The Day of the Cockroach




September 11, 2020

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 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 quite 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, searches, and pat-downs; the color-coded alerts, the litany of rules and protocols we’re forced to follow — all this meaningless pomp in the name of security. Of all of modern life’s 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.


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

Related Stories:


Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!

Leave a Comment

Maximum 1500 characters. Watch your spelling and grammar. Poorly written posts will be deleted!

27 Responses to “The Day of the Cockroach”
You are viewing newest comments first. Click to reverse order
  1. Michael G Kennedy says:


  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    The United 767 was a -200, not a -200ER. It was capable of no more than 315,000 lbs.

    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)

  7. Tom says:


    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.

  8. Janet meaney says:

    Great article pat

  9. 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!

  10. Peter says:

    Beautifully written as always, Patrick. Very powerful.

  11. Earl O’Neill says:

    Great piece, Patrick. Thank you.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Michael Kennedy says:

    Powerful piece of writing there, Patrick.

  16. 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……

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Art Knight says:

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

  20. 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.

  21. Jim Houghton says:

    Terrific writing, as always, Patrick.

  22. Kevin says:

    Truly one of your best posts to date.

  23. 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:

  24. DB says:

    Compassionate, informed, and eloquent. Thank you.