The Day of the Cockroach

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September 11, 2021

MY MOST VIVID MEMORY of September 11th, 2001, is my memory of a cockroach.

It was one of the biggest roaches I’ve ever seen — copper-colored and bullet-shaped, the length of my little finger — and it came crawling across the platform of the Government Center subway station at 7:00 a.m., as I stood there waiting for the train that would take me to Logan Airport. It scampered, stopped, then zigged and zagged, in that deliberate yet utterly directionless way of insects, its footsteps so heavy I swear that I could hear them, click-click-click on the greasy concrete.

It portended everything, this giant subway cockroach. Or it portended nothing. And as it came closer I drew my foot back — my right foot, I remember with absolute clarity — and nudged it, gently, off the platform and down into the dark and filthy space alongside the tracks, where it disappeared more or less instantly into the shadows and detritus.

This is how we remember things.

Once on the train, I would chat briefly with a United Airlines flight attendant, whose name I never got, and who maybe, possibly — I’ll never know for certain — was headed to work aboard the doomed United flight 175.

I was on my way to Orlando, where I’d be picking up a work assignment later that afternoon. My airplane would lift off only seconds after American’s flight 11, the first of the two jets to hit the twin towers. I had watched the silver Boeing back away from gate 25 at Logan’s terminal B and begin to taxi. United 175 would launch a few minutes later. My plane was in-between.

In an old briefcase here in this room, I still have my boarding pass from that morning. It shows me assigned to seat 11D, on the aisle, but there were empty seats and I slid over the window.

Elevens were wild that day. On the 11th day of the month, flight 11 would collide with the World Trade Center, two buildings that shaped an enormous “11” in the Manhattan sky. I looked down from row 11.

But there was nothing to see, yet. I recall an almost uncannily clear view of Manhattan, taking note, as I always do, of that graceful little bend that the island makes — the way it turns eastbound just below Midtown. There was no smoke, no fire. I was just a few minutes — a matter of seconds, maybe — too soon.

A short time later, about halfway to Florida, we started descending. Because of a “security issue,” our captain told us, we, along with many other airplanes, would be diverting immediately. Pilots are polished pros when it comes to dishing out euphemisms, and this little gem would be the most laughable understatement I’ve ever heard a comrade utter.

Our new destination was Charleston, South Carolina.

A bomb threat had been called in. That was my hunch. My worry wasn’t of war and smoldering devastation. My worry was being late for work. It wasn’t until I joined a crowd of passengers in Charleston, clustered around a TV in a concourse restaurant, that I learned what was going on.

And there I am. I’m watching the video of the second airplane, shot from the ground in a kind of twenty-first century Zapruder film. The picture swings left and picks up the United 767 moving swiftly. This is flight 175. The plane rocks, lifts its nose, and, like a charging, very angry bull making a run at a fear-frozen matador, drives itself into the very center of the south tower. The airplane vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

And then, a bit later, the collapse. And this is the important part. Because to me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper halves of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. Had the towers not actually fallen, I suspect our September 11 hangover, which rages to this day, might not have been so prolonged. It was the collapse — the groaning implosions and the pyroclastic tornadoes whipping through the canyons of lower Manhattan — that catapulted the event from ordinary disaster to historical infamy.

As I stand awestruck in this shithole airport restaurant in South Carolina, the television shows the towers of the World Trade Center. They are not just afire, not just shedding debris and pouring out oil-black smoke. They are falling down. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers, collapsing onto themselves, is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen.

Then I would go to a motel and spend the night. The next morning I would rent a car and drive all the way home to Boston.

This is how we remember things.

And pilots, like fire fighters, police officers, and everyone elsewhose professions had been implicated, had no choice but to take things, well, personally. Four on-duty airline crews were victims, including eight pilots. John Ogonowski comes to mind, the good-guy captain of American 11. Of the thousands of people victimized that day, Captain Ogonowski was figuratively, if not literally, the first of them. He lived in my home state; his funeral made the front pages, where he was eulogized for his philanthropic work with local Cambodian immigrants.

Maybe it’s melodramatic to say I felt a bond or kinship with these eight men, but it’s something like that. What they went through, these eight colleagues on the very front edge of the attacks, the very men whose airplanes would be stolen and weaponized, is something I can’t fathom yet, at the same time, I can imagine and visualize all too chillingly.

And yes, in the ten-second bursts it took the towers to fall, I knew something about the business of flying planes would be different forever. I just wasn’t sure what it would be.

Fast-forward. It’s hyperbole to speak of the world having been “changed forever” that day. I’m conservative and skeptical when it comes to these things. History is bigger than us. Try to take the long view, even if, all these years on, the dominos haven’t stopped falling. Heck, tens of millions of people died in World War Two — tens of thousands at a time, as the incendiaries rained down over Europe and Japan. A hundred thousand bodies one night in Tokyo alone.

Sure, things are different now. Albeit for reasons we don’t always own up to. I have to say, I’m discouraged — or should that be encouraged? — because more than any “clash of civilizations,” the real and lasting legacy of Mohamed Atta and his henchmen is something more mundane: tedium. Think about it. The long lines, the searches and pat-downs, the litany of rules and protocols we’re forced to follow — all this meaningless pomp in the name of security. Of modern life’s many rituals, few are marinated in boredom as much as air travel. “Flying” is what we call it. How misleading. We don’t fly so much as we sit and stand around for interminable amounts of time.

And most distressing of all, we seem to be okay with this. There’s the real legacy of September 11th. The terrorists have won, goes the refrain, and perhaps that’s true. It isn’t quite what they hoped to win, but they’ve won it nevertheless.

The irony that nobody talks about is that the hijackers’ ability to pull off the 2001 attacks so spectacularly had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first damn place. I’ve made this point many times, but never have I seen or heard it acknowledged elsewhere. As conventional wisdom has it, the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto the airplanes. But conventional wisdom is wrong. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold: diversions to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs.

The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. The men could have used knives fashioned from plastic, broken bottles wrapped with tape, or any of a thousand other improvised tools. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons, just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had dropped to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and fought back. That element of surprise was no longer a useful device. Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but also a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a terrorist, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized groups would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again. Guards paw through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Meanwhile, even a child knows that a lethal implement can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

A September 11th post isn’t anything I’ve looked forward to, and I’m wary of the maudlin sentimentalizing and over-the-top coverage this anniversary will bring. But something needed to be said, and so here it is. After all, nothing in my lifetime had a more profound effect on air travel than the events of that Tuesday morning twenty years ago.

Until now. Until COVID-19 came along. And as the legacy of September 11th troubles me, so do its eerie parallels with the ongoing battle against coronavirus.

Both crises were born of legitimately dangerous circumstances, but quickly became twisted by politics and hysteria. Curiously, this seems to have happened in opposite ways: After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right advocate for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Why the difference? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, seeking revenge, etc. — all the things that came into play after September 11th. The pandemic, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of where you stand, the big question is: how and when does it end? Or does it end at all?

When people are afraid they adjust rapidly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. Replace “war on terror” with “war on coronavirus” and feel what I mean. After 2001, we spent two entire decades — and counting — obsessed with the specter of terrorism. It never went away. Will the same thing happen again?

There’s been a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” People often talk of a life “after COVID” or “when COVID is over.” This is a nonsensical proposition. Just as there can be no “end of terrorism,” the virus too will stay with us, chronic and endemic. How we adapt will define the next decade. Will we do so sensibly, or, as we chose with terrorism, by waging a ruinously expensive and self-destructive battle that, to this day, has no conceivable end.

 

Author’s photo, taken from the cockpit of a 19-seater in 1994.

An earlier version of this essay appears in chapter six of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.

Related Stories:

CONSPIRACY NATION
AIRPORT SECURITY IN THE NEW CENTURY
THE HIJACKING OF TWA 847
THE SKIES BELONG TO US

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36 Responses to “The Day of the Cockroach”
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  1. Ted S says:

    I spoke with a young woman who was born after the attacks. I told her that things were a bit more fun and relaxed before that day. I mentioned the TSA and she said something like –Oh well, at least you don’t get hijacked anymore. I didn’t mention that it wasn’t really a thing that was on peoples minds in the 90s. I have Pre-check, but that hasn’t stopped the TSA security guards from becoming increasingly unfriendly, irritable and often passive aggressive. My last flight something beeped. Instead of helping me find it, I was subjected to the whole stupid, stupid pat down routine. Its a ridiculous show of authoritarianism.

  2. wilson says:

    Apparently the cockroach part of this episode doesn’t warrant a haiku. Telling.

  3. John roach says:

    Well-written.

  4. Kate says:

    You are not entirely wrong, but we need someone to be “Ask the Epidemiologist” to debate this with you.

  5. Ted says:

    Eloquent and insightful as always. THANK YOU.

    The analogies between the ‘war on terror’ and the COVID-19 pandemic are spot on.

    Unfortunately I fear that there are at least two other looming menances to the current reality that is air travel — climate change and cybersecurity. I hope that you’ll provide some thoughts to these topics in future essays.

    Climate change : impacts include but not limited to the fact that so many major airports are at ocean level, the entire fleet aloft now is 100% propelled by fossil fuels (just as EVs are ending the ICE age, Electric or other non-fossil fuel powered flight needs to be on our horizon), and for certain other impacts to ponder.

    Cybersecurity : on 9/11 the weapon of choice was a boxcutter. Now it can be a keyboard. If it hasn’t happened already, at some point in the not-to-distant future a flight with many souls aboard will meet an untimely end do to a few taps and clicks.

    Give me some rose-colored glasses and put on Louis Armstrong of “What a Wonderful World”…
    Or give me the 80s reality of The The “Sweet Bird of Truth”…
    Just not HuskerDu, because I can’t fly by “Private Plane” anymore (oh oh oh) 😉

  6. I admit it, I love you Mr. Patrick Smith, for your Knowledge, Professionalism, Kindness, Humanity, Honesty, and most of all the ability to convey feelings to other people without (my opinion) ever offending them !!! Always following you in print. Bless you, Peace Always, Stay Well.
    Frank C

  7. UAL jetset says:

    As a UA CS service director in Houston, I was getting ready for work when the first plane hit..a friend called me to turn on my TV, amd that a plane had hit the WTC,,after asking her if she was kidding, I turned it on in time to see UA 175 hit the second tower..walked into an empty terminal, and an ops room full of flight crews with no where to go..strangest sight, a man in mid afternoon whoran to the counter for a flight to Chicago, and when told everything canceled, looked confused and walked away.

  8. Patrick N says:

    Outstanding post. One of the best analyses of 9/11 and the overall mindset I have ever seen. Analogizing it with Covid is very apt and insightful.

  9. Jamie Switzer says:

    Fabulous essay. Thanks.

  10. Michael G Kennedy says:

    Wow.

  11. Marc Rettus says:

    In regard to cockroaches, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house that didn’t have them.

    In my early twenties, I started working in an ancient building. The roaches lived in the walls, and no effort was made to eradicate the little fellows. Once in awhile, one of them would take a day trip, and wander outside the safe confines of the walls.

    Because there was no effort to eradicate them, these things were huge. You could almost put a saddle on the thing and ride him around.

    One year it was decided that the place needed painting, and they sealed all the cracks in the walls while they were at it. We never saw another roach.

    Later, when I saw an everyday, mundane roach, I was surprised at how small it was.

  12. Marc Rettus says:

    I almost never fly, and the odds are pretty good that I will never fly again, simply because I have no desire to travel.

    Criticize if you want, but there hasn’t been a second 9/11.

    The last time I flew, which was about five years ago, in a very busy Orlando airport, I was randomly selected to go into the full body scanner. (I was cognizant enough to remove the sausage from my pants. Just kidding, this is a reference to the movie called This Is Spinal Tap.)

    After letting me out, I asked the agent if anyone ever thanked him, and, if not, I will be the first.

    I forget his response, but, people, there hasn’t been a second 9/11. Be thankful.

  13. Thomas says:

    September 11th, 2001 didn’t change the world. It changed only the United States.
    Before 9/11 airport security in the US was ridiculous – ridiculously lax. Today airport security in the US is still ridiculous – ridiculously, theatrically strict. Completely unreasonable.
    For example:
    When I travel by air, I still use a Samsonite hard side suitcase I bought in 1999. I lock it every time before I check it in. Obviously the locks are not ‘TSA approved’. And yet it hasn’t ever been broken open by “the authorities”. Why not? The United States is the only country in the whole world, where you can’t lock your suitcase when you travel by air. Americans don’t know this. They think the whole world changed after 9/11. No. Only the United States changed.

  14. ninja3000 says:

    As if it’s a movie imprinted in my mind, I look back and see:
    – Standing at the pier in Hoboken and watching the second jet auger in (then whipping out my camera and shooting an entire roll of the burning buildings)
    – Proceeding to take the PATH to 33rd Street, where it was then taken out of service by police.
    – Being evacuated from my office in Times Square and having to escape via ferry to NJ.
    – Sitting on my front porch upstate a few hours later, listening to the scream of fighter jets take off from Stewart Air Base.

    All of it feels as surreal now as it did then.

  15. mitch says:

    DC flyer – a bit of solace in raw data

    The American 767 was a -200ER, but was capable of no more than 351,000 lbs.
    https://www.planespotters.net/airframe/Boeing/767/N334AA-American-Airlines/YrJGipE5

    The United 767 was a -200, not a -200ER. It was capable of no more than 315,000 lbs. https://www.planespotters.net/airframe/Boeing/767/N612UA-United-Airlines/y9o7cN6x

    On that day with relatively empty airplanes – very small blessings amidst the horror – actual takeoff weights would have been much less than the limit.

    The buildings were brought down by velocity more than weight. Each airplane’s kinetic energy was the square of the velocity times half the mass. But let’s not go there – it’s all too horrible to contemplate.

    (BTW, only eleven 767-200ERs were made with the fuel capacity and structure to be capable of up to 395,000 lbs)

  16. Tom says:

    Beautiful.

    I remember driving to my local airport that morning with no clue about what was happening — no TV on at home, no radio in the car. And when I walked in and was told by a fellow flight instructor that two planes had hit WTC, I thought it was a sick joke. Then I looked at the TV in the pilot’s lounge and I knew that flying would never be the same — it would never really be fun again.

  17. Janet meaney says:

    Great article pat

  18. Chris Lordan says:

    Patrick – can you provide a link to your post about flying the turboprop to LaGuardia on the visual approach? Another memorable bit of writing that Google seems to have lost track of. Thanks!

  19. Peter says:

    Beautifully written as always, Patrick. Very powerful.

  20. Earl O’Neill says:

    Great piece, Patrick. Thank you.

  21. Cameron Beck says:

    Patrick: As you may know, when the WTC was designed in the mid-sixties, the architects simulated the crash of a 707 into the upper floors.

    However, they didn’t consider one important element: fire. How could they possibly have thought an airliner would crash into one of the buildings, yet not catch fire and explode?

    There was already an example just to the north from 20 years before: a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in July, 1945. It caused a fire which was quickly extinguished.

    • DC flyer says:

      Yes, but keep in mind:
      Flight 11 was a 767-200ER, maximum takeoff weight of about 400,000 pounds. A 707 has a maximum takeoff weight of about 247,000 pounds. That is a big difference there! In addition, the 9/11 flights were flown at a very high speed for that low of an altitude. I’m sure the designers figured a plane that low would have a lower velocity (figuring the accidental building strike on approach or departure from LGA, JFK, EWR instead of a deliberate high-speed terrorist ramming). Also, they did design the building to withstand the impact, it didn’t fall immediatley or else thousands more would have been killed from all the floors below who had time to get out. You can only design for so many scenarios and if the entire building was built to withstand the heat and fire it sustained, it would have been so over-designed that it probably would have no usuable space inside or just a few stories tall. Every designer tries to minimize the risk of failure, but you can never account for every possible scenario or else everything would be impractically over-designed.

  22. Kat says:

    I also have a cockroach memory from 9/11… at the end of a very, very long day, I came back to my college dorm suite after midnight, opened the bathroom door, and was greeted by a nearly three-inch long cockroach, one of the biggest I’d ever seen. I couldn’t take it. I killed it with the bottom of a bottle of nearby soap and left soap and carcass on the floor, with a note of apology to my suitemates for the mess I was too exhausted to clean. I wanted to take out all my fear and frustration and anguish from the day on that bug, and it just wasn’t enough, not nearly enough. I remember flashes of that day so very clearly, including how penetratingly blue and clear the sky was, and I will also never forget ending the day with that cockroach.

  23. Alan Dahl says:

    To this day nothing brings back the memories of that day and the days following than the song “Empty Sky” by Bruce Springsteen. It captures perfectly the feelings and the strangeness of that time.

    At the time I was in Topeka Kansas, 1500 miles from my home in Seattle for a car race. The race was delayed a couple of days because it was at Forbes Field but we eventually completed it and I headed home on a freeway filled with vans of people driving cross-country because they couldn’t fly. It gave me an idea of how different the world would be without the miracle of flight and how different flying would be from then on.

  24. Michael Kennedy says:

    Powerful piece of writing there, Patrick.

  25. James Wattengel says:

    Everyone has their own personal 911 story and even here in Brazil I have mine. I won’t bore you with details. Suffice to say that I was working in the World Trade Center and There were various personal connections. Then it all came home when we found that our building was by surrounded more police than I thought existed……

  26. Rod says:

    Yes, the terrorists have won, and our knickers are Forever in a knot. That is their victory.
    And it IS pretty pathetic to see the commemoratives in US media and note that 911 was the Worst Outrage Ever Committed in Human History. Must be — just look at the attention it’s getting 17 years on.

  27. Art Knight says:

    I remember my mother calling me at 8 something in the morning. I was in my cubicle at work. She said “It’s terrible, an airplane accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.” I told every one in the office and tuned in the television in the conference room in time to see the second plane hit. I told Rod, our manager, that this was no accident and we were at war. He scoffed at me. A few minutes later I told everyone who reported to me to go home. It was so eerie to hear no airplanes overhead that day.

  28. Art Knight says:

    Priceless photo! Have you read “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka?

  29. Jim Houghton says:

    If it doesn’t make sense, follow the money trail left by each of those bits of madness and you’ll find your reason.

  30. Jim Houghton says:

    Terrific writing, as always, Patrick.

  31. Kevin says:

    Truly one of your best posts to date.

  32. Lee says:

    If only our leaders reacted to tragedy with common sense and made changes to keep us safe. Instead they enact preposterously stupid regulations and leverage our fear and anger to seize more power, wage more war, and make themselves and their buddies richer.

    • Kevin Tessner says:

      My favourite technology columnist, Robert X. Cringely, summed this up well in the days after 9/11:

      “‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,’ wrote Mark Twain. In the current, context this means that the organizations charged with reacting to this catastrophe will do so by doing what they have always done, only more of it. Congress, which controls the budget and passes laws, will want to pass laws and to allocate more money, lots of money, forgetting completely about any campaign promises. The military, which is the nation’s enforcer, will want to use force, if only they can find a foe. The intelligence community, which gathers information, will want to be even more energetic in that gathering, no matter what the cost to the privacy of the millions of us who aren’t thinking of terrorist acts. And agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulate, will want to create more stringent regulations. Now here is an important point to be remembered: All these parties will want to do these things WHETHER THEY ARE WARRANTED OR USEFUL OR NOT.”

      PBS no longer has the rights to keep the original article posted online, but a full repost is available at:

      http://www.cringely.com/2011/09/11/to-a-man-with-a-hammer-some-thoughts-on-the-pentagon-and-world-trade-center-terrorist-attacks/

  33. DB says:

    Compassionate, informed, and eloquent. Thank you.