No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY

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Chapter 1 (rough draft)

A Free Day

Once a month, Bruce and I sat with our calendars to coordinate life. I always ended that sit down with “No Surprises, let me know if it isn’t going to work but no surprises.”  As a mom, wife, small business owner and church volunteer I prided myself on being organized, prepared, in control of my life.

It was supposed to be get-a-few-things-done type of day. With my two daughters back in school, my firefighter husband on duty, and one more week until fall classes resumed at my dance studio, I was free to do as I pleased. The day started as most days did. To be able to ease into my day instead of being thrown into it I got up an hour before my daughters, to shower, let the dog out, get my thoughts together and have my cup of tea.

At 6:30am Meghan staggered into the kitchen, arms at her sides, head down, still half asleep and stood in front of me for her morning hug and kiss on the forehead. At fourteen, Meghan was almost as tall as I was at 5’10”. Meghan, my second born and polar opposite of her older sister, wasn’t a morning person but watch out later in the day she was a force to be reckoned with.

Weeks earlier after freshmen orientation, Meghan had declared “By the time I have been at high school a month, everyone will know who I am. I kept asking if anyone knew Emily and no one did. They are going to know me.” I didn’t doubt that for a moment.

Emily, my 17-year-old reserved, attentive child was starting her senior year and negotiated her schedule to allow for early dismissal. Bruce and I informed her early dismissal required her to volunteer somewhere or get a part time job.

“Mom, don’t forget I have that Red Cross meeting this evening. Are we coming home before that?”

“Probably not. We’ll run errands or visit Nanny & Poppy”

Meghan chimed in “What’s happening to me?”

“Still sorting that out. Daddy will probably bring you home. Let’s go girls.”

The target time to leave the house each school day was 7:15am. My daughters attended Eastern Christian High School in North Haledon, New Jersey thirty miles away so driving them to school wasn’t around the corner or down the block or the other side of town. It was over the river and through the woods to another state we go. Even though school was miles from home it was near to my work making me available for drop offs, pick-ups and emergencies during the day.

As I turned into the circular driveway, I commented “Make sure you have all of your stuff. Em, I will see you at early dismissal time. Meg, I will see you at regular time. Have a good day. Love you.”

Next stop, my dance studio to quickly check the mail and answering machine messages and then home for my free morning. Can’t wait.Finding nothing that needed my attention, I got in my car to leave and the radio came on.

“…a small plane has flown into the World Trade Center.”

As I put the car into reverse, looked over my shoulder and backed up the radio news anchor continued.

“…a second plane has hit the World Trade Center”

 What? I pulled back into the parking space and sat a moment. I turned up the volume.   Maybe that Nelson Demille book I just read is really happening – pilots are being blinded. No, that’s not possible?!

Home seemed like where I needed to be.  I was operating on auto-pilot. As I merged onto Route 208, the FDNY issued a total recall.

“All firefighters report for duty.”

I knew the FDNY doesn’t call firefighters into work via the radio. This was bad, really bad. We must be at war but with whom? As I drove the radio continued to drone on, I started to pray. Lord, protect Bruce. Bring him home.I knew he would be sent down there. Bruce was a firefighter in a Special Operations Command (SOC) unit, a Squad. Squad 41 to be exact. Squad 41 ventured into Manhattan from the Bronx on a regular basis. I have joked that firefighters in Squads (and Rescues) do things they don’t tell their wives. It is bad enough that your firefighter husband runs into burning buildings. You don’t want to know he hung from a building, crawled around in a confided space, or suffered exposure to a biohazard all in the name of an average day in a Squad or Rescue.

When I arrived home, I turned on the television. The news professionals appeared as rattled and puzzled as I was. The images were baffling and then reports out of Washington, DC. What, now?  The images of a plane crashing into the Pentagon flashed on the screen. I started to pray again. Lord, please protect my country. Please protect New York City.

I paced, pleaded, prayed and the television kept reporting additional events. One of the twin towers collapsed, another plane crashed in Pennsylvania, the other tower collapsed.

I remembered in the Old Testament how Abraham prayed for a city to be saved. He asked God if there were one hundred righteous people to save the city and worked down to ten people and finally one person. I figured I had no time to waste so I prayed if there was one righteous person in New York City please save my city. I suggested to God that Dr. Mucci, District Superintendent for the Church of Nazarene, would probably qualify as the one person.

I was worried that my brother and/or brother-in-law might be traveling for business or be in New York City.  I tried to make several calls to my parents in New Jersey and sister in New York. No calls would go through.

“All circuits are busy, please try again later.”

Suddenly my telephone rang.

“Mom, where is Daddy?”  It was Emily.

“I don’t know.” I must hold it together until Bruce is home.  “I don’t expect to hear from Daddy. He doesn’t usually call when he is on duty. We will call the firehouse later if we haven’t heard from him by the time he is off duty. Okay? Find your sister and I will pick you both up at early release time. I love you. See you in a little while.”

People have asked me “why didn’t I get my girls from school when I first heard about the attacks? Why drive all the way home?” To be honest it never dawned on me to get them from school. I think I believed that if the girls were at school, Bruce was on duty and I was at my dance studio or home. It was all normal. And I desperately needed for it to be normal. For it to be all right.

The phone rang again.

“Hi, it’s Barbara. Is Bruce on duty?”

It was my sister who I hadn’t spoken to in a very long time. Since Barbara lived in California I guess we had never mentioned the house rule of not calling to ask me if Bruce was on duty when you hear of a fire on the television or radio. Who would have thought she would know about a fire in NYC?  I was grateful to hear her voice.  Bruce will be so surprised that Barbara called. I can’t wait to tell him.

My thoughts of getting something done or being free to do as I pleased were forgotten. I wasn’t sure what I should do. The television didn’t seem to have any new information. I couldn’t make phone calls. As much as I wanted to be home earlier, being home now felt isolating.  It wasn’t even early release time, so I couldn’t pick-up Emily and Meghan or so I thought.  I decided to drive back to my studio to see Carol. Carolis my best friend and business partner. She is my person. We can talk for hours or we sit with a cup of tea and not say a word. Through life’s mountains and valleys, she has walked with me. We double dated in our teens and twenties. We stood up for each other when we got married. When I started my business, New School of Dance Arts, Carol taught for me. After the first year I asked her if she wanted to be my business partner. At the time there was one hundred dollars in the studio checkbook, I told her if she matched the hundred dollars we would be equal partners in the business. Her hubby, Tony, calls us “partners in crime.” Tony and many others chuckled at our lack of business savvy “that’s not how you buy into a business” but Carol and I were business partners since 1976 so I guess we have done something right.

I retraced the same route I had driven earlier. But this time as I approached the top of Skyline Drive, I noticed there were cars parked on the shoulder. People standing outside their cars. What are they doing?  As the road reached the crest of the mountain, my question was answered. You can see the New York City skyline. Looking far to the right you see lower Manhattan. There was a big cloud of smoke where the building had been. Had I seen the towers earlier?

I entered the studio to find Carol sitting at the table with brochures, registration forms and schedules arranged in front of her.

“Your Dad called more than once. He wants you to call him.” were the first words out of her mouth.

I put my purse on the gymnastic mats and reached for the wall phone. A brief conversation with my Dad ended with a promise to stop by after I had picked up the girls.  Carol and I discussed all that we knew about the attacks. We switched gears to focus on studio stuff -what classes we needed to confirm, cancel, etc.

“I will call you when I hear from Bruce.” I walked out the door. Not realizing that I won’t walk back through that door until Monday October 1 when classes finally began.

Over the past three years I had regularly dropped Emily off or picked her up at school but rarely entered the building. Having been an ever-present parent during Emily’s preschool and elementary school days (I taught at the same preschool and elementary school she attended), I had made the conscience decision to step back and allow Emily to be her own person minus the role of Miss Ann’s daughter.

“Hi, I am Ann Van Hine. Emily has early release. I also want to sign out Meghan.”

“Of course, let me see what class Meghan is in. Emily should be heading this way to sign out.”

The ride to my parents’ house was full of questions with no answers but assurances of love and faith. We arrived at my parents’ home nine miles away to find my Dad sitting at the far side of the dining room table giving the impression he was holding court. My Mom was not thrilled with my Dad’s favorite spot, she wanted her table back for meals, but it had become his desk. My Dad tried to reassure my girls that Bruce couldn’t have gotten from the Bronx to Lower Manhattan before the towers collapsed. My Dad is an engineer and physicist so thinking things through logically was what he did but even as my Dad explained his reasoning I knew he was wrong. My Dad wasn’t tuning into the fact Bruce was in a Squad and would have been dispatched earlier rather than later.

Days later my Dad mentioned that he hadn’t tuned into the Squad dynamic and asked, “why didn’t you correct me?”

“I couldn’t correct you in front of the girls.”

Emily and I discussed the Red Cross meeting. She called to see if it was still on and the answer was no. We hung out a little longer and then decided to head home.  As I drove up Route 17 in my rearview mirror for a brief moment I saw the New York City skyline. I saw the smoke and I willed my girls not to turn around. When we got home, we turned the television on for a short time. We tried to do our daily routine. Time slowed or stopped or something, but it wasn’t moving as in a normal day.

By the late afternoon, I spoke with my sister-in-law, Bobbie, Bruce’s sister. She was at my mother-in-law’s home in South Jersey about three hours away. One of my greatest fears had been how would I tell Bruce’s mom something happened to him?  My father-in-law died ten years prior, my mother-in-law lived alone, and Bobbie lived in Kansas but on September 11, 2001 Bobbie just happened to be in New Jersey for a friend’s child’s wedding. So as all this was happening my 82-year-old mother-in-law was not alone. Thank you, Lord.

Around 7pm, I went into my bedroom to call Squad 41. The answering machine picked up. I left a message “Please have Bruce Van Hine call his wife.” I didn’t wait long before I called again. “Please have anyone call Bruce Van Hine’s wife.”

I called my folks. I told my Dad that no one was answering the phone at Squad 41. When my ever-calm Dad said, “call every number you have for the New York City Fire Department until you reach a human being” I was freaked. I grabbed the FDNY phone list off the back of the basement door and headed to my bedroom out of ear shot of my girls. I glanced down at the list, saw Bronx and dialed. It was Bronx Dispatch. The firefighter who answered explained that this was the number to report fires and kindly suggested that I keep calling Squad 41.

Eventually I got through to someone at Squad 41 who said “No one is here. They went to look for them. They will be in touch when they get back.” This can’t be happening.

Around 10:00pm I decided we should all get some sleep so Emily, Meghan and our 130 lb. Rottweiler, Buster, piled into my bed. I had a feeling that someone was coming to the house and didn’t want to be in my pajamas, so I stayed dressed. I laid with my girls until they were asleep. Then I got up.

I paced, prayed and made a cup of tea. Growing up a “cup of tea” was the quick fix for whatever was happening. A cup of tea could calm you down or cheer you up. My Mom is British so making tea was a ritual. I followed that ritual as I boiled water, heated the pot, steeped the tea and placed the tea cozy over the pot. I poured the milk in the cup first, added one sugar and poured the brewed tea. I sat on the couch cradling my warm cup of tea in my hands and waited for what I didn’t know but I waited.

At a little before midnight, I heard a car pull up, a car door close and then another. Even though the street light allowed me a glimpse of who was heading to my house through one of the three small windows in my front door, I decided I didn’t want to know. I held my breath and waited. Maybe they aren’t coming here.Please don’t be coming here. There was a light knock on the side door. Whoever it is knows we use the side kitchen door instead of the front door. Standing outside were two men – Charlie who was Bruce’s lieutenant and another firefighter, the identity of that firefighter changes in my memory.

I positioned myself between the kitchen and living room leaning with my shoulder against the doorway. Hopefully the house will hold me up if they say something bad. Polite greetings and then silence. I couldn’t stand the suspense “Just say it”.

Charlie whispered, “They are unaccounted for.”

Unaccounted for? wait? what?

In an almost out of body experience I heard myself say “I have no doubt God can get me through this, but I don’t want to go through this.”

I don’t want to. How many times through the years had my own kids and my students said those exact same words? How many times had I chimed in “most of life has nothing to do with what you want to do? I don’t want to pay taxes or do laundry, but I do.”

There wasn’t a sense of dread. There was a sense of this is really happening. Now what?Charlie, the other firefighter and I sat at the kitchen table as Charlie filled me in on what they knew which wasn’t much. Charlie offered assistance, a prayer, a hug and they left.

I locked the door and tiptoed down the hallway towards my bedroom. I hoped and prayed that the girls were asleep and hadn’t heard the exchange with Charlie. They seemed to be asleep, so I went back into the kitchen to make a few calls.

I called Debbie who is a pastor but first and foremost she is one of my best friends. I asked her to contact Pastor Steve and other friends in the morning. As we spoke I glanced out the window and noticed a man walking down the street. There was a moment I wondered if it was real and commented to Debbie “there is a guy walking down the street.” It reminded me of a scene from a movie – the late hour, the single streetlight glowing. It felt eerie. Years later in conversation Debbie mentioned the guy walking down the street and added “I think it was Bruce checking on things.”

I called my parents. Shared what I knew.

“We will drive up.”

“No, it is too late. Come tomorrow. I’m okay. Love you.”

I checked on my daughters again and realized Emily was awake.  I motioned to her to come into the living room. We sat on the living room floor. Within moments Meghan and the dog appeared in the doorway. They joined us on the floor.

“Charlie was here. Daddy is unaccounted for.”

We cried.

We hugged.

We prayed.

We got back in bed.

Once the girls were asleep I got up.  I made another pot of tea.

“Sorrow lasts for a night but joy cometh in the morning” kept running through my head. I needed to see the sunrise. I waited for the new day. I waited for the darkness to be replaced by light. I waited until the sun had risen and then I laid down to sleep. There was another day…

12 thoughts on “No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY

  1. Wow Ann……so touching reading your account. My heart breaks for all your family has been through. God bless you for all you share with others. xo

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  2. Ann – I am a friend of Bobbie-In fact I always think of her as a daughter. We taught pre-school together and I grew to love her. She said you were writing a book and I was interested in reading this. You are a good writer and I look forward to reading more. I have three daughters and cannot begin to imagine living through something like this with them. I am learning much from you and I am sure there many others to whom you will be a blessing. God bless you and give you his peace. Doris Kallberg

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  3. Thank you for sharing your heart and I pray God continues to be your rock and comfort. This is a much-needed first account for all of us who experienced 9/11 in different ways. As you continue to grieve your husband’s death, hopefully writing the book will be a cathartic experience – and it will help others.
    I miss seeing you at NJCWG!
    Blessings and hope,
    Katie

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  4. Katie, I miss seeing you. I hope NJCWG conference went well. I wasn’t sure where my state of mind would be that day thus why I didn’t attend. Saturday September 8 was the first anniversary of my mom’s death and with September 11 only a few days later I decided to hang low. Take care. Be well. Serve Him. Ann

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  5. Ann, Bruce helped Ken K. create a tiny mother’s apartment in our lower floor in his off time. We have thought many times about him and his heroic actions, and pointing people to Christ, and also about you and your children. Thank you for sharing this part of the story. Bless you.

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