On the 13th anniversary of 9/11

Lots of people are posting today about their impressions of the events of 9/11/2001. For those of us who were actually in Manhattan that day, the remembrance takes on a particularly visceral quality–I don’t need to be reminded to “never forget”. Trust me, it’s not possible to forget. An entire city screamed in shock and terror when the second plane hit; and when the towers fell, another cry, and another. I still hear those cries.

I was working in an office about a mile and half from ground zero, just two blocks north of the zone that would be quarantined for two weeks. My coworkers and I watched the events unfold through online news media, and out the windows, and on the street where the entire city–people of every color, nationality, creed, gender–held hands and wept over the shock of what we were seeing.

Remnants of the World Trade Center twin towers at the Eagle Rock 9/11 Memorial in New Jersey
© Amzphoto | Dreamstime.comRemnants Of The World Trade Center

You think it was strange to witness on television? Many people in other parts of the country thought at first that they were seeing some trailer for a movie using amazing CGI fx. Imagine standing there and watching one of the city’s icons fall before your eyes.

In person it was surreal. A brilliantly clear morning, one of those crystal clear near-autumn days, the weather seemed out of step with the countless tragedies unfolding around us. The city’s heart stopped that day, and didn’t start beating again for two weeks. Roads were closed, air travel was grounded, the city was brought to a standstill.

Our group gathered in the office’s conference room to collect news and make phone calls, and that’s when I learned that the Pentagon had also been hit. A favorite uncle worked there at the time, and his office was in the section of the building that was hit–but I found out later that he was in a meeting on the other end at the time, and so he was unhurt.

That afternoon, my husband walked to my office from his office in Times Square, and because the subways were shut down, we walked home. Miles and miles, and thousands and thousands of people trudging up, or down, or off the island of Manhattan. We were headed toward Roosevelt Island, and with the subways and the tram shut down, the only way we could get home was across the 59th street bridge, into Queens and then over another bridge to the island. On the way, we decided to check whether the tram would be running by the time we got there (it took hours). After a few hours, it started back up, which saved us a few more miles of walking.

For the two weeks of the city’s closure, we watched the activities from our vantage on Roosevelt Island. FDR Drive, normally a constant hum of traffic, was silent except for the ambulances and emergency vehicles moving up and down—and even that was haunting, because after the initial few hours, they ran without sirens. Even the ambulances were shocked into silence.

Our office remained closed, being so near the quarantine line, so I stayed locked in my apartment, terrified and heartbroken at what I was smelling–and what I was breathing. The smoke and dust from the fires traveled straight up the river past our window.

The television was constantly on, and time became a distant abstract. I chatted with coworkers across the country via IRC; we attempted to work but were distracted by the horrors we kept watching and reliving.

It didn’t take long for the trolls to appear online, and one in particular stands out in my mind. Conspiracy theories began surfacing almost immediately, and one especially despicable troll started saying that it didn’t happen at all—that the towers didn’t fall, and it was all special effects. There are not many things that provoke me to violence any more, but if she had been in front of me, I would have slapped her stupid. Or broken her nose. Or both.

I remember a strange, isolated moment in that overwhelmingly strange day, when I recalled a photo I had taken a couple of years before, looking straight up at the towers through a sculpture at their base, and I realized that the world would never have that view again. That sculpture is gone along with the buildings, and although I still have that roll of film somewhere, I’m afraid to have it developed. Even now, remembering that day, and remembering what the world lost in the subsequent days, makes me choke up.

Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the World Trade Center: these are events that have indelibly marked us. I never understood why Pearl Harbor meant so much to people who lived through it until September 11, 2001. Now we are connected, these generations who experienced these pivotal events.

On this day of remembrance, let us all pray for peace and compassion for the whole human race. Whatever form of prayer or intention or wishing that we use, let’s all use it for peace.

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