It’s been almost two weeks since the obscene incident we New Yorkers now refer to as the World Trade Center Explosions changed the life of our city so grotesquely. Since that morning of September 11th – a date that like December 7th, 1941 will live in infamy – I, along with most other New Yorkers, have been trying to come to terms with what has happened to us. Here are some of my thoughts and recollections.
One curious fact is that, although Kay and I live in Manhattan only about three miles due north of “ground zero,” the explosion and its aftermath have been largely a TV phenomenon for us. Before the explosion, in our home the television was almost never on during daytime hours. Since then, I’m compelled to turn it on at odd hours to check on the rescue and recovery operations, the investigation, and to share our national grief. At first, the TV was on almost constantly from the time Kay called from her office to give me the news that a plane had crashed into the North Tower. The flames and smoke belching from the jagged hole near the top of World Trade Center Number One had a kind of horrible fascination at first. There were the familiar silver towers so distinct against the bright blue September sky, but now there were orange and black, too, fire and smoke, and a hole where there should only have been an unbroken silver wall. The picture felt so unreal, a special effect on the TV screen.
Of course, on another level my mind struggled to make sense of what I was seeing. It was some horror of an accident. Someone has lost control of a plane. I think I remember a commentator’s voice saying as much. But then, there was another plane, too small to identify, slowly entering the picture from screen left. It seemed to be flying from the southwest and disappeared momentarily behind World Trade Center Number Two. A second later, a huge fireball exploded through the tower’s north side, and, in that instant, any thought about an accident vanished. The picture suddenly made sense. I was witnessing an attack on my city in real time.
Nevertheless, there was an unreality about the experience; something was missing: the soundtrack. Later, I listened to witnesses describing the crash of falling debris and the sounds of chaos – the screams of people stampeding. But on my channel there were only the pictures of the flaming towers, MOS, except, of course, for the excited voices of the commentators describing what was obvious.
By now we know they’re all dead. At first though, we believed the injured would number in the thousands. The great trauma centers – St Vincent’s in the Village and Bellevue on First Avenue expected to be overwhelmed.
On the evening of Tuesday, the 11th, Kay and I walked around the corner of our street and down 7th Avenue toward the Village. The scene was eerie. Except for emergency and rescue vehicles there was almost no car or truck traffic and relatively few pedestrians. Most stores and restaurants were closed. Downtown, in the direction we walked, the sky was a muted orange.
Below 14th Street we passed by the cordon surrounding St. Vincent’s Emergency entrance. Here there was a crowd watching two or three dozen hospital workers in scrubs, standing on the sidewalk among empty wheelchairs and gurneys. What was missing were the ambulances bringing the survivors. The scene was calm, and the workers had little to do but wait.
Last Sunday, Kay and I walked through Madison Square Park and down Broadway to Union Square. All along our route, on lamp posts and building walls, there were photos with the names and phone numbers of the missing. In the square, were hundreds more photos with names and numbers.
Some contained additional information like birthdates, heights, weights, and the names of the companies where the missing had worked. There were snapshots and family photos showing wives, husbands, children, and friends.
Many contained messages addressed to the missing: “We know you’ll make it, Vinny. Come home. We love you.”
Hundreds of people milled through the square, respectful, grave, quiet. There were improvised memorials containing hundreds of flowers and candles.
A group of jazz musicians improvised, also. Though few people displayed their feelings openly, the tears were palpable, just below the surface.
My Lost New York
For me the World Trade Center and its surroundings were much more than a symbol. Although it appears that I’ve lost no personal friends or acquaintances, the WTC was very familiar territory. Landmark Education, where I’ve spent countless hours, was located on the 15th floor of Tower One. I’ve eaten many meals with friends in the underground concourse restaurants, in the Marriott Hotel, and in the Amish Market across Liberty Street. I’ve worked and produced ITVA meetings in the American Express video studio located in the World Financial Center across West Street. I have friends and acquaintances living in Battery Park City. Finally, I often bike in the area. Even as I write these words, on September 23rd, I had been scheduled to participate in one of the city’s great charity events: The MS Ride was slated to have begun and ended at the World Trade Center Plaza.
I don’t mean to make too much of this. My loss is tiny compared to that of many other New Yorkers, and the neighborhood will be rebuilt. I’ll continue to ride along the Hudson River. American Express will continue to do business in the World Financial Center, and my friends will return to their apartments in Battery Park City. Yet, it won’t be the same, and I’ve lost the sense of place that we called the World Trade Center.
The Strength and Dignity of New Yorkers
I have now seen first hand how cataclysmic, tragic events evoke the greatest qualities of our humanity. It’s as if these are always within us, lying just below the surface, untapped until an emergency strikes. The first of these qualities in bravery. Though no one recorded it on tape, I have a powerful image of all those firemen rushing into the inferno and to their deaths, doing their duty regardless of the danger.
Another quality is generosity. In the first days following the attack, the blood, money, and in-kind donations came so fast and in such quantity that they overwhelmed the capacity of agencies to deal with them. Of course, these things are only the outward and visible signs of a great generosity of spirit that makes room for so many different kinds of lives and lifestyles within a single city. The names and faces of those lost in the flames and dust of the World Trade Center represent nearly every race and nationality on the planet. When I walk out on the street and feel how we have all pulled together around our mutual loss, I feel proud. Please excuse my chauvinism when I declare how happy I am to be a citizen of the greatest city in the greatest democracy in the world.
September 23, 2001