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First Person

Spared by Fate, Then Humbled by Survival

September 11, 2002|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK--Back in the same place, the same hotel, covering the same event, not on purpose but maybe not accidentally, either, I find myself drawn every day to a display in Grand Central Station.

It is not fancy, a haphazard posting of photos and letters, signatures and poems, messages left about and for victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy and their survivors.

Before I'd get on the bus to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, I'd walk to Grand Central to buy newspapers and to stare at the board. I'd look at the faces, the photos of people who were no more or less special than I, and I would read the note or see the obituary and I would cry a little.

Grand Central is next to the hotel I was staying in a year ago on the day two planes crashed into the two World Trade Center towers. For a moment the day before I had owned a seat on American Flight 11, the Boston-to-Los Angeles flight that became the first terrorist missile to hit the first tower.

I had lucked into a business-class upgrade to a seat four rows behind where Mohamed Atta would sit, but for reasons so trite as not wanting to get up so early to catch a connector to Boston, I changed my flight. Maybe it was luck or fate or divine intervention, but when Flight 11 crashed into the tower, I was asleep in a hotel room.

"God must have wanted you to live for some reason," well-meaning friends and intrigued strangers said. And I would think: "But, surely, God did not want the others to die?"

Or, "You must be destined for something special." And I think: "But what if I'm not? What if my life is the same as millions of others, of working, of enjoying friends and family, of some good, some bad, of nothing distinguished but nothing to be embarrassed about?"

Or, "You must have done something very good in your life." I would shake my head and think: "But that would mean the other passengers hadn't. And, of course, that's not true."

My reason for being in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 was a favorite assignment, writing about the U.S. Open tennis tournament. And now I'm back, having covered the same tournament. I wanted to be here. For the tennis, which was great theater this year, fated, maybe, to have four Americans in the finals; but also for the chance to look into the hole that was once the World Trade Center, to retrace steps, to be part of this again.

I do feel attached to Sept. 11 and for that I feel guilty. I didn't get on the plane, after all, and so my life did not dramatically change. I lost no loved ones, I suffered no injuries. After six days, I got on another plane and came home.

Because I'd written about my experiences in New York for this paper, I'd receive wonderful e-mails from readers who wanted to know: Did I feel lucky? Or sad? Or frightened? Was I different somehow?

And I'd think about the questions. But only for a minute.

I would read--every word--the small portraits of each victim in the New York Times. I used to read the Sports section first. Now it was those little stories and every day I would cry over them until my husband thought maybe it would be best if I didn't read them. But I couldn't stop. So that was different.

Every time I see an American flag or hear a patriotic song, those tears come again. When I began reporting baseball games again, I considered myself lucky to be in California where it's always OK to wear sunglasses. I didn't want to be seen weeping every day in a press box when they play the national anthem. So that was different.

Because I was there during the attacks, I was assigned to report the story from Bellevue, the hospital where families had been sent to fill out missing-persons reports. Today, a year later, the faces and voices of those men and women, mothers and fathers, boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, are alive in my head. I would recognize them all in a minute. I felt intrusive a year ago, asking them whose pictures they were holding up to news cameras. I still feel intrusive, that I remember their names and faces and stories.

I can't imagine how this year has gone for them. And then I wonder how the year would have gone for my family if I'd gotten on Flight 11. So that's different.

Monday I went to ground zero for the first time. The hole is so big, bigger than I imagined. Deeper than I dreamed. It is a grave site. It would have been my grave site. I did think that. So that's different.

One day during the Open, I was the only passenger in a van returning to my hotel from the tournament in Queens. The driver, a 60-ish Irishman, asked what I thought about Sept. 11. He wondered if I had been here last year too. I told him my story.

He told me where he'd been at the moment the towers fell, at his job, waiting for a call and not believing what he had seen. We talked about New York and New Yorkers, how the city was recovering. But he kept asking me, "Has your life changed? Are you different?" He wanted an answer.

I didn't have one.

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