PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – September 11, 2001, is a day that is burned into my mind like it is for many Americans. There are few days that we remember in vivid detail throughout our lives and that Tuesday in September will forever be etched into my psyche. The black, billowing smoke sitting against the backdrop of bright, crystal clear blue skies. Conditions today will be different with clouds hanging over Manhattan, and I wonder how things would have played out if the weather was different that September morning.
To understand the situation, I need to take a quick jog down memory lane. It was my second day of high school at St. Joe’s Prep. I sat in Mr. Byrd’s physical science class discussing the previous night’s Monday Night Football game with classmates, while other students carried on their own conversations about various topics. Unable to quiet us down, Mr. Byrd eventually yelled, “There are more important things than football!” I still remember the urgency in his voice almost 20 years later. He then marched us downstairs to a TV that had been set up in the foyer of the school and we all watched in horror at the events unfolding before our eyes.
I was a nerd for weather even back then and something that stood out to me that day, and still does, is the juxtaposition of the absolutely gorgeous blue skies and dark, black smoke pouring in that late Summer morning. As I reminisce on that day 19 years after it happened, I think about the weather and what might have been. First, we need to remember that September is the peak month of tropical development in the Atlantic Basin and 2001 was no different. The morning of September 11th, hurricane Erin sat just 500 miles off the coast of New York and the Northeast United States. It was not forecast to have any impacts on the US, like many tropical systems that season. Also, a cold front had swept through the region on the 10th. The World Trade Center, the evening before the day that would be their last as part of the New York City skyline, had been struck no less than 6 times by lightning associated with thunderstorms that developed along that cold front. The timing of that front was paramount to how the events of the following day played out.
As per the usual course of events, the cold front swept across the area and paved the way for a very strong area of high pressure to build into the eastern half of the US. Not only was the high pressure in control but the cold front was strong enough to push Erin even farther out to sea away from the East Coast. All of this led to ideal conditions for flying, with clear skies and quiet weather all the way from the Dakotas to NYC.
This brings up “What If” questions as a meteorologist and American in general. I think about the timing of the front. What if it was just a tad slower and took an extra 24 hours to pass through New York City and it was raining? What if Hurricane Erin took a more direct path toward the US and the Northeast and we had been dealing with tropical storm conditions and planes couldn’t fly? What if the high pressure wasn’t so strong and there were low hanging clouds that obscured the tops of the WTC Towers? Could these changes in the weather, have changed the course of history? Clearly, we cannot travel backward in time and change what happened 19 years ago. However, these “What if” situations, still stir up a lot of emotions inside of me as we look back on a day that changes the United State forever.