Reflections on 9/11: respect, honor, and people coming together
On the morning of September 11, 2001, at 9:00am I was sitting in my Brooklyn Heights apartment talking to a friend on the phone when suddenly she interrupted with, “Turn on the television, this is important,” after which I did, and for the next several minutes we joined the rest of the world watching in disbelief and horror as 9/11 unfolded before our eyes.
It wasn’t long before ashes were flurrying outside my window and people were frantically running down the sidewalk covering their mouths with their hands, sleeves or jackets. I was living just across the East River, downwind of where the attack took place. Alarms sounded. Where would be the next target? A friend called, her voice was shaking. She was jogging on the Brooklyn bridge and witnessed someone jumping from one of the towers. Another friend was at the towers at 8:30am for an interview, but it was cancelled so she went home. Should we evacuate? Where would we go? How would we get out of the city? There were calls from home. Yes, I’m ok. Later that day, a friend who lived in Park Slope said that a piece of paper stamped with a towers address on the letterhead and hand-signed in ink had blown over from Manhattan intact.
The next day, the view of Manhattan from the promenade looked like a war zone. Military planes and helicopters circled over the city. A large warship and several smaller ships hovered in the water around the island. A trail of thick, black smoke wider in breadth than the former landmarks was billowing atop the city. It was midday, but the sky was dark. We watched in silence. Other than Pearl Harbor, this was America’s closest experience of war in modern times. I thought about how people in other countries lived with the terror and conflict of war every day. I couldn’t bring myself to take photos or videos of what I was seeing.
It was several weeks before I visited Ground Zero. As I waited in the long line that snaked around the site, it struck me that the facades of the surrounding buildings were covered with an even layer of grey soot from top to bottom, the impact of the force of the towers falling. The same had happened inside buildings. Soot forced under the narrow cracks of a Gap store’s locked doors evenly covered shirts stacked on shelves, trousers hanging along the wall, cash registers, walls, posters, everything. Looking down onto the site, someone was saying that safe deposit boxes located at the base of the towers had been destroyed, the contents exposed to looters. Where the line made a sharp turn to the right, the atmosphere changed from quiet to solemn. Faces were grave or streamed with tears reading messages left by loved ones on colorful post-it notes that dotted the wood and scaffolds like wildflowers. The various handwriting styles and words conjured both those who were lost and those who remembered them.
A few weeks after the attack, a co-worker began planning her husband’s funeral. His body hadn’t been found. Life must go on for her little girl, she said. She’d been married for three years.
A few years after the attack, I joined a company that lost all of the employees who had worked at the downtown office. Survivors painfully recounted stories of heroes who had gone back to help others escape but had perished. It was a company where employees stayed for years. My colleagues lived with a deep loss, sadness, and heartache with which I could only empathize but never truly know or understand.
Each year on the anniversary of 9/11, I reflect on these memories, as well as the memories of others.
I also reflect on how, in the face of a tragedy such as 9/11, people come together.
New York City would seem like the least likely place for this to happen. It’s one of the toughest cities in the world to live. But I’d seen New Yorkers come together before 9/11.
Not long after I’d moved to NYC in 1998, an elderly woman was mugged entering a midtown subway station one morning at 6:30am. The perpetrator got away, but it was life-affirming to see people of all walks of life at her side, helping her, calling 911, asking her what she needed, and running to the drug store to get it. People cheered when she finally stood up smiling softly, a street-smart native New Yorker made light jokes, and a finely-dressed man patted him on the back and shook his hand. People came together.
Another time on a packed subway, a man reaching for a pole accidentally touched the hand of another man holding onto the pole, setting off a brawl. Fists flew, followed by smacks to the face. Before you could blink, you wondered, what would happen? Within moments, one group of strangers grabbed one of the men, and another group of strangers grabbed the other man, each group holding down both men until we got to the next stop. No one spoke a word to orchestrate this, it just happened. Someone else alerted the subway driver. Police were waiting when we got to the next stop. People came together.
The same thing happened after 9/11, but it was more far-reaching. New Yorkers became more tolerant and considerate of each other in the day-to-day. I live in Los Angeles now, but I think we learned through the crisis that we were all in it together — we had no choice but to come together. And since life is short, why not come together in good times, as well. A simple matter of a smile, a kindness, a courtesy, or a laugh can make life that much nicer and better for everyone. This world is tough enough, as it is.
In memory, honor, and respect.