Thursday, September 8, 2016

Kansas: a 9/11 story

Sky over Kansas, 9/11

A clear blue sky arched over Kansas on the morning of September 11, 2001. I know that, can still see it, because driving home from an early trip to the grocery I glanced up at the white paths of exhaust left by planes curving back toward the airport.

We were expatriate New Yorkers living with our two sons in suburban Johnson County, where fields of hay bales and meandering horses lay incongruously across the road from supermarkets, high schools, and corporate headquarters with their vast parking lots.    

Leaving New York had made us unhappy. But in my memory Kansas is always becoming a fonder place. I am trying to say that I am glad we lived there, especially on 9/11.

At first we were shocked by the streetscape, juxtaposed with the quiet village of tall green trees and winding streets from which we had arrived about a year earlier. Here, busy streets bound by sprawling church complexes and condominium developments headed south in four lanes, dwindled to two and then one skinny road ending finally in a little town with dust kicking up around the edges.

And circling perpetually overhead, the hawks and turkey vultures in the astonishing sky where wind and light shifted constantly, patterned intricately with clouds; sunrise or sunset always visible at the end of the flat land beyond the next shopping center.

By September 11, 2001, these things had become very familiar yet I did not feel an affinity with this place. Uneasily, I compared my life to that of a young bride in mid-nineteenth century Kansas Territory, waiting for the minister to pay a visit. Certainly I was still waiting that morning at 8:15 Central Time, pulling into the garage to find the television uncharacteristically on and the telephone ringing.  

For many New Yorkers who had boarded early morning flights to the West Coast, Kansas City would be where the planes set down. There were so many that the airport became entirely compacted.

Among the passengers on these planes was a good friend whose twin brother had called, panicking, to say that Chris had been able to reach him and thought they would be landing in a few minutes. My husband immediately left for the airport to get him. Then another friend got through – her husband and two associates had also landed in Kansas City and here was his information. I called my husband and he connected with Tom.

The car filled with passengers, Jeffrey drove everyone to our home in Kansas. Tumbling out, bewildered and frightened, we hugged and shivered in the noon sun.

One of the passengers had no personal or professional connection to the others in the group. An executive in the construction business, the mother of two little girls, Denise lacked even a carry-on because she would have returned on the red-eye.

Sitting beside Chris on the descending plane, she couldn’t place a call on her cell phone and had anxiously borrowed his to call her husband. As they disembarked, Chris asked where she would stay in Kansas City and persuaded her to come with him.

Several years later Denise reflected, “Getting off a plane with a strange man in a strange city, climbing into a car driven by a strange man with other strange people to a strange house…”

Sky over Chicago, 1994

She needed some clothing. We tried a few stores before finding Wal-Mart open. Denise had never before shopped in a big-box store and initially thought that one of the salesladies was my friend because of her sweetness. Some of that was Kansas style, but also surely reflected the catastrophic events of the day.

Enabled by our hi-tech household – a phone system fitted for conference calls, plenty of computers, a fax machine – the group conducted business and tried to figure out how to get back to New York.

We watched the horror unfold, shared meals and talked about the world and ourselves, reflecting in a way that must be unique to people who are brought together randomly in the midst of fearsome events.

Nearly a week after Tuesday, the five of them drove east in what was surely the last available rental minivan for miles around. After they left, I went outside and looked up at the sky. Everything around me was my home.

Sky collage

Collage + photos by Claudia Keenan


  1. This should be in the NYT or New Yorker, really. One of your best pieces.

  2. Denise read my account and made a correction: I couldn't reach Mike on Chris's I called my mom and when she answered, all I could do was Chris took the phone and said something like "my name is Chris and I am sitting right next to your daughter and she is safe."


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