By Lizabeth S. Tucker
September 11, 2001
The phone rang loudly in the darkened room, waking Roy and Joanne DeSoto from a sound sleep. Joanne's heart leapt into her throat. Phone calls that early in the morning usually meant trouble.
"'lo?" Roy mumbled into the receiver. "Johnny? What is it…what? Are you kidding? Goddamn it! Yeah, hang on." Roy turned to Joanne, his face white. "Jo, turn the television on."
"What is it?"
"Jo, the tv. Now."
She reached to her bedstand and used the remote to turn their old color television set on. It would take a couple of minutes for the picture to warm up, but the sound was on instantly. She could hear sirens, screams and other unknown noises from the set. She started to turn it down.
"No, Johnny, it's warming up. Are you okay? Oh. Be careful. For God's sake, watch yourself. Call us when you can." Roy slowly hung up the phone, tears in his eyes.
"Roy, what is it? Is Johnny hurt?"
"A plane crashed into the World Trade Towers in New York City."
"No. Just before Johnny called, another plane slammed nose first into the second tower." Roy turned to grab his wife in his arms. "We're under attack."
"Oh, Roy," Joanne hugged her husband back. "Johnny? Is he okay?" Roy's best friend and old partner from his paramedic days was in New York City for a firefighter and paramedic convention.
"Yeah, he's heading to the site, figures they can use every experienced man they can get. He'll call later, let us know he's still okay."
They clung together while watching the news coverage of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Joanne couldn't stop crying and buried her head in Roy's chest when reports of a third plane crashing into the Pentagon was announced. As the towers collapsed, Roy got to his feet and went into the bathroom. He knew Gage would be there and he didn't want his wife to know how frightened he was. No one could survive that event.
Joanne wiped her eyes uselessly when she heard a pounding on her front door. She put her robe on and climbed down the stairs to see who was there. Peering through the keyhole, she saw her daughter outside. Joanne flung the door open.
"Jennifer!" The women fell together.
"Momma." Jennifer sobbed. "Daddy's here?"
"Yes, upstairs." Joanne bit her lip. "He's worried."
"Oh, no. Uncle Johnny!"
"Yeah, he called. That's how we knew about it. And he said he was heading to the Towers…to help."
While Joanne and Jennifer clung together in the doorway, a car drove up. A distinguished man with salt and pepper hair and a matching moustache got out. Jennifer turned and held her arm out to take him into her embrace. "Uncle Marco, Uncle Johnny's in New York!" she wailed.
"Madre de Dios," Marco shook his head. "Let's go inside."
Roy and Joanne got dressed and the four people tried to eat the breakfast Joanne cooked, but they couldn't swallow past the tears. As the morning wore on, other members of Roy's old Station 51 days showed up at his house. Retired Chief Hank Stanley and his wife Emily were accompanied by retired Captain Mike Stoker and his wife Tammy. They all knew that Captain John Gage was in New York and nothing had been heard from him since his first call shortly after dawn.
The phone rang with calls from Roy and Joanne's son, Christopher, who was on duty as a police detective in San Diego; from other firefighters, current and retired, who were friends of Johnny and Roy and knew where Gage was; and from Jennifer's husband who was a pilot in the Air Force and had been called in to fly security over the west coast.
All planes were grounded and those still in the air were landing in the nearest airport available, no matter where it was. Phone lines were clogged with people trying to contact family members who might be in one of the areas attacked. There were reports that certain planes who hadn't replied to radio contact might be shot down for safety reasons.
And, in a field in Pennsylvania, a hijacked plane crashed after the passengers heard from friends and relatives on their cell phones of the attacks and determined to take their plane back, even if it meant certain death.
Roy couldn't take it any longer and went out on the back patio, leaning on the banister, his head hanging down. Joanne followed him and stood behind him, wrapping her arms around his middle and leaning her head against his back. There were no words.
The phone rang after midnight that evening. All the others had gone home long ago. Jennifer had decided to sleep in her old room, since her husband wouldn't be home until further notice. Roy jumped on the receiver before the first ring was completed.
"Johnny?" He closed his eyes in relief and sighed. "Thank God. I was afraid…"
"Is he okay?" Joanne whispered.
Roy nodded, then listened to his friend's story. "Hang on, I want to tell Jo." He turned to his wife. "He didn't make it across town before the towers collapsed. He's been helping at the site, but all active fire personnel are being called to their home areas. Although how they're to get home will be difficult as all transportation is currently stopped."
"No buses or trains, either?"
"Johnny, no way to take a bus or train? Okay, I see." He shook his head at Jo's question. "What are you going to do? That's a long drive. Yeah, good idea." He turned to Jo again. "A bunch of firemen who were there are going to rent or borrow a stretch van from someone and drive across country together, taking turns sleeping and driving. They'll be dropping off men on the way." He was back on the phone, his voice dropping. "Be careful. Call me when you get here." Roy slowly replaced the receiver into its cradle.
He hugged his wife painfully tight. "He's okay, he's okay. God forgive me, but…"
"…but you're glad he isn't one of the missing and dead."
"Yeah. I love you, Joanne, I love you so much."
"I love you, too, darling, more each day."
They walked into the doorway of Jennifer's old room as one and watched their daughter sleep, dried tear tracks on her face. It was over an hour before the couple headed back to their bedroom, still arm in arm, breathing a silent prayer for loved ones near and far and for those who would never be together again.