September 11, 2001: A Remembrance

Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Where were you when the Challenger blew up? Where were you when President Reagan was shot?

All are questions that come up in conversation on the anniversary of those infamous events. But perhaps the most frequently asked question is that posed on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, the day that terrorism permanently scarred our country, and that question is “where were you on the morning of 9/11.” No one need ask what year.

I remember that date for so many reasons. A medical malpractice trial was coming to an end in my courtroom; the attorneys were about to sum up that morning and I would soon charge the jury. The first plane hit the tower at 8:46 a.m., while most of us were driving to work.

I am sure that those old enough, or with a sense of history, all thought the same thing: we remembered being told about the plane that hit the Empire State building so many decades earlier. And then reality came into play as the horror of the morning unfolded. Together with many other fourth floor tenants of the Supreme Court in Mineola, I went to the room used for conferences on the southwest corner of the building near Judge Roberto’s then chambers, to stare out a window. It was a perfectly clear day, and we stared transfixed at the burning towers, so many miles away, that even we could see from that fourth floor window.

With the aid of a colleague’s binoculars, we saw what we thought was debris falling from the tower, only to learn later that people had been jumping out the windows of the over-100 story World Trade Center building.

I tried to convince the lawyers that we should delay the trial to a reasonably close date, most likely the following day, when they could sum up and I would charge. Both attorneys disagreed; they wanted to proceed with the case. The defendant’s name was clearly of Islamic heritage and they feared, even then, that getting a fair trial for a person with such a name would become more difficult if we waited.

The jurors had been moved, at my instructions, from a jury room on the west side of the Supreme Court on the fourth floor to a jury room on the east end of the building, so that they would not be able to see what was happening out the window to the west. Their cell telephones had been taken away in anticipation of deliberations, as was the norm at that time, though today we just ask jurors to turn their phones off. Thus, the jurors that day had no reason to know that anything unusual was taking place.

So, as the attorneys had requested, they proceeded to sum up and I charged the jury, giving them the case sometime before noon on that September 11th morning. The jurors reached a verdict at approximately 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon. Though it does not matter now, it was a defendant’s verdict.

As was my practice, I brought the jurors into chambers to thank them for their service. I asked them if they had any questions, and responded to their inquiries. Then, I explained to them how the world had changed forever while they were deliberating. Based upon questions that had been asked of the jury by the officer – if anyone had friends or relatives working in the World Trade Center – we had known that they did not.

I then went on to explain about the second plane to hit the towers, that they had fallen, and that two other planes had crashed, one in a field in Pennsylvania, and the other into the Pentagon. It was at this time that one of the jurors physically reacted to my statement and said that her husband, who was an officer in the Air National Guard, had gone to Washington early that morning for a meeting in the Pentagon.

I excused the rest of the jurors, and this particular juror and I sat in chambers and called her home to retrieve messages from her answering machine without putting them on speakerphone. I listened to each of the messages as the intensity of the calls and the fears of the callers became quite evident. The juror had many children, all of whom knew that Dad had gone to the Pentagon that morning. At least one of the children, perhaps two, was a New York City police officer. There were calls from a daughter, asking if the juror had heard from her father. There were calls from a sister-in-law asking the same question and there were calls from other children asking if there was news, and whether anyone had heard from their dad in Washington. It was clear from the telephone messages that no one had heard anything about the father who had travelled to the Pentagon that morning.

The juror was in no condition to drive. So I drove her in her own car to the family’s Port Washington home, while my court officer Nick followed in his car. It is strange what one remembers concerning the details of such a simple little thing as driving a car, and how those memories are forever embedded in the mind.

I remember purposefully not turning on the radio. I remember just talking to her about her children and my children, what they were doing in their lives, what her children were doing in the careers they had made for themselves, anything to deflect discussing the horror of the day.

I remember reaching her home, walking up the pathway to their home in Port Washington and how she turned the doorknob and never took out her key. I commented that I was surprised that she did not lock her door and she said that none of her neighbors locked their doors in that neighborhood. We walked in and she asked Nick and me if we would like anything to eat or drink.

All I wanted to do was leave. I did not want to be there in that house when that phone rang. The officer said he would like a glass of water; I agreed and we sat down. I remember her going to her refrigerator, taking out a Brita pitcher and pouring glasses of water. We sat at a small kitchen table just staring at the telephone. No one said anything.

I checked the home telephone answering machine for her, and there were no further messages beyond those that I had picked up earlier while in chambers with her. By that time, I decided that we were not really going to leave until we learned what had happened to her husband. I have no idea how long we waited – it might have been hours – but more likely it was about 30 minutes.

The phone rang; no one said a word. She answered, and I recall that it was her daughter who called. She had heard from her father, he was safe and had never made it to the Pentagon before the plane crashed into it.

I knew people who died that day: the daughter-in-law of a friend, a past president of NCBA; the husband of my wife’s coworker, a fireman who was last seen on news film entering the towers; and a member of my Temple family. But surely, the memory of a man whom I never met – one who did not die that day – will live with me forever.

There were small victories that survive the murder of over 3,000 innocent lives that day. In our little corner of the world, the judicial system went forward; it proceeded to do what we do every day of the week, providing justice to all who come before us, never losing sight of the humanity of every person and the strength of family.

There were many examples of heroism within and outside the World Trade Center, on that flight that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania, of individuals, police officers, firemen and court officers who went into the World Trade Center to help others and never came out. Then, there is this small story I have recounted to you about our system, the democratic system of justice under which we live and which is anathema to the terrorists who still seek our destruction today.

Ira Warshawsky, Supreme Court, Nassau County