Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I Remember from 9/11

There isn't anything particularly moving about my particular experience on September 11, 2001. I didn't lose a loved one. I had never even been to New York City before.

But I received an e-mail about that day from a friend of mine this morning, and I guess I just wanted to write about what I remember from that day.

When citing moments of historical importance that "everybody remembers where they were when they heard", people who were born after the assassination of John F. Kennedy often cite the Challenger disaster or when Ronald Reagan was shot. I don't think those moments, although tragic, even begin to scratch the surface of the National Shot-in-the-Heart that we all felt on the morning of September 11th.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office at that time was under flood conditions. Tropical Storm Allison had knocked out the CJC. After a month or so of the entire Office being crammed into the early voting offices of the 1319 Texas Avenue, the felony divisions had moved back into the old District Attorney's building at 201 Fannin. Some of us were lucky enough to even have our own office.

I was a first time felony three in the 263rd District Court. My chief was Jeff Laird and my two was Valerie Turner. We still were very limited on available computers, so internet browsing was highly discouraged if it wasn't necessary for the job. So, I had foregone my morning routine of browsing all the news websites after pulling the docket together.

I got there at seven o'clock that morning and pulled my docket together, as my position required me to.

As I was about to get ready to go to court, my cell phone rang. It was my friend, Peter DeLeef.

Peter, God love him, often has a strange sense of humor. So, when he told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I didn't think much of it. The vision of I had in my mind was something similar to this event when a small plane had struck the Empire State Building. I remember making some comment about the pilot being some "dumb ass" that didn't know how to fly.

I certainly didn't think there was any tremendous significance based on what Peter had told me.

As Jeff and Valerie and I left 201 Fannin to walk over to the courts (that were operating out of the old courthouse at 301 San Jacinto), I think I may have casually mentioned it to them. Their responses at the time were nothing more than mild curiosity.

But, as we got to the street level in front of 201 Fannin, somebody (I don't remember who) told us that a second plane had hit the other World Trade Center. I think at the time, I had so little knowledge of New York City that I didn't even really know there were two towers back then. But when that person told us about a second plane hitting, we all knew that something was terribly wrong.

We rushed over to 301 San Jacinto and got to the 263rd as fast as we could. Because of the flood conditions, the few computers available in the courtroom ran really really slowly. So many people trying to click on made it even slower. There wasn't any TV that had a connection that we could watch news coverage on.

Jeff was in a murder trial against Larry Douglas, and Judge Robert Jones was visiting that week. The jury was already selected, and I remember Judge Jones giving them all the option to go home and be with their families that day if they didn't feel they could focus on testimony.

Much to my surprise, the jury in the box all said they could stay and participate.

Judge Wallace had a radio in his office, or maybe Judge Jones had just brought it with him. Either way, he tasked me with listening to the radio and to come give him updates during the trial. I remember being stunned as the frantic reporters began to report that the first tower was beginning to crumble. I would dutifully reported it all to the judge. It seemed like everything was happening all at once. The Pentagon. The downed flight in Pennsylvania. The towers falling.

Judge Jones, an ex-military man, took the news stoically, and there was something about that which I found oddly comforting.

I didn't worry much about anything happening to us at the courthouse, but my wife at the time worked in one of the Allen Center skyscrapers. I was worried about her. I called her, and she was extremely emotional. Her bosses were sending them home, and I was relieved to hear that. She went home and began taping the news. She called me throughout the day to give me updates. In all the time that I knew her, I don't believe that I ever saw her so upset.

Later in the week, I picked a jury, and during Judge Jones' voir dire, a woman raised her hand and asked to approach. The attorneys approached with her, and she cried in front of the bench. She told Judge Jones that the events of 9/11 were all she could think about, and she couldn't sit on a jury.

I'll never forget what happened next. Judge Jones, who can easily be labeled as one of the gruffer judges that sit in Harris County, gave her a sad nod.

"I understand," he said. "I lost two of my best friends at the Pentagon."

He quietly excused her.

Last year, I was in New York City quite a bit. I went to the site of where the Towers had once stood. They are doing some rebuilding projects there, and it is pretty difficult to comprehend what had once been there.

It is even more difficult to comprehend what had once happened there.

I don't think it really hit home to me that I was in the place where it happened until I went and visited the New York City Police Museum. The museum itself is fairly small, as museums go, but obviously has a large portion of it dedicated to what happened on 9/11. There is a presentation that focuses on three police officers who had all been photographed at one point or another during the morning.

All three officers profiled had been into the Towers, helped rescue people and bring them out.

All three of those officers went back in.

All three of those officers died when the building collapsed. Their bent and melted badges, their gun belts, their radios are all in the museum.

It was all so simply displayed, yet gut-wrenching to look at.

And at that moment, I think I truly missed not being a prosecutor anymore. The admiration for the bravery of the policemen and firemen who died that day, and the ones who survived were certainly a large part of that feeling. I missed working alongside those men and women that I think so highly of.

But another part was how that was a shared experience that I had with my family of prosecutors -- how we moved forward and adapted to what happened in the wake of September 11, 2001.

I know that what I write of that day is of absolutely no significance to anyone other than myself.

But, as we mark the anniversary of that terrible day, I just wanted to be one of the millions of voices from across our country that still says "I remember".

I remember that day very well.


David Wyborny said...

Murray, I was trying a very nasty case against Mike Trent in front of Mike Anderson. Judge Anderson also asked the Jury if they needed time off; they said they wanted to stay as well. I went back and advised my client that in my opinion he had an absolute right to a continuance-he wanted to go forward-I put that on the record-and he got four life sentences.

Anonymous said...

whatever walk of life we were doing that day, it was affected somehow, I was at home raising my little one and had taken her to school. I got home and the Today show was showing the smoking tower and even the news anchors were not sure what was going on and were visibly shaken. I did nothing all day, but watch the news, I don't even think I sat down until time to get my little one from school. She knew the neighbors next door had visited the World Trade towers the week before, and she asked me repeatedly what would have happened to their little girl (her friend) if her parents had died in that building, I had to explain that some kids lost their parents and try to explain what would likely happen to those kids, it was the first time I discussed death with my daughter. We had friends vacationing there at the time and were walking to the towers with their video camera running when the first plane hit, they ended up walking with the crowds to get out of town and had some amazing video and we learned that people in New York have heart as someone took them in their home since their hotel was destroyed. New York became much more vivid that day and true American spirit came out in so many amazing ways. Its a shame it takes such a tragedy for that spirit to be displayed.

Anonymous said...

When you said you missed being a prosecutor, you struck a nerve with me (and others I presume). Murray, we miss people like you here. You added levity and a sense what it means to be great guy. Peiople like you, Lisa Andrews, Rob Freyer, Ted Wilson, etc... The list goes on and on. We have fond memories of the good days around here. Despite what the Chronicle would want the public to believe, the DA's office was NOT racist, corrupt and inept. There were good people doing good things and learning a great deal about what it means to the right thing, the right way.

There are a few of us left that were present at Franklin that day 09/11.A reflection of that day, and many others while at the DA's office brings back so many good memories. It was a great family atmosphere and event like 9/11 really bring us together. Doubt that will ever be the same here, at least not in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Now "I" feel old. I remember being in Ted Wilson's Office in Special Crimes (a Former Federal Judge's Chambers as well as Judge Neal Richardson's before the Office took Over the Building) as he was one of the few who actually had a T.V.. At that moment, and at that time I remember "Waco going Wacko" and the Compound burning. Now 9-11-01 - That's a whole different story. God Bless.

Respectfully, Larry Standley,

November 29, 2006

Anonymous said...

Correction: After I posted last, I remember the images I saw on the television were NOT of the Branch Davidian Compound but rather the Federal Courthouse in Oklahoma City. I Googled both dates and sure enough - Waco was on a Sunday and the Oklahoma City Bombing was on Wednesday April 19, 1995. No way was anyone working in Special Crimes on Sunday. Please, no "cheeky" comments about Special Crimes working Monday through Friday. Thanks, Larry Standley