Sunday, September 11, 2011


September 11, 2001. I can't quite believe it's been 10 years. In a way, it seems like we've been living in a post-9/11 world for much longer than that.

While everyone experienced that day differently -- and I would never claim anything like those who experienced the events firsthand -- it was also the same: horror and grief and the knowledge that everything had changed. There are so many images from 9/11 ingrained on our collective memory: smoke, fire, tears and a tidal wave of ash, fluttering paper everywhere, remains of the towers stark against the sky. The planes careening into the buildings over and over and over again. Like my mother remembers exactly where she was when she heard JFK was assassinated, and how our grandparents knew what they were doing when they learned the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we will always remember where we were when the Twin Towers (and the planes flying into the Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pa. -- blow upon blow) were hit and, subsequently, fell to earth.

I wrote a short article recently on North Port's piece of one of the Twin Towers, eventually to become part of a permanent memorial there. I was almost hesitant about touching the I-beam:
"It’s a 500-pound, rusty chunk of metal with a strip of nuggety concrete still clinging to it. Protruding from one side, steel bolts at least an inch in diameter are bent like reeds in the wind.
But it wasn’t a gentle wind that caused these bolts to warp. It was pressure and heat and gravity, enough force to shear some of the bolts completely off at their base and fling others in directions opposite the bolts just next to them..." 

In 2001, I lived in Gainesville, where I was going to grad school at UF. I didn't have class on 9/11, but was headed to work in the undergrad telecommunication department, where I was an office assistant. I was in my car, driving to the commuter lot to catch the bus into the heart of campus when I heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the North Tower. Everyone thought it was a tragic accident, and no one was panicking because it was so early, not yet 9 a.m. I chatted with others on the bus about how terrible such an accident was.

It wasn't until I got off the bus and walked into Weimer Hall, the Journalism building, that I learned of the plane hitting the second tower. There was a wall of televisions just off the atrium next to the journalism library, and I joined the semi-circle of students standing or sitting on the brick floor in stunned silence. I was late for work -- not that anyone minded, ultimately -- but couldn't tear myself away from the screens. The whole day seemed to stop.

Eventually I did head up to my office on the second floor. I just remember flashes from the rest of my time at work. According to my journal, I spent a lot of time wandering down to the dean's office (where I recall the plants being incredibly green) and watching the TV there, waiting for confirmation that classes were cancelled for the day, as well as standing in the doorway of Dr. Debbie Treise's office (she had a TV, too) a few offices down from mine. It was there I watched one of the towers, possibly the second, fall, slack-jawed, hand over my mouth. It strikes me as silly now, but I apologized to her for just standing there. Waiting for the bus to head home later that day, one of the reporters for The Alligator, the college paper, asked me for my reaction. I remember all I could think to say was "It's just crazy." I couldn't come up with anything more than that.

I personally didn't know anyone who died or was injured. One of my classmates at the time, Gary Mattingly (a newscaster for one of the local TV stations) lost a cousin, a New York City firefighter. I had several college friends in D.C. at the time, and I was fortunately able to IM with both Marie (who worked two miles away) and Linda (who only lived a block and a half from the Pentagon) while still at work that day and make sure they were ok -- they were, but were scared. Linda's whole house shook, she said. My uncle Tim, retired Navy and a government contractor, worked in the Pentagon occasionally, but thankfully hadn't been there since the week before.

According to my journal, that night, in moments when I wasn't watching the news (although I probably just had it muted -- for days all my roommate and I could seem to do was watch the coverage, wiping away the tears and "waiting for another person to be pulled from the rubble." I remember the always nattily-dressed Peter Jennings reporting with tired eyes, in his shirt sleeves with thick 5 o'clock shadow, continuing to update people with the latest), I called home and all my close friends. I wrote that "It almost seemed necessary -- like an affirmation that some things were still the same."

Later daily Mass at 5:30 was packed that night. It was so nice to see the church full. All we felt we could do was pray, for those who had died, and in hope that some might be found alive.
Before going to bed, I wrote the day's events in my journal. At that point we had no idea how many had died -- some 50,000 worked in the towers. I remember sitting on the floor in front of my bedroom closet (not sure why exactly I was sitting just there) and wondering about whether we would soon see young men drafted and marching off to war. We still didn't know who was responsible. And we did go to war, but in a different way than we ever had before.

Soon after, radio stations started playing a version of Bruce Springsteen's "Secret Garden" that included sound bites of people reacting to the tragedy and remembering loved ones who had perished in the attacks. I always thought it was an interesting choice of song. Back in 1996, it was the theme song for my senior prom, although very few people had heard of it at the time. Only later that year did it became really popular once it was featured in "Jerry Maguire" ("Did you know the human head weighs eight pounds?" "Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at hello.") and clips from the movie were also added to the song.

Anyway, about a week later, I was heading home from a Catholic Young Adults meeting at my parish, Holy Faith. I don't remember anything about what we talked about that night, but as I was driving, I happened to glance up. I saw the lights of a plane in the air blinking against the night sky for the first time since the attacks. It seemed like I'd cried so much, but this, too, brought tears to my eyes, not of sadness, but as a small symbol of hope that things would, in a way, be ever-so-slightly more normal.

Afterwards, movies and TV shows airbrushed away previously filmed images of the WTC out of fear that people would be traumatized by seeing them still standing. One of those movies was "Serendipity" and, while I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I thought taking the buildings out was silly. I remember sitting in the theater noting the absence of where the towers should have been. Shouldn't we remember them as they were?

I have newspapers from September 12 saved. Some of them show people in the Towers jumping out, choosing that instead of fire. There was a huge outcry when those were published, but they, too, show the horror of the day.

I read on one website last week that there was some backlash over all the coverage of the tenth anniversary, the argument being that the shows somehow trivialize the tragedies by turning them into entertainment. Seriously? None of the shows I have seen have been remotely pandering, instead honoring heroes and remembering those who were lost.

One such show was a special about three men, two who were New York Port Authority workers, who risked their lives to climb higher in the North Tower to help others get out. They made it to the 90th floor and rescued more than 70 people by opening jammed doors or guiding workers to safety through smoke and rubble. One of the three survived after helping someone with injuries down the stairs. The other two died, sacrificing themselves that others might live. It was a small story, one of thousands from that day and the days that followed, but one that shouldn't be forgotten. Those who had albeit brief interactions with these men credit them with their lives. Ten years on, still all I could do was cry. Watching one of the many videos of the planes smashing into the Towers, and then seeing them plummet to earth still comes close to stopping my heart. Images of people walking around the ash-covered war zone are still just as wrenching. I don't think that will ever change. Nor should it. I don't think there's enough we can do to remember -- not out of anger or a need for revenge, but out of honor and prayer. Not remembering would be the travesty.

But I think Peggy Noonan, in a piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal late last week, said it better than I could:

"They tell us to get over it, they say to move on, and they mean it well: We can't bring an air of tragedy into the future. But I will never get over it. To get over it is to get over the guy who stayed behind on a high floor with his friend who was in a wheelchair. To get over it is to get over the woman by herself with the sign in the darkness: "America You Are Not Alone." To get over it is to get over the guys who ran into the fire and not away from the fire.
You've got to be loyal to pain sometimes to be loyal to the glory that came out of it."

No comments: