Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Chapin School, New York, NY
Educator: Darlene Freeman
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
2:42pm on a Wednesday
At 2:42pm on a Wednesday, the sun sat high in the sky. Emerging from behind a veil of clouds, a bird of prey set its eyes on the East River.
My palms met the cold frame of my bedroom window. My face melted into the glass pane. I watched soundlessly as the raptor’s talons closed around its prey.
At 2:42pm on a Wednesday, a Cirrus SR20 general aviation, fixed-wing, single-engine aircraft crashed into the north side of a red brick building in Manhattan. It was painfully perfect. The brilliant halo that shone behind the cockpit; the cocoon of angry fire and shards of glass; the white ash blanketing the sidewalk like roses laid upon a grave.
Having lived through 9/11 little over two years prior, my grandmother had it all planned out. Dragging my brother and me by the arms, she somehow towed us down 32 flights of stairs. She had managed only 16 flights on her stress test the year before.
“Where are we going?” I asked from the backseat. Somehow, we had outmaneuvered the police blockade and snagged my grandmother’s BMW X3 from Icon Parking.
“We are going to stay at my house for a bit,” she said slowly, her hands clinging to the wheel at two and ten o’clock. Her eyes remained fixated on end of the George Washington Bridge. She asked us again whether I had buckled my seat belt. My brother was staring at the water; I craned my neck to do the same.
There couldn’t have been more than 200 feet between that red brick building and my window. Had the pilot steered just 2,400 inches to his right, it might have been my bedroom that was blown through. It might have been the remnants of my twin bed strewn across the street, later enclosed by a line of solemn yellow tape. It might have been my family drowned in flames.
My eyes narrowed as I peered back at the smoke still rising in the distance. I wondered: had they closed their eyes? Do you brace for death or greet it like an old friend?
For some months after, I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt. It’s not the kind that creeps up and puts a hand on your shoulder when you first let loose a smile in the wake of tragedy; it’s an omnipresent shadow, breathing softly down your neck. Why had I been spared? Why had I been allowed to stand staring as two people lost their lives and 21 were injured?
It took me a while to realize that most things in life are arbitrary. To be born male, to be born white, or to be born rich is just as much a lottery as how you die. Death doesn’t give a crap about who you are or what you’ve done. Breast cancer doesn’t consider that you are the mother of two young kids, nor does Alzheimer’s care that your grandson would have graduated next month.
As I watched Cory Lidle, pitcher for the New York Yankees, and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, salute Death at 524 East 72nd Street, my mind went blank. It felt like being tethered to a movie for two and a half hours, only to witness the protagonist die in the final five minutes. You have a sudden, undeniable urge to hurl your popcorn at the screen. Ultimately, it didn’t matter that Lidle had lasted only an inning and a third in his last game. Life had already decided he wouldn’t get another shot.
My brother and I camped out at my grandmother’s house that night, and we were happy to. Her house was freedom and bliss and devouring chocolate donuts for breakfast. There’s something nice about being out of the city every now and then —
“This just in: New York Governor George Pataki calls for a permanent restriction on fixed-winged aircrafts from the East River corridor,” explained a bored newcast, her eyes reflecting the blue light of the teleprompter. None of them had seen the red brick building reflected in my eyes.
I remembered the brilliant halo. I remembered the cocoon of angry fire. I remembered the white ash on the sidewalk, like roses on a grave. Most of all, I remember Death’s hooded silhouette rising from the smoke.
I have never wanted to live forever. I don’t believe in fate or God, though I sometimes pray before a math test. The plane crash at 2:42pm on a Wednesday confirmed for me one thing: life is random. It’s pointless to stare across the street wondering, why.
Not to wake my brother, I walked quietly to the window facing Manhattan. There were no red brick buildings in New Jersey. My hands reached to close the shade. In the next room, a tea kettle howled.