Dark day

This was the view from my window on 9-11.  I had watched the first tower fall from my office window and made a few last frantic phone calls before the lines died.  I had managed to reach my brother, who was living in NY at the time, and made plans to meet him on a specific street corner in between our offices.  I made final calls to my parents promising to look after my brother.  I hoped that my roommate and a half dozen of my friends who worked in the World Trad Center were OK.  My future wife, whom I did not know at the time, was there as well. 

I remember the sense of panic that gripped all of us.  Work was forgotten.  We clung to windows, listened to radio broadcasts, hoped for a miracle that never came.  I remembered thinking at the time that nothing mattered to me past the safety of my little brother, and after that of my friends.  I held on until we were all safely assembled in my apartment – my brother and I had met and walked through the stunned streets of Manhattan with jet after jet thundering overhead like a war zone.  My roommate had dodged falling bodies to escape his office.  A half dozen displaced co-workers of his who couldn’t return home crashed at our place.  We drank.  A lot.  I cried, because my home had been violated and would never be the same.

It took me a couple of days to recover.  One of the guys who crashed at our place helped pick up body parts at Ground Zero for days.  He drank himself unconscious two nights in a row, drinking vodka like water straight out of a bottle.  We used my DSL connection which held on long after mobile phones and cable and land lines didn’t work in downtown Manhattan (where I lived) to find out what happened and make connection to the rest of the world.  We heard rumors.  I answered emails from frightened people whom I barely met years ago,  who were just straining to make sense of a tragedy by reaching out to someone who was there. 

I didn’t snap out of it until two days later when I walked, almost in a daze, to a Salvation Army center downtown and volunteered.  I lifted heavy loads, I blew through hundreds of dollars on my credit card buying socks and gloves and cokes and beer and cigarettes and basically anything one of the exhausted cops or firefighters or Salvation Army workers asked for.  I owe the Salvation Army far, far more than anything I will ever give them back in terms of stuff (and I have given them hundreds and hundreds in donations every year since then).  The feeling of helping over those few days, of reducing evil, helped me to recover and regain balance.

There is no sense trying to understand the why of 9-11.  Hate is a constant in human history and a cancer on the future.  It affected me deeply, and I doubt I will ever be the same.  I had seen terrible things in my travels around the world, but nothing before or since has put a dark weight on my soul like 9-11.  I had to walk directly past Ground Zero starting on Sept. 15th, every single day, covering my mouth with a cloth and watching blank-eyed people paste posters on every street corner hoping that they would be the exception to a terrible rule. 

It is easy to forget today that the world was once speeding towards a beige, happy future freed from the terror of a US-USSR showdown.  9-11 brought humanity back in the gutter again – snarling, fighting, bleeding.  Whatever you may think of America’s actions since then, the simple fact is that the hope for peace is dimmer and the cries of war are louder, and that’s a sad thing.

On 9-11, I feared for my family.  I feared for my parents who sat helplessly hundreds of miles away while their only two sons who lived in downtown Manhattan were cut off from landlines, then cell phones, then the internet.  I feared for my friends, and thought for some time I might never see some of them again.  I was lucky.  Friends of friends died, but no-one close to me.  My roommate saw a man decapitated by falling glass in front of him.  A female friend of mine ran through dust and screams down a stairwell.  Another friend of mine watched bodies fly downward past her window.  A colleague of mine has a firefighter brother who can barely breathe today after inhaling the fumes our government proclaimed safe. 

But never, at any minute, did I worry what might happen to my 401(k) or my cell phone bill or my money or my job.  A great, calming simplicity narrowed my focus and released me from many of my fears.  I knew I had three goals – find my brother, return to home, prepare for flight.  It is a situation that has occured to many people I know.  My coworker who escaped from Bosnia on foot.  My wife whose family fled a remote part of the Soviet Union with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a hope to reach the distant shores of America, where everyone would be safe from persecution because of ethnicity.  Countless people I met in Russia who only desired a minute free from fear.

Maybe, as a New Yorker, I overreact.  9-11 was a small event in terms of global tragedy.  However, these were my times and my grief, and I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  My hope this year, as every year since that day, is that no-one will be killed in the name of 9-11 in the future, and that people hope for better instead of fearing of worse.

Posted at 8:45, the time that American Airlines flight 11 strikes the south tower.  At 10:05 am I watched the north tower collapse.  I made my final calls, and left to find my brother under a sky full of shrieking jets.  The shot above was taken from my apartment window facing directly south at 3 pm that day.  The shot below was taken from Jersey City 11 days later.


11 comments

  • I feel like I am intruding on a private grief, but posting is a public statement and I want to respond for my part.

    I wouldn’t exactly say that you are overreacting, just that your instincts are right, in terms of global tragedy the direct events of 6 years ago are probably a relatively small thing. Reactions to them might prove to be different, but the actual event was another example of tragedies that occur and have occurred continuously somewhere around the world. I also think that its always worth trying to understand the why of human actions. Learning more about what makes people do good things and do bad things probably won’t make anything worse and it might make the future better.

    Finally, it is helpful to hear that you weren’t worried about your 401(k) and so on in the face of disaster like this. It reminds me that there are more important things than the trappings of civilisation and if it came down to it, there is a chance that I could retain sufficient presence of mind to function through this scale of tragedy.

  • I remember when it happened, I was in a business school and everybody was more concerned about the stock market reaction than anything else. I felt like I was one of the few thinking about these poor victims and their family. I agree with Plonkee, there is definitely more important things than money!

  • Thanks all, and @plonkee: it’s not a private grief – if I posted, it’s meant to be public and hopefully provide some perspective. 🙂

    I usually view 9-11 in terms of other tragedies I have been around. I was in Moscow during the apartment bombings – I passed through a metro station 30 minutes before it was blown to smithereens. They were all terrible tragedies and maybe worthy of retribution. But at some point someone in this world will have to be the first to forgive. It hasn’t ever really happened yet, but someday, maybe it will.

  • Thanks for your perspecitve on 9/11. What I find interesting is how the cable news channels just are so absorbed by this anniversary, it is just completely over the top in my opinion. Of course it was one of the darkest days in US history, we ALL know this. Yet, I find it interesting how December 7th comes and goes every year without barely a mention. That anniversary doesn’t sell newspapers. My 2 cents.

  • Thank you for your moving post. I have forwarded this to several Salvation Army officers and workers in my area in Ohio, because it provides a rare insight into how The Army’s role can be more than helping the direct victims. I had never before thought about the cathartic power of volunteering in such a situation. I do understand the feeling of helplessness when we can’t do anything, but I hadn’t thought of the empowerment that would come from being able to do SOMETHING. Anything. Thank you for all your efforts and donations. Please know they are gratefully received, humbly accepted, and used in the most efficient and affective charity on Earth.

  • I am moved to read your story. I know there are thousands of similar stories – many with different endings. I was in the USAF and living in England when this terrible event happened, and it was almost surreal to watch the events in my home country unfold when I was hundreds of miles away. Several friends and family members called me and vice versa. I must have spent a hundred dollars on phone calls, and others likely spent the same to call me. And I don’t think anyone cared about the money. The important thing was to reach out to the people you care about and reassure try to reassure yourself that everything would be all right. Good, bad, or just different, I think September 11th changed all of us.

  • Thanks you again, everyone, for the kind words. I won’t editorialize too much about it, since it’s such a grim subject, but it means a lot that you commented on what I wrote. I am deeply appreciate of everything each of you wrote.

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  • Fascinating post – I can’t imagine that 9-11 affected most Canadians as much as most Americans but I can remember that day like it was yesterday. We ended up getting a couple of days off work and I spent every minute watching CNN.

    Mike
    p.s. I’m a bit behind in my reading.

  • Oh Brip Blap … it’s so weird that after a couple of months being absent from the blogosphere I come to your posting now. 9-11 was a terrible act of human aggression & violence … and I empathize with what New Yorkers went through. My community & state is suffering through destructive & devastating floods right now … and a couple of weeks ago a horrible tornado FLATTENED our neighboring community of Parkersburg. Luckily my family was spared – but I have family and friends WIPED OUT. They have lost everything. There is a profound sense of violation … such a sense of no control … I’m confused & speechless to all that seems to be happening in the world these days …