The things I learned under the bluest sky – Hi, I’m Heather Burns

By admin
I cannot start the story where I want to start it, because I have to start it where everyone else who was there starts it. It’s how we calibrate our positions, time-stamped and geo-coordinated to the precise moments and exact locations where each of us was standing when we looked up to see it.

The story of

that day
DATE

always starts with the colour of the sky. It was blue.

You know it was blue. You’ve seen it yourself, looking on a screen. But not like I saw it, looking up.

The meteorological term for it is “severe clear”: a phrase used by pilots to describe unlimited visibility. A bone-shaking

summer
DATE

storm had swept through

overnight
TIME

. It didn’t destroy. It cleaned. It took with it every molecule of smog, every speck of dirt, and every grain of pollen. In its wake, it left a shining city on a hill that was flawless, bathed in warm

late summer
DATE

air, under a sky so indescribably and deeply blue that people, including me, stopped on the pavement to look up at it.

You have to remember that. That

the day
DATE

was beautiful. That

the day
DATE

was absolutely, uncannily beautiful.

So much so that everyone started

their day
DATE

with a little smile on their face, the one you show when you’ve had

one
CARDINAL

of those little reminders the universe occasionally gives you that there are more things in heaven and earth,

Horatio
PERSON

, than are dreamt of in your inbox.

That is how we calibrate ourselves, those of us who were there, by starting

the day
DATE

back on the pavement, looking up, with not a greater care in the world than taking in the colour of the sky. We will always have that.

And so having calibrated, I can now start the story where I want to start it, which was

ten minutes later
TIME

, sitting at my desk in my office, doing my

morning
TIME

routine (good mornings, coffee, inbox, calendar, skimming the news, examining the in-trays) ahead of the proper start of

the work day
DATE

.

It was

ten to nine
CARDINAL

in the morning.

A colleague popped through my door to deliver her

daily
DATE

payload of office drama. And

this morning
TIME

was no different:

“Hey. I don’t know what’s going on, but I just heard that a plane has crashed into

the World Trade Center
ORG

.”

I’m a visual person – I think in imagery, and

Monty Python
PERSON

imagery at that – so in my head, I pictured

one
CARDINAL

of those stubby little learner planes, or maybe one of those little tourist sightseeing planes,

half
CARDINAL

smushed into an office window with its backside sticking out as if to say “uh, a little help here?”

I pointed Internet Explorer to msnbc dot com, as I did.

It was not a little learner plane.

I was at my desk in my office in the

Dupont Circle
LOC

neighbourhood of

Washington DC
GPE

,

about a mile
QUANTITY

from

the White House
FAC

,

about two miles
QUANTITY

from the

Capitol
ORG

, and

about two and a half miles
CARDINAL

from the

Pentagon
FAC

.

In

2001
DATE

, there was no live TV over the internet. There was no cable connection in the office to watch TV. There was no social media, no smartphones, no apps. (I didn’t even have a dumb mobile phone yet.) There was web

1.0
CARDINAL

, email, and landlines. Some people had radios in their offices.

But that was it.

I did not know it, but I was in an information vacuum. So was everyone on the planet.

But for me, it also meant that I did not know that I was in a blast zone.

And so what ensued over

the next forty-five minutes
DATE

, I learned about by refreshing the browser on every news site imaginable and by phoning my then-partner, who was at home in front of the TV, from my office landline.

That probably seems incredible to you, and it would be, if you were judging what was possible in

2001
DATE

by what is possible in

2023
DATE

.

But that was our norm.

I was not going through this alone: all of my colleagues were going through the same thing in their own offices. I remember how they all reacted

that morning
TIME

, each in their own ways, some good, some bad. Their stories are not mine to share. Suffice to say, there were people trying reach their loved ones on overloaded cellular networks that were failing. That’s a lot to see people going through.

Whatever their (and my) reactions were, all we knew was that the world was ending, and we didn’t know what going on, and we were completely powerless.

And then I learned that a plane had gone down

two and a
DATE

half miles away.

And then all the major news networks began to report – erroneously, as it turned out, but every one of them reported it – that car bombs had gone off at

the State Department
ORG

and on

Capitol Hill
ORG

. For our office, which dealt with the former

Soviet Union
GPE

,

the State Department
ORG

was our turf.

And that became the

first
ORDINAL

thing I learned under the bluest sky:

the fog of war is a thing. You’re going to hear information that just isn’t true. It’s not malice, it’s not calculated disinformation, and it’s not deliberate. It’s real life playing out in real time. Real life is messy. You have to think about how you’re reacting to it.

And now every team in the company was doing headcounts. Is everyone there? Is everyone here? Who’s not here?

We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

And then the

first
ORDINAL

tower fell.

If you think that all of this is something that you, yourself, at

the age of 23
DATE

, would bear stoically and calmly,

one hour and ten minutes
TIME

into the world ending in real-time, you are wrong.

I knew to remove myself from the office at that point: I was not going to help my team in any way.

Because that was the

second
ORDINAL

thing I learned under the bluest sky:

when it’s all going down, you don’t have to be anyone’s hero, but you’d better not become anyone’s problem.

Well, that and I wanted to be at home for the end.

So I dashed home, which was a

two minute
TIME

walk within within

Dupont
ORG

. (ah, your

early twenties
DATE

.)

My then-partner was pacing in front of the television, spewing racist bile about killing all the

Arabs
NORP

.

How was it still only just past ten AM.

As the

second
ORDINAL

tower fell, I did a strange thing. I reached my hand out to catch it. We had a cheeky cat that liked to climb our shelves and knock things off, and I got good at catching them, reflexively. So that’s what I did, reflexively. I tried to catch it in my hand.

For her part, the cat was in her happy place on our flat’s front windowsill, which faced south, the direction of things that were targets. And I remember thinking:

“I’d better get her off of there in case the windows blow in.”

As if putting her anywhere else would have made a damn bit of difference to her or to us if they did, but your brain does funny things as the world is ending.

Because here’s the

third
ORDINAL

thing I learned under the bluest sky:

when it all goes down, you don’t know that it’s over.

We had no reason to think it was over. In fact, the assumption on the street was that the morning was just the

first
ORDINAL

strike, and that what was coming next would make the morning look like a rehearsal.

When history is happening to you, there isn’t a

Wikipedia
ORG

page telling you the exact time that it’s going to end. You have to figure it out yourself.


woosh woosh
PRODUCT

.

Because now there were

Air Force
ORG

fighters strafing the city centre, patrolling it to protect it, and us, possibly by destroying it, and us. There were orders to shoot down any other planes, even at the cost of all the civilians on and under them.

woosh.

If you choose to live and work near

the White House
FAC

, you accept that your everyday life is going to involve a certain amount of logistical whimsy. On

that morning
TIME

, you accepted that you were collateral damage in an impending and inevitable death.

There is no way to describe how passively and easily and quickly I accepted that fact.

We all did.

And yet, I bolted to the supermarket to get bottled water because I thought the water might get cut off in the

second
ORDINAL

strike. That’s what they would do, right?

(Later on I was able to laugh at the fact that I went to

Whole Foods Market
ORG

during the end of the world. You should have seen what other

Whole Foods Market
ORG

people were buying during the end of the world.)


Around late afternoon
TIME

the panic started wearing off as the

second
ORDINAL

strike never happened. We thought it safe to leave the flat.

woosh.

We adored our building concierge, an elderly

Black
NORP

man who thought he’d seen it all, and spent some time keeping him company in his tiny front desk hutch, where he was watching

NBC
ORG

on a rabbit-eared television. It seemed an odd day for anyone to be left alone.

I remembered the roof. Our building had a rooftop lounge area. I used to chill out up there on a sun lounger, watching planes and imagining where they were going. I made my way up there, frankly grateful to have some me-time.

I looked southwest.

I could see the smoke still rising off the

Pentagon
FAC

. It was white and puffy now,

eight hours
TIME

into the firefight, rather than black and billowing. But it was still there, so close.

Two more seconds’
TIME

flight could easily have taken it to us.

I then had a moment of clarity like I’ve never felt at any other time in my life. My brain and the city and the world were all a confused mess, but what I thought still came to me as certainly as anything I’ve ever known:

“It’s not

today
DATE

that’s scared me. It’s

tomorrow
DATE

.”

And that was the final thing I learned under the bluest sky.

I somehow knew that the response – the way the world responded socially, politically, and militarily – would be the way we lost everything we had.

I wasn’t wrong.

Even then, I understood that what defines you isn’t the incident that happens to you, but the way you carry yourself in response.

Of all the things I learned that day, I’ve had to reference that one the most.

In the evening we learned that another plane had been bound for another part of the city

two seconds
TIME

’ flight away, but the passengers on board had forced it down to save the

Capitol
ORG

.

A very different life later, I thought of them on

January 6
DATE

.

We went to bed

around 2 AM
TIME

, after struggling to figure out how on earth one went to bed on

a day
DATE

like that.

woosh.

woosh
ORG

.

In

the morning
TIME

I got up. (Right, I’m up. I’m not dead. This is progress.) I went to the office and we all got back to work.

That part, at least, wasn’t even a question.

At

midday
TIME

we attended a special prayer service at

St Matt’s
FAC

. The cathedral was packed, standing room only. For the cardinal, it was the kind of day his entire life had led towards: his homily was strong and true, and his words delivered kindness and comfort.

And yet, halfway through a sentence, he broke his prepared notes, and tilted his head, and speaking not as the cardinal but as himself in his broad

Noo Yawk
PERSON

accent, he barely got the words out: “My nephew,

Joey
PERSON

, he’s a firefighter, and they don’t know where he is. They can’t find him.”

For some reason, I never forgot him breaking character.

They found

Joey
PERSON

in The Pile in

the winter
DATE

.

Joey
PERSON

had died a hero.

And now I thank the cardinal’s God that

Joey
PERSON

never lived to know who and what his uncle really was, and what he’d done to a lot of young men.

I didn’t know it, and the sky wasn’t blue anymore, but

many years
DATE

down the road,

that day
DATE

would still have

one
CARDINAL

more lesson to teach me.

For those of us who were there, it was

22 years ago
DATE

, and it was

yesterday
DATE

. It will always be

yesterday
DATE

. I don’t want it to ever not be

yesterday
DATE

.

And I wonder if that’s why I chose to write about it

this year
DATE

: I can see how far away

yesterday
DATE

has become. It’s pulling away from me.

Maybe I want to pull it back.

Maybe it’s because I was

23
DATE

when it happened, which means I’ve now lived as much of my life in the world it created as I had lived in the world before.

Maybe it’s because I now have professional colleagues who were babies when it happened. Babies!

Maybe it’s because I work in the venn diagram of policy and technology which was a very different thing well before

yesterday
DATE

, when I began it, than it is now: my starting point is the the start, and

yesterday
DATE

is not even the middle. And in that line of work, maybe it’s because I understand the need for connection, communication, and information, well, a bit more painfully than others.

Or maybe it’s because, in an surprisingly cathartic exercise, I’ve now narrated what I’ve written above to my own kid, who was learning about it in school, and had no idea that

the day
DATE

turned out to be yet another thing I’d been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt through.

(Let’s not talk about how it feels to be a bona fide historical artefact.)

And in that light, maybe it’s because it’s only recently occurred to me that

yesterday
DATE

is

one
CARDINAL

of many things I’ve shrugged off as just another thing that I went through. Seriously, it’s not even in the top

five worst days
DATE

of my life.

And maybe, instead of shrugging it off, I should start giving myself a little more credit for that, and for everything else too.

When I was telling the story of

that day
DATE

to my kid, I found myself telling her how it took me years to stop being anxious about one thing, and it wasn’t crashing planes or

second
ORDINAL

strikes or car bombs.

I got anxious at blue skies.

The sight of those things, oh my, instant elevated heart rate and panic.

I worked on it, a lot, and they stopped scaring me.

Whenever I’m looking up at blue skies now, usually from my quiet garden cottage, which

Google
ORG

tells me is

3,420 miles
QUANTITY

away from

Dupont
ORG

, or as

last week
DATE

, on a bright and cloudless day over

Parliament
ORG

, I see them as different skies. They’re safe skies. They’re okay.

I’ve come to understand that the bluest sky there ever was wasn’t just a meteorological phenomenon. It was particular to that

one
CARDINAL

moment and that

one
CARDINAL

location.

Sure, blue skies happen again, every day, all the time. But they’re not that sky. They never will be. No one will ever see a blue sky like that again, including me.

I can live with that.