Friday, September 10, 2010

In Remembrance of 9/11

I don't need more of a title than that for this post.   It pretty much says it all.

I open this post offering my best wishes to anyone and everyone who was negatively affected in some way by 9/11 and the events of the subsequent years.  Whether it's someone who experienced the death of a loved one in the attacks or subsequent wars, a soldier who is in the wars and away from his family and missing them, first-responders at the attack sites (like my sister), friends and family members of those affected, etc.  You know what I mean.  Anyone affected by 9/ best wishes are with you.

Above is a photo that I took at our family's church earlier this year of a 9/11 memorial stone.  My simple photo here is dedicated to everyone mentioned above.

I've never written anything about my experiences that day.  Even after all these years, I still don't think I've entirely mentally processed all of it.  While I was not injured in any way, I was in the middle of the events in an ancillary way and it was all very disturbing.

This is what I remember...

The day for me started as a beautiful one as far as the weather was concerned.  I was headed down to New York City to meet my business colleagues to catch a 7:30am flight to Washington DC to go to a meeting for work.  We left LaGuardia Airport in New York City right on time and made the big circle over Manhattan before heading south to Washington.  The city looked amazing and the sky was very clear.  In fact, people sitting around me were all specifically commenting on how nice the World Trade Center buildings looked in the bright early morning sun.

The flight was standard.  No problems.  While on the plane we had no idea what happened in New York only one hour after we flew out of the area.  However, upon landing at Reagan National Airport in Washington we knew something strange was going on.  It was a weekday morning in one of the busiest airports in the country and almost nobody was in the terminal...except for police and a few people walking around.  I was surprised by this and was left wondering to myself, "What did we walk into here?".

I'm guessing that the terminal had been mostly evacuated or something by that time and all taxis and limos were prevented from driving up to the front of the direct terminal.  When we went outside we somehow connected with our driver on some small driveway above the main terminal driveway, so we walked up the hill and got into the limousine still wondering what was going on.  I recall that the driver was silent.

The TV in the car was on and we saw our first images of the World Trade Center towers burning.  We were in shock.  We were all saying, "We were just there a little over an hour ago!  Is this a movie or something?".  As we watched the pictures we were silent.  We grabbed our cell phones to call home to let our families know we were OK.  My wife, who had cartoons on the TV for our son, had no idea what happened.  She was shocked to hear the news from me.  I said I would call her back later to let her know how things were going, and we hung up.

Our car took us to our meeting at Digex Corporation, which at the time was a major web hosting and telecommunications company in the eastern part of the US and it's located fairly close to the Pentagon.  Upon entering the building, which has a control center that looks like NASA, we saw that they had the news coverage up on their giant central monitoring screen that was about 40 feet across on the whole front wall of the room.  We stood and stared at the coverage from New York City.  By this time I believe the towers had fallen.  I remember looking at the TV picture and saying, "Hey, that's Church Street.  But if that's Church Street, the World Trade Center should also be there".  The buildings were already down...

Around then, I seem to remember that some kind of a fire/security/alert alarm went off in the Digex building and our representative there told us that a plane had also crashed in Washington and that for our own safety they recommended that we didn't leave the building.  They were locking the front doors.  I was in complete disbelief upon hearing this.  I simply could not comprehend what was going on.  We quickly got our wits together and my colleagues who I was traveling with all said "We want to"! 

I was getting worried about my family so I started making some phone calls.  I was especially concerned about my sister because she was a Captain in the New York City EMS (Emergency Medical Services) at the time and would certainly be right in the middle of the situation with the first responders to the World Trade Center scene in New York City.  I called her phone and it wasn't working.  Not good...I knew she was there. 

I called my wife to let her know that I was OK.  Then I called my Dad, who was noticeably shaken on the phone.  I asked him what was wrong.  He apparently got word from my sister and she said she was OK.  She was at the base of the first tower when it collapsed and ran for her life with her EMS co-workers and everyone else.

As a senior person in EMS, it's my sister's job to get to situations like this and set up a center of operations and a command post for the EMS personnel and their operations.  This was done right at the base of the towers because in a building situation that's usually the safest place.  The lobby of the building.  Nobody in their wildest dreams thought that the towers were going to fall.

My father's voice was trembling.  He asked me where I was.  I told him that I left New York City right before the attacks and I was now in Washington.  He almost dropped the phone.  He said, "You're WHERE"?  He was distraught to learn that two of his kids were in the middle of all this, in two of the cities being attacked.

We then called our office back in New York.  We told them to find a way to get us the hell out of Washington.  All roads into New York City were closed by this point in time so they told us to rent a van for the team and drive south to Virginia Beach where arrangements would be made to eventually get us home.  We said, "No!  We want to go home".  Someone put the wheels in motion to get us a rental van...I don't remember who did it for us.

After we calmed down for a few minutes, we thought a little bit about why we were there and a bizarre sense of responsibility hit us.  We started to think that since we went all the way to Digex for a specific meeting and we had a way to get home in the works, we should try to go through the motions of conducting the scheduled meeting anyway.

We quickly discovered that nobody was paying attention to the meeting, so this effort was cut short with everyone admitting that they couldn't concentrate on what we were there for.  We stopped the meeting and got ready to leave.

More phone calls home followed.  I told my wife our plan to get home and told her that I probably wouldn't have cell phone service out in the countryside where we would be driving so I would call her whenever I got a chance.  We hung up.

The rental van arrived.  The guy literally showed up at Digex, got out of the van and gave us the keys, and jumped into another waiting car and left.  Clearly he didn't want to be there either.

We got into the van and stopped at a gas station to buy a map.  Since the roads into the New York area were closed and the traffic situation would be a nightmare, we figured that we would drive west from Washington to the first major north/south highway that we could find and head straight north to avoid any travel problems.  That's what we did.

By this time, all US air traffic had been grounded.  Trains were not running into New York City.  Nothing.  Transportation into and out of New York was completely frozen.

My memory is a little fuzzy, but we were somewhere in Pennsylvania when we found out that another plane Pennsylvania!  I honestly don't remember much of what we all talked about on the long car ride back home, but I remember that when we heard this news on the poor quality AM radio in the van, I just went numb.  Everywhere we went, a plane was coming down.  New York.  Washington.  Pennsylvania.  People dying.  It was all very surreal, and I think everyone in the car felt a little like a rabbit trying to find a hole to hide in.

On a somewhat odd and I suppose humorous note, at one point while driving through very rural Pennsylvania a black bear (yes, a bear!) ran across the highway not far from our van.  I remember thinking to myself, "A bear?!  What the hell is going on around here"?  

We drove for eight hours on a very roundabout route to get back to New York.  We listened to the radio the whole way home to grab bits and pieces of news, but we had little idea of the full picture and did not understand the full depth of the situation until we got home around 8:00pm that night.

I walked into the house and sat down on the couch with my wife to watch CNN.  My baby son was sleeping upstairs.  That coverage on CNN late in the evening was the first comprehensive coverage that I had seen all day and I think that seeing it just pushed me further into shock.  I could not believe what I was looking at.

At the end of the day, I was glad to be home and also obviously relieved to hear that my sister was OK.  She could have very easily been killed.  She told me later that at one point when she was running through the ash cloud from the collapsed tower that she almost passed out in the complete darkness of the ash that was choking her and succumbed to death.  I can't even begin to imagine or communicate what she went through.  It's impossible.  What I went through is absolutely nothing compared to what she went through.  I was just an ancillary emotional victim.  She was a direct physical victim.

My first reaction to this over the next weeks and months was, "We have to get the bastards that did this".  Eventually, that's what we and our allies tried to do in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.  I'm certainly not going to comment in this post about the long and wavering journey that the decision to go to war has taken us on as a people and a nation.  That situation is what it is and hopefully it will come to an end soon...Maybe I'll comment on that another time.  

My sister was asked to write a chapter for the book "Women at Ground Zero", which she did.  Reading it again today on the night before the anniversary, I'm reminded of the complete unbelievable nature.....still.....of what happened that day.  To me, something about it is still incomprehensible.  

The weird thing about all of this for me initially was that I didn't cry.  I watched all of the coverage on TV, heard all of the stories, watched the 9/11 tribute shows on TV, watched the anniversary coverage, watched us go to war over it, etc.  For some reason, probably shock, my brain simply didn't try to purge itself of the emotion through tears.  My eyes were dry.

I didn't cry until one day in the future when I was completely overcome while at home by myself reading a book.  This is how this story ties to photography and how photos have the immense power to move people.

It happened when I was reading the book called "Aftermath" by the famous photographer Joel Meyerowitz.  For those who are interested in 9/11, this is an absolute must-own large format picture book with photos and stories about the cleanup of the World Trade Center site starting in the days immediately after the attacks and going out over the next year or so.  You must see this book.

What made me break down was a photo on page 195 of the book.  The photo is of the inside of the World Trade Center child day care center in WTC Building 5.  It was a simple picture of some toy cars on the floor, but the toys were all covered by thick ash from the collapse of the towers that had blown in through the shattered windows of the day care center.

That simple picture of those ash-covered toys instantly sent a million thoughts through my head about how scared those kids must have been during the collapse of the towers and then my brain extrapolated out from there to thoughts of all the other people who were scared or killed and I completely broke down for almost 30 minutes of tears pouring down my face.  Sobbing uncontrollably.  That one photo somehow crystallized the whole event for me.

On the 9th Anniversary of the attacks, fortunately for me I feel better and more "healed" than I did back then because some time has passed.  But I expect that there will always be some part of me that will remain dramatically affected by that day, never to fade with time.  Maybe that's the way it should be.  

I have nothing else to say about 9/11.

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