Sharing Tragedy With a Stranger

The BBC has been airing a lot of programmes relating to the events of September 11, 2001 for the obvious reason that the 10 year anniversary is fast approaching. On their website they asked people to write in on the theme of “where were you”.

So, here is what I sent in, a story I’ve told many times but never before actually written about. If any reader thinks they can identify the people in my story, please do get in touch.

Very late on the night of September 10th, I dropped off a new boyfriend I’d met at Burning Man Festival at the San Francisco airport where he was taking an American Airlines flight to Chicago. Instead of driving back across the bridge to Oakland, I decided to spend the night at a friend’s place in the city, on Valencia Street in the Mission district, a sprawling sort of open-plan live-work space.

For some reason I woke up really early the next morning. It was before 6 a.m. when I usually got up around 9. But I couldn’t seem to get back to sleep and so I got up. A few minutes later the phone rang, odd as it was so early. The call was picked up by the old fashioned tape-based answering machine my friend had, so I could hear the message as it was being left. It was her mother who lived on the east coast. She had an odd tense sound in her voice as she asked Lisa to call her as soon as she got up.

I heard Lisa shift around and so I called out to her asking if she was awake.

She grumbled something about her mother never getting the hang of the time difference and how annoying it was to be woken up this early. But I’m really into voices and her mother’s sounded odd.

“You know, I really think you should call her back. It sounded like it was important.”

Some more grumbling, then she got up and stumbled sleepily to the phone.

“Hi Mom.. you know it’s super early here and…”

Suddenly she stopped talking. I was trying to make coffee and had just realized there wasn’t any so wasn’t paying that much attention, when abruptly I heard Lisa cry out.


I turned around and all the sleep was gone out of her now, she was sitting bolt upright, her eyes like saucers.


I happened to be standing right in front of the shelf that the small TV set was on, so I switched it on, saying as I did so.

“What channel?”

Usually when people wanted you to switch on the TV it was to get a specific station.

The screen flickered to life and I saw an image of the instantly recognizable World Trade Centre in NYC, one of the towers apparently ablaze, with big puffs of smoke coming out the sides. I’d lived there in ‘93 when it had been bombed and for a moment I wondered if they were revisiting the story, only that fire had come from the parking garage, so…

Was this a movie or something? The sequel to “Independence Day” or “Mars Attacks”? I was really confused!

“Uh! What are we supposed to be looking at?!” I said, turning to Lisa, but as soon as I turned back around it was obvious: I watched in incredulous disbelief as a jet airplane glided directly into the second tower.


The mute button had been on so now I hit it so I could hear the announcers’ voices: there’d been hijackings and I’d just seen the second plane hit the second of the twin towers, live on TV. It was an American Airlines flight. Wait, could this be the one my new boyfriend was on? No, he would’ve got to his destination by now! (This was before details had come through about how long the planes had been in the air or where they originated.)

I really couldn’t process this. I needed a coffee. COFFEE COFFEE! WE WERE OUT OF COFFEE!

I guess it’s a shock reflex to do something mundane in an emergency or maybe it’s just because there was something I could do about it, but I became completely focused on the coffee situation.

I ran down the long corridor to the gate to the street, remembering that the café at the corner opened really early. But when I got to the gate and opened it, I froze.

I looked out at the people walking along the sidewalk, riding on the buses, driving in their cars, pedalling their bicycles, shooting along on their skateboards…. and realized that not one of the people I was looking at knew about what had just happened. They couldn’t possibly just be going about their business otherwise!

I had a sudden premonition that I was witnessing the last moment of an entire era, of a way, of a time. It sounds corny to say “a time of innocence” but it was something like that. In a few minutes or hours, every single one of those smiling, or harried, or hurried, or hung-over people, whatever they were, whoever they were, in a very short time they would know what had just happened, what was still happening. And nothing would ever be the same.

Should I tell them? Sound the alarm? No. Why rob them of this last few minutes of ignorant bliss. What reason would I have to ruin that?

In a weird daze, I went to the corner and into the café. I ordered two coffees to go and looked around at all the people in there. They didn’t know either. They were all reading that morning’s papers that were already as out of date as yesterday’s news. Should I tell them? I was the only one who knew, the only one who knew….

Then I walked out on the pavement and I saw someone else who knew, who must’ve known. Why else would he be hugging the lamp post on the corner of 22nd and Valencia, hugging it like it was gonna save him from something, sobbing in anguished despair? But this was San Francisco, and the Mission district to boot, haven of crazies and druggies and homeless; on any other day, I too might have walked straight past the screaming, crying man who held on to that lamp post for dear life. But I didn’t because I knew why he was crying. I knew he knew.

I ran over to him and set the coffees down on the pavement. He was oblivious to me standing there.

“Hey! Hey you! Do you have people in New York!?”

Then he noticed me and turned to face me – here was someone else who knew!

He left the post and reached out his arms to me. His eyes were spinning, his face red and wet, he was blubbering with a lack of inhibition that can only be triggered by the most extreme of human crises: life or death.

“YES!” he cried, “YES! MY COUSIN!” and he fell into my arms and we clung to each other on the street while he cried and sobbed his story to me.


We were both crying by now and must have looked a crazy sight to all those people who didn’t know. But then again, this was the Mission in San Francisco, so maybe not. Certainly nobody else stopped to find out what was wrong. Probably just thought it was something personal between us. He obviously hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell anybody who didn’t already know either.

I couldn’t think what to say to comfort him. I’d just seen the plane crash into the building, so “it’s gonna be fine” wasn’t gonna cut it. Anyway, I don’t believe in making optimistic predictions in emergencies; it’s more important to have courage to face whatever may happen.

“What’s her name?”
“Debbie. Debbie Golden.”

“OK. Debbie Golden. Debbie Golden. I’ll never forget it. I wish for Debbie Golden to be OK. I pray for Debbie Golden to be OK. I’ll always think her name I promise you I promise you! Debbie Golden. Debbie Golden! I’ll tell people her name. ”

Reading between the lines, I guess I was saying I’d remember her name whether she lived or died. That she wouldn’t be forgotten if she didn’t make it. But that I’d keep her name alive as long as there was uncertainty about whether or not she was alive. I meant all that and I know that he understood every unspoken word of it.

We were in complete hysterics by this point with him actually spasming with fear and grief as I repeated this stranger’s name like it was a holy mantra. Our fingernails were digging into eachother’s arms as we shook and trembled together on that street corner while people just walked around us.

What good was remembering this woman’s name gonna do? What did it matter if I told people her name or prayed for her or not? But for some reason it seemed comforting, both to him and to me.

I don’t know how long we were there but finally things subsided enough to release our embrace.

“I gotta go make some calls.”

“Of course. Of course. Debbie Golden. Debbie Golden..”

We parted and I picked up my coffees, now lukewarm, and headed back to Lisa’s where she was glued to the TV.

“I just met someone whose cousin is in there! They were just on the phone right when it happened! Her name is Debbie Golden!”

I told her the story and she explained that her mother, an early riser, had just happened to be watching the news when the first reports came on. She wasn’t in New York and was in no danger though. Whew. Pretty soon, my guy rang me from Chicago to let me know he was completely unaffected, so that was obviously a huge relief even though I’d sort of already worked it out. Double Whew.

But what about that poor guy’s cousin? What happened to Debbie Golden? Debbie Golden? Debbie Golden? Debbie Golden?

It took quite some time before definitive lists of victims were published and reliable. So for many years I would check and check again, seeing if the name Debbie Golden appeared on any of them. It never was but it was many years before I stopped checking and could finally feel 100% certain in the knowledge that she’d made it down the rest of the stairs to freedom, safety and life. Over the years I had occasion to tell the story many times and of course, always told her name.

In all the emotion, I never did ask the guy what his own name was, nor he mine, but I’m sure he remembers our encounter as vividly as I do. I must be the first person he saw after his phone went dead.

I’d sure like to meet him again and let him know how glad I was that his cousin got out alive and that I kept my promise and never forget her name. Could the BBC help with that? I bet a similiar scenario was played out between other pairs and groups of strangers all over the place. I see it as a tiny story with a big resonance.

Maybe it would mean something too, to this woman Debbie Golden, to know that in the middle of that awful tragedy and many thousands of miles away, specifically she (her name anyway) made a huge effect on, and thus created a weird bond with, someone she has never met. That some woman named Diana Trimble, who now lives in England, cried for her safety in her cousin’s arms on a street corner in San Francisco during those exact moments as she was anxiously making her way down that stairwell for the hope of life itself. And that I will always carry her name with me because of that moment in which I briefly shared a stranger’s anguish. I’d like to think it helped him a tiny bit. May the good luck that was fortunately hers that day ever be with Debbie Golden and her cousin, wherever they may be. And may it rub off on me a little too.


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4 Responses to “Sharing Tragedy With a Stranger”

  1. hanja kochansky Says:

    Very moving.

    Debbie Golden, Debbie Golden, Debbie Golden.

    • 66witches Says:

      Thanks for reading Hanja. It’s strange to think of this person so much who I don’t know but I love the idea that if I was in some kind of dire emergency, that unbeknownst to me some stranger far away maybe could be chanting my name that I may survive. It haunts me a bit.

  2. hanja kochansky Says:

    I do hope that you will never be in some kind of dire emergency; but if you were, I’m sure that another angel would be chanting your name.

  3. Chicago again « your passport to complaining Says:

    […] years ago today i flew out of San Francisco, leaving behind my epic new romance with Diana.  i arrived in Chicago to go to the Casual Furniture Trade Show, where i met up with Hawina to […]

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