, changing from black to gray-black as the debris and dust mixed with smoke for hundreds of miles.
I tried my cell phone a bunch of times to call home. Impossible, way to much traffic. Lines at all the pay phones. Finally found a free one and it didn’t work. Fuck it. Another plane down near Pittsburgh apparently headed for the White House or Three Mile Island.
I spent the rest of the day surfing. While waiting for waves people would share the latest news; some one would paddle out from shore and give the estimated death toll, or latest official speculation on who launched the attack. The waves arrived in beautifully choreographed, glassy sets of seven. Huge mother waves finished each set with long intervals of calm in between.
At the end of the day, walking along Long Beach I met a man smartly dressed, wearing a yarmulke, hunching his shoulders. He was maybe 55 or 60 years old, and his dress shoes were covered in dust. I asked him, “Were you there?” He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, wondering aloud, “Why would someone do this, what would it accomplish? I feel very lucky to be talking to you… many people that took this train in this morning won’t be coming back.” The light had changed a few minutes before. I wished him a good day and we crossed the street. We parted and I looked back at him shuffling/running to the safety of his familiar surroundings.
The surf really was amazing that day but I wasn’t all there.
Jeff Taylor is an artist and lives in Brooklyn.
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