September 11: Recalling My Day at The World Trade Center
With the 9 year anniversary of the twin tower attacks coming up later this week, I thought to share a private article I wrote back in 2001 as a way of dealing with my experiences at the World Trade Center that day:
Mine is not a story of miracles, nor is it a story of near misses, it is simply a story of bearing witness first hand to the events of September 11th in New York, and having to live with the resulting loss of public and personal innocence over the last three months, while watching frustrated and helpless as the effects of the terrorist attacks continue to ripple across the world, through economies and across cultures.
I was standing a few blocks from the twin towers along with a number of other stunned onlookers when the first of the two towers came down.
As a crowd, we were dumbfounded, tourists in our own town, beholding a sight never seen before. The towers were ablaze. Few of us had the story straight; I for one knew that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre but knew little of its size, its circumstances and nothing at all about the second plane. Is it wrong to say that we were fascinated? Drawn to this New York icon even in such a surreal situation. Then the crowd let out a collective gasp, I looked to see the first of many people falling through the sky.
The television stations and the newspapers downplayed this aspect of a day already filled with enough shock and terror, but I place great importance on it because it immediately human-ised the situation for both myself and those around me. This wasn’t just a burning building; it was suddenly full of people, friends, and family. For me, it is the most haunting memory of the day.
When I focussed on what the crowd had noticed, I too let out a cry so involuntary and so primeval that I barely recognised it as my own. It was not a piece of building falling to the ground, but a man, recognisable by his flapping tie and flailing arms and legs as he fell through the air. The situation was surreal no longer; my body shook with shock, my knees buckled and a light-headedness overwhelmed me with such severity that I thought I was either going to throw-up or fall down.
I sat down and looked up only to see more people jumping. I thought for a moment that they might have fallen, but there were too many people, their arms windmilling as they subconsciously tried to fight gravity and avoid the inevitable. Haunted by these visions numerous times since the incident, I have tormented myself by trying to imagine the extreme conditions that those people must have faced that they should choose certain death by leaping from the building over clinging to any hope of rescue. What were they thinking when they jumped; what did they think on the way down? Was there any peace in their death?
I think about the jumpers regularly since that second Tuesday in September. In vain, I’ve put myself in the situation so many times in the hopes of understanding or even empathizing.
Not a religious man, as I sat I prayed in earnest to a God I hoped was listening. No more jumpers please; no more deaths. Why aren’t the circling helicopters sending lines down to rescue those hanging out the windows, like they do in the movies, I thought.
But I didn’t have to think much more. With an incredible roar the impossible happened. The southern tower was exploding outward. Its steel beams, its concrete slabs and its glass windows hurtling directly towards me and the now panicked crowd. As my life flashed before my eyes, I saw that I was also set to become a victim. Prepared to jump in the Hudson River, I watched as others jumped the railing, poised to take the plunge before police yelled to the contrary. I am sure some must have. Others piled onto NY Waterway ferries and other nearby boats injuring themselves in their rush for some sense of safety. Meanwhile I desperately fought with the laces of my rollerblades, my logic telling me that as a competent swimmer I could survive the Hudson, but not while wearing the heavy blades. I had one off and struggled with the second, fumbling in my panic over a knotted lace, urging myself to calm down if only for a second. It worked; I got the blade off and raced to find shelter from the onslaught behind a building.
And then it went black. Pitch black. As the tower’s toxic cloud enveloped the area people began screaming in panic, bumping into each other. And me with nothing more than the thin filter of my cotton shirt covering my mouth trying desperately to conserve my breath. And for the second time that day I thought “This is it Michael, you stupid idiot, they’re going to find you crumpled here in a heap. Because how long,” I thought, “can you breathe blackness?” Curiosity killed the cat as the saying goes, and it seemed to me I had no lives left.
I will never forget the euphoric feeling that came over me when, with the slightest imperceptibility, the black brightened and I was eventually able to find my way into a restaurant and clear my throat with water. It was then that I learned about the Pentagon.
I didn’t want to hang around. I had people waiting for me back home. People who needed to know that I was alright. I walked back through the devastation. The black had settled into a yellowish-gray acrid fog that enclosed the area. I couldn’t see far, but I could see the ground. It was littered with shoes and briefcases. I thought at the time they were left behind by the people, who like me fled the scene, but I know differently now. They came from above. Even odder to me were the unscathed sheets of paper and documents unharmed by the explosion; completely intact albeit coated with a thick concrete dust.
I remember mourning the building – one of my favourites in New York – trying to imagine what the skyline would look like with just one World Trade Centre tower. I didn’t imagine the impossible could happen twice. But as we know it did. And for the second time that day, as I ran in my socks, I wondered whether I would be so lucky this time.
And then it was done. Or so I thought, but the ripples from this wave continue to spread.
As I walked North a nurse stopped me to ask if I was alright. Liberally, she poured saline solution into my eyes and it triggered the emotion welling up inside me and with the disguise of the solution running down my cheeks I cried and I cried. She was concerned I was hurt, but all I could muster was “All those people” and then I cried some more.
(2010 insert: Completely coated in white concrete dust, a media crew stopped to ask what I had witnessed. The interview made the news – unfortunately my mum’s neighbour saw the piece and that’s how my mum learned that I had been at World Trade Center. It was her birthday and I had originally lied and told her I wasn’t anywhere near the devastation. My quote was also picked up by a handful of newspapers (The Washngton Post, The Independent UK))
Walking up the Westside highwayamongst the masses, sirens blaring one after another, people started running again for fear of a gas leak, but I couldn’t run anymore – I had run enough – so, somewhat mechanically, I simply walked as my overwhelmed mind failed to put in perspective all that I had witnessed.
Three months later I still struggle along with so many to put the events of September 11th in perspective. I am better now than I was. I eat, I interact, and I smile now, all without guilt. I have managed to finally get over the survivor guilt, but I remember how in the week immediately after the attack I would get upset when I saw people smiling on the street. Laughing even. How could they? Where was their sense of respect? Did they not realize the enormity of the situation? Eventually a crazy friend of mine stopped by to check in on me. He got me laughing; he got me smiling. It felt good; it felt like a way to heal but in the end it also felt wrong.
A number of things have happened to me since the World Trade Centre tragedy: one, my ability to handle stress has been greatly reduced and two, I have gained an alarming ability to imagine the most horrific things happening.
With what seems like a dual vision, in one image I can see the reality of a car innocently parked on the street and with an overlaid vision see it explode for no reason. With this new ‘vision’ since the 11th, I have seen crowds turn into mobs; cars careening onto residential sidewalks ploughing down pedestrians; and bombs silently ticking away in grocery bags. Thankfully none of this really happened outside my mind, but the ability to see it and to imagine it with such clarity scares me. My only explanation for my newfound propensity for envisioning disaster is that given the fact that I have seen the impossible happen before, the realm of possibility has now been open wide. Perhaps the impossible will happen again and so nothing seems safe and everything a potential threat. I don’t think I am paranoid; I am too tired to be paranoid.
Eventually through the television I learned that I was probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. It was, oddly enough, difficult to glean from the news programs whose only psychological segment focussed on how to explain the tragedy to our children; but nobody seemed to want to explain it to me. I didn’t mind so much. I wasn’t bruised, cut or scratched. (Perhaps it would have made more sense to me if I had been.) I didn’t have a missing friend, relative, or lover to worry about. I felt guilty even worrying about my nightmares when so many had a much bigger burden to bear.
I still have nightmares. Less so now, three months after the attack, than I did immediately following but they still come to me, often just before I fall asleep, as I take a mental check of my surroundings including which floor I am on. I am particularly attuned to sirens on the streets below and airplanes passing overhead.
I still feel selfish. The night America attacked Afghanistan I was at a bar dancing. The first time I had danced since the attack. I felt guilty for enjoying myself. I wondered whether it was too soon and whether out of respect for the thousands still missing I should be dancing at all. And then as the television in the bar silently displayed images of a country half way round the world where likely there would be no dancing that night I worried about adding one more death to the escalating toll and wondered whether I should be dancing at all.
I want the madness to stop. An unrealistic wish perhaps but one I cling to. Naively? I am not sure. After watching so many thousands of people die through an act of terrorism, I can’t imagine one more death being added to the ridiculously high toll. One more person, who is a son, a daughter, a father or a mother, a brother or a sister, not to mention a lover, well that’s too much too bear – whether they are Afghani, American or any other nationality.
Of course I would like to see Osama Bin Laden brought to justice. Sure, I would like to live in a world free from terrorism, a much as I would like to live in a world free from hunger, free from poverty and free from war, but is that possible? Obviously there are no easy answers and I don’t envy the position of the decision-makers of this country.
And what of the situation at home. I watched in amazement as the world gathered in a grief that touchingly transcended borders and cultures. But after the initial wave of sympathy settled the ripples continued to roll taking more casualties with them. Suddenly people across the country were losing their jobs due to a shaky economy brought to an abrupt halt. People with no connection to either the Pentagon or the World Trade Centre now had to be concerned about their own well-being as job security wavered and household incomes got cut in half.
Now the insanity continues with anthrax. A mysterious white powder most people like myself would not be able to identify but yet has us panicking and paranoid. And while I do not want to trivialize the recent anthrax deaths, I feel like taking the country by the shoulders and giving it a serious shake. Let’s be vigilant and not complacent, yes! But let us not be paranoid and panicked to the point of comprising our lifestyles, because then we are letting the terrorists win.
This, I know, is easier said than done. The media, hungry to forecast the next attack, is feeding the fire and fanning our fears. Ideas I would have never entertained before are being showcased and presented to me and any would-be terrorists by the media on a silver platter. The last report I saw suggested that the terrorists could have done more damage if they had hit a nuclear plant. God forbid that there should be a next time, and our imaginative media has led the way.
I remember thinking on the 11th, what a clever plan was hatched by the terrorists. Apparently some higher security-orientated minds in the country had struck on the same idea, but to us Average Joes the thought was beyond comprehension. Not any more. Between the media and my own imagination born from fear and first hand experience I now have more ideas than I could ever want.
Not long ago, an ambulance passed by me, and my mind wandered. I can’t even tell you where it went or even account for the time lost, but when I came back to the present I had tears streaming down my face.
Not all my reactions are so serene; I’ve had panic attacks, often occurring in crowded situations like exiting a movie theater en mass.
Despite this, life is getting back to normal – or the ‘new’ normal as it is called, but it seems false somehow, hollow even, making it even harder now to put the events and the consequent changes into perspective.
Traveling for business, I have flown numerous times since September 11th and have watched, frustrated, as long security lines have taken away the enjoyment of flying, while meticulous searches are still not providing protection against ingenuity, innovation, and the suicidal-wishes of would-be terrorists.
New York streets once quiet with somber and polite motorists immediately after the attack have sprung back to life, noisy once again with honking horns and angry drivers. No longer the sole focus of a newscast, the tragedy has been usurped by stories that wane in comparison. Last night I watched in disbelief as a respectable news channel assembled a panel of four experts to discuss the implications of David Letterman possibly moving his talk show from CBS to ABC. Does it really matter? Particularly when today, 9/11’s six month anniversary, two enormous beacons of light mimicking the twin towers will be lit as memorial at Ground Zero where more than 1000 bodies have yet to be removed from the last scrap heap.
And while I am already struggling to read all the New York Times’ weekly profiles that put a name, face and background to the WTC victims, in my mind the death toll resulting from that tragic day continues to rise – except this time overseas in Afghanistan. Whether American or Afghani, the outcome is the same: another mother weeping for her lost son or daughter because of a ball that started rolling on September 11th last year.
In the meantime, American journalists are singing the praises of their government for freeing the Afghani people, in particular, releasing women from the oppressive Taliban regime. But I have to wonder, somewhat bitterly, that if it hadn’t been for September 11th whether the previously unchallenged, five-year-old Taliban government would have remained in power.
Regardless of the means, I can’t argue with the fact that this is a positive step forward. I even pray that the momentum continues to ensure some good comes from September 11th; that terror is eventually kept in check for all countries, and that oppressed people the world over are freed. Perhaps if we don’t forget that day when the world gathered in a grief that touchingly transcended borders and cultures, we can use our newfound sense of community to boldly build a better world for all. Lofty ideals to be sure, and not ones that will be realistically realized any time soon. But my fear is that to forget is to fail the lesson and lose the opportunity. That’s why this raw wound will never completely heal and that things can never go back to ‘normal’. Because even as a simple bystander I have a responsibility to incite change for the rest of my life or I watched all those people die in vain.