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Culture / Newsy

A September 11 Diary

Unbearable Photos, Unforgettable Courage and Unfathomable Horror — A Real, True Look Back

BY

Sixteen years have passed since that day in 2001, a day of beautiful blue skies and autumnal light and sudden — seemingly apocalyptic — violence. Much has happened in the time between then and now, but on every September 11 since 2001 I have experienced a prolonged and heightened sense of remembrance. I go through the day thinking that perhaps it all never happened, that it couldn’t have happened. I find myself missing my streets and haunts even more. I feel an almost unbearably stark sense of reality. This morning was no exception. Images linger, sensations and scents and faces.

I still remember all of those faces.

The note that follows is something I began writing on that fateful September 11, a journal of sorts, an attempt to deal with the chaos and anger and sadness and fear.

Manhattan, 2001

Sept. 11 – Life changes at certain points, forever. I was living near Ramstein, Germany, when it was bombed in the early 1980s, and I remember feeling the assault. We always knew about the threats, grew accustomed to the machine guns in the airports and the heightened security everywhere.

But to many people, this is an unknown. People who grow angry when they are delayed at airports for baggage check must now realize that they have experienced one of those life-changing events — four planes hijacked in the space of an hour, four cockpits breached, pilots murdered, jetliners full of fuel and human life transformed into giant, horrific bombs.

Three buildings collapsed in Manhattan, hundreds of rescue personnel dead and injured. No telling how many people were crushed in the tons of concrete and aluminum and glass and steel.

My office is five blocks from the World Trade Center complex. I was due at an appointment uptown when the planes slammed into the buildings. I did not go to work today.

An Ominous Haze

Sept. 13 – The distinct odor of burning rubber and steel remains in the air, and a haze floats, as if an omen, over the island. We find joy in the retrieval of five living firefighters, but beneath those fortunate five, all of whom were in the second or third wave of rescuers, are countless thousands of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. We are desperate to hear even one of them tapping on a wall or on a crushed piece of concrete. One sound brings the work to an even more fevered pitch.

I watch men, some in their 20th consecutive hour of work, using nothing more than five-gallon buckets to rapidly, but delicately, move rubble. They can utilize nothing more, for they do not want to cause a cave-in. To me, they are all Sisyphus.

I went today to a firehouse near our apartment, to bring food and whatever else the men and women might need. There were tears and firm handshakes. These men and women are really heroes.

Firehouse 30 in Manhattan is full of strangers today. Its rightful inhabitants, the personnel who spent their days and nights there, are all dead, lying somewhere under tons of glass and metal and tears. A new group of firefighters has moved in.

Paddy O’Keefe, an ironworker, was among the many people who built the World Trade Towers. He, like many other union workers, is now helping dismantle it. On his arm, written in large letters in waterproof ink, are his name, Social Security number and blood type.

Later today I went to the Pierre, a hotel at 61st and Fifth Avenue, to volunteer for Cantor Fitzgerald, a small financial firm that called the World Trade Center its home. Many of its 1,000-plus employees are gone.

In one of the hotel’s beautiful halls, the faux cloud-bedecked ceiling hangs over round tables set place cards reading “Floor 104” and “Floor 105” and so on. At those tables sit men and women, some holding young children, faces blank, streaked with tears. Taped to the ornate columns around the hall are hundreds of pieces of paper. On these pieces of paper are photographs of the missing. I read, “Please help me find my husband. John —–, father and lover. He was wearing a blue shirt, and wears glasses. I miss him. Call 718———- if you have seen him.” Something in me sinks, and I feel powerless: So much rage to help her find him, but the knowledge that I can do nothing.

Up around 65th Street, near Central Park, many people are wearing disposable breathing masks. They do not want to take in the debris, thrown into the air and suspended over all. The burning stench is now everywhere; today we walked near Harlem, far away from the carnage, and the odor stayed with us. We didn’t need a reminder, but there it was. Go as far away as Coney Island and the odd smell follows you.

The block on which the Israeli Embassy rests is barricaded. Hanging from the embassy’s facade is an American flag.

Taxi drivers rushing up and down the avenues with American flags flying take more care to not endlessly lean on their horns. The island is peaceful, quiet.

I stopped by a favorite restaurant this evening to say hello to the owner, a woman of whom I am fond. I had some wine, ate something. She came out of the kitchen and, without a greeting, leaned down to hug me. I hugged her back. Hard.

More and More Flags

Sept. 14 – The blue skies are gone. Those skies since Tuesday have been out of place, incorrect. I have been looking up at those skies, and through my living room windows at the buildings of Manhattan, and in my mind those buildings should be gone, destroyed, for it seems we can be in nothing but a war zone. Nothing like this should happen outside of such an environment. We should all be in danger.

The rain falls, and the blue is gone. More and more flags appear, flying in the wind and wetness. Tears mingled with a strange sense of hope. We are all confused. I imagine the rainwater falling from the dark sky onto the smoldering heap downtown, wetting the digging workers and filtering through the mangled steel and metal and glass, mingling with the sweat and blood and flesh, and I see that rain taking all this away, deeper underground and into the waters of the river.

Unbearable Photographs

Sept. 15 – I went to bed at 2 a.m. this morning watching the lightning illuminate the sky. Huge flashes, followed, strangely, by an absence of thunder. The rain was lashing the ground.

I went again to the firehouse. I sat with some of the men, in their kitchen. Just sitting, sharing their food. I think it makes them feel better. I hope it does.

As I was sitting there, an officer in a wheelchair rolled into the kitchen. He had been crying, and in his hands were a small flag and a photograph. I did not ask him about the photo.

Usually when people show me photographs, it is done with pride, or perhaps explanation. I am sick with sadness at seeing photos of people I am certain are dead. Names top the images, and under the images are telephone numbers and phrases such as “beauty mark on her left cheek” and “scar on his shoulder.”

Last night we walked to Union Square, which has become a giant memorial to this darkness. We took our candles and joined thousands of others, in a square where years ago many fought for workers’ rights. People from so many places gathered, candles in hand. Tears all around. A man near us breaks down, crying violently, doubled over. A teen-ager to my left says, “He’s cracking up.” I say, “No, he is grieving.” A trumpeter from somewhere in the dimness begins “Amazing Grace,” slightly out of tune, but the most moving rendition of the song I have ever heard.

We left the square and walked downtown. Beyond the arch in Washington Square, on the horizon, the artificial light hovers over the scene of destruction. The smoke rises still. Encircling the arch is a metal fence; the monument is under repair, for time and pollution have pockmarked the face of this George, who stands twice here, once as a soldier, once as a statesman.

On the fence hang canvas drapes, placed there to serve as tablets for thoughts. We read the words, some written in Spanish, some in German, several in French. A simple representation of the Twin Towers, obviously drawn by a child, catches my eye.

Another sentiment, scrawled in a messy hand: “No one f***s with NYC.” We walk to the next canvas; coming toward me is a woman, 35 or so, red eyes, carrying another one of those photographs/pieces of paper. She stops, stands next to me. I look at the face in her hands; I see, next to her, an older woman, perhaps her mother. The face on the paper stares at me; he was born exactly one month after I was born.

I ask, “Is that your brother?” She answers with excitement, “Yes, do you know him?” Her eyes plead. “No, I just wanted to say I am sorry,” I reply. I put my arms around the women. Their tears sting.

This morning on NPR I hear an accent from down South; he tells Scott Simon he is a spelunker, and that he had driven up to New York yesterday, thinking his passion and skills could be put to use.

Planes overhead bring fear. I think of E.B. White’s prophetic words, written in 1948:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

A New York Fire Department chaplain was buried today in his brown robe (Jesuit), his fireman’s helmet on his head. He died while administering last rites to a colleague amid the rubble. Chunks of metal rained down on his head.

So Many Questions

Sept. 16 – My building is still closed, and I am not especially anxious to return to it. I have no desire to see the mass grave. I have so many questions, and no answers.

Here’s the only thing I can clearly state: I have a new determination to spend my hours in ways that matter. I will somehow help redeem the smoldering death at the bottom of my city. I will remember the faces. I must. We all must.

[James Brock, who is PaperCity Houston’s features editor, lived in New York from 1994 through 2008.]

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