People are discussing the geopolitical implications of 9/11 and how the tragedy changed our country, and most of what’s been said has been worthy and serious. But my thoughts, as we hit the 10th anniversary, are more local and particular. I’m in a New York state of mind.
There were two targets, Washington and New York. Washington saw a great military institution attacked, and quickly rebuilt. In Washington people ran barefoot from the White House and the Capitol.
But New York saw a world end. New York saw the buildings come down.
That was the thing. It’s not that the towers were hit—we could have taken that. It’s not the fire, we could have taken that too. They bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and took out five floors, and the next day we were back in business.
It’s that the buildings came down, in front of our eyes. They were there and proud and strong, they were massive, two pillars at the end of the island. And then they groaned to the ground and there was a cloud and when people could finally see they looked back and the buildings weren’t there breaking through the clouds anymore. The buildings were a cloud. The buildings were gone and that was too much to bear because they couldn’t be gone, they couldn’t have fallen. Because no one could knock down those buildings.
And it changed everything. It marked a psychic shift in our town between “safe” and “not safe.” It marked the end of impregnable America and began an age of vulnerability. It marked the end of “we are protected” and the beginning of something else.
When you ask New Yorkers now what they remember, they start with something big—the first news report, the phone call in which someone said, “Turn on the TV.” But then they go to the kind of small thing that when you first saw it you had no idea it would stay in your mind forever. The look on the face of a young Asian woman on Sixth Avenue in the 20s, as she looked upward. The votive candles on the street and the spontaneous shrines that popped up, the pictures of saints. The Xeroxed signs that covered every street pole downtown. A man or a woman in a family picture from a wedding or a birthday or bar mitzvah. “Have you seen Carla? Last seen Tuesday morning in Windows on the World.”
The bus driver as I fumbled in my wallet to find my transit card. “Free rides today,” he mumbled, in a voice on autopilot. The Pompeii-like ash that left a film on everything in town, all the way to the Bronx. The smell of burning plastic that lingered for weeks. A man who worked at Ground Zero told me: “It’s the computers.” They didn’t melt or decompose, and they wouldn’t stop burning. The doctors and nurses who lined up outside St. Vincent’s Hospital with gurneys, thinking thousands would come, and the shock when they didn’t. The spontaneous Dunkirk-like fleet of ferries that took survivors to New Jersey.
The old woman with her grandchild in a stroller. On the stroller she had written a sign in magic marker: “America You Are Not Alone, Mexico Is With You.” She was all by herself in the darkness, on the side of the West Side Highway, as we stood to cheer the workers who were barreling downtown in trucks to begin the dig-out, and to see if they could find someone still alive.
The notes neighbors left under each other’s doors. “Are you OK? Haven’t seen you and just thought I’d make sure all is all right.” The flags in every bodega, on every storefront, in the windows of apartments, up and down the proud facades of Park Avenue. My beautiful cynical town covered in flags, swept by love and protectiveness toward our country.
At first we didn’t know what to call it, so we called it what happened. “Do you believe what happened?” “They think he died in what happened.” It was weeks before we called it 9/11. Sometimes tragedy takes time to find a name.
We were half crazy those days. We were half nuts and didn’t know it. The trauma on Tuesday was followed in the middle of Thursday night by a storm, a howling banshee that shook buildings—thunder like a cannonade, lightning tearing through the sky. And then there were the stories. We kept hearing about guys who dug themselves out of the rubble. We’d hear a guy came out of the rubble and said, “There’s 20 firemen down there in an air pocket,” and we’d all put on the news and it was never true. I will never forget this one: As the first tower went down some guy on the 50th floor grabbed a steel girder that was flying by, and he held on for dear life and it landed on a pile of rubble 30 floors below and he got up, brushed himself off, and walked away. That wasn’t true either. The stories whipped through the town like the wind, and people grabbed onto them.
And there were the firemen. They were the heart of it all, the guys who went up the stairs with 50 to 75 pounds of gear and tools on their back. The other people who were there in the towers, they were innocent victims, they went to work that morning and wound up in the middle of a disaster. But the firemen saw the disaster before they went into it, they knew what they were getting into, they made a decision. And a lot of them were scared, you can see it on their faces on the pictures people took in the stairwells. The firemen would be going up one side of the stairs, and the fleeing workers would be going down on the other, right next to them, and they’d call out, “Good luck, son,” and, “Thank you, boys.”
They were tough men from Queens and Brooklyn and Staten Island, and they had families, wives and kids, and they went up those stairs. Captain Terry Hatton of Rescue 1 got as high as the 83rd floor. That’s the last time he was seen.
Three hundred forty-three firemen gave their lives that day. Three hundred forty-three! It was impossible, like everything else.
Many heartbreaking things happened after 9/11 and maybe the worst is that there’s no heroic statue to them, no big marking of what they were and what they gave, at the new World Trade Center memorial.
But New York will never get over what they did. They live in a lot of hearts.
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.