The Day Of: A 9/11 Memoire, Part II

WTC Fire

On the morning of September 1, 2001, the other members of the Voices in the Wilderness group protesting the sanctions against Iraq had left early for the protest site outside the US Mission to the UN when I woke up, maybe around 8 am. Kathy had stayed behind to work on some writing and answer some emails. Shortly before 9 am, the youngest member of our group, whose name I have forgotten but who was from, of all places, Harlemville, a tiny hamlet in upstate New York, where I had coincidentally spent a summer five years earlier, came into the room saying ‘Kathy, you have to come see this. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.’ Both Kathy and I demurred. ‘Probably a Cessna,’ we both concurred, and stayed put. About five minutes later he was back. ‘You really gotta see this, I think this is important.’ We walked downstairs to the television room and the first thing I noticed was a huge plume of smoke outside the window. On the television, we could see the huge hole in one of the towers, black smoke billowing. As we were trying to process what we were seeing, we witnessed the second plane slam into the other building producing a huge fireball.

Looking outside, I began to notice it was raining paper. The wind direction was carrying the smoke from the World Trade Center fires directly out over central Brooklyn. Nearly every piece of paper was singed around the edges so that the paper you found lying on the ground everywhere was circular, not rectangular. For quite some time, all those present, about six or seven of us, were glued to the television and the couch trying to process what was happening. Video replay of the attacks clearly showed that these were jetliners, not prop planes. The question was: who was flying them and why? When we got the news of the third plane striking the Pentagon at 9:37 am, the question became: where next? My sister Pauli worked as a decorative artist in the Capitol and the Library of Congress. I called to make sure she was okay. When our mother was asked later that day how she was doing, she answered ‘How do you think I am doing? My son is in New York and my daughter is in Washington, DC!’

That third attack edged us out of our stupor and got us moving. I went up to the roof where I could see both towers burning and the huge plume of smoke almost directly overhead, taking a few pictures. I called my father. ‘We’re at war,’ he said simply. I began gathering information about the World Trade Center and exchanging emails with NNEWAI members and others. Questions came pouring in and I searched for answers. The World Trade Center could see more than 200,000 visitors a day. We knew an evacuation was on. How many people were inside when the planes hit? How many were trapped on the floors above the strikes? How would they get out?

We were called back to the tv room shortly before 10 am because ‘something is happening’. It had not occurred to any of us that the buildings might collapse. Moments after entering the room, we witnessed the South Tower collapse. Once again, we sat there immobilized and in shock, long enough to watch the collapse of the North Tower around 10:30 am. The news media was already circulating reports that the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists. I explained to Kathy that I had taken some pictures from the roof. She asked me to show her. Up on the roof of the rectory, we could see from eight miles out the huge gray cloud of debris arising from where the twin towers had stood until moments ago. The grim look on Kathy’s face as she turned her head back, saying ‘There will be nothing left of Iraq,’ will forever be etched in my memory.

Later that day my father, a construction engineer, told me on the phone from Iowa that he had anticipated the buildings’ collapse, explaining that he surmised that the heat from the explosion of the jet fuel would compromise the steel supports. I also spoke with Professor George Comninel, my dissertation supervisor in Toronto, who had not only grown up in Brooklyn but who had worked many years there in construction. ‘We used to call that “goulash construction,”’ he explained, ‘because if one floor is compromised and there are just two or three floors above it, the whole structure will pancake downward and collapse into a pile of goulash.’

Questions kept coming in by email. I tried to do some rough calculations, and surmised, to my horror, that perhaps 30,000 people were in the buildings when they were hit … but how many got out? That figure turned out to be way high. As Professor Comninel noted in a later conversation, ‘New Yorkers are notoriously late to work.’ Had the planes struck late morning or afternoon, the death toll could have been far higher.

By the afternoon, we were getting restless. Ramzi proposed that we go for a walk. It was a chance to get to know him better. Our conversation turned rather philosophical, I remember, as paper continued to fall from the sky. We came back to the rectory where everyone in the group was feeling quite helpless. Ramzi and I resolved to ‘do something.’ We resolved to go out and volunteer by donating blood. As it turned out, many New Yorkers were already volunteering to donate blood and most were being turned away. We ended up at an emergency crisis center where we were put to work making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As we whittled away with our butter knives, only one survivor arrived. A woman in her late fifties perhaps, she went straight to a pay phone and dialed her mother. We could not help but overhear the conversation. She had been evacuated from one of the towers and was herself still trying to process what had happened. Alternating between a calm description of her circumstances inside the tower and bouts of hysterical sobbing, she was trying her best to hold it together. Physically, there appeared to be nothing wrong with her, but emotionally, she was scarred for life. The sad truth is that among those who were not evacuated, along with the hundreds of firefighters and rescuers who entered after the strike, few survived. The PBJ sandwiches we made wound up being given to the NYPD officers standing around outside on the sidewalk.

That evening back at the rectory, the group sat in a circle on the floor, all still fasting, all still in shock and grieving for the thousands who had just perished in the buildings’ collapse. I will be forever grateful that I found myself amongst people capable of making sense of the 9/11 attacks. ‘This is US foreign policy come home to roost,’ commented Ellen, former military herself. We discussed the possibility that the US would invade Iraq, again, in retaliation for the attacks, having no information at that time about whether or not Iraq had anything to do with them. It seemed both unimaginable and at the same time a likely response. Afghanistan did not even come up. Not a word was spoken about our plans to hire a plane to fly a banner with a message about the plight of Iraqi children under UN sanctions. I have often wondered what might have happened to the pilot if that plane had been up there that very morning.

When we broke to go to bed, the lights in the hallways were hazy, the air thick with smoke and dust. I went up to the roof once more, meditating now on the darkness off on the horizon where in the days before one could see the lights of the World Trade Center towers.

Curt later told me privately that when he heard about the attacks he walked from the UN Building toward the World Trade Center, arriving after the towers had collapsed and offered his services as a qualified EMT, but was told that there were plenty of personnel. He stayed on site regardless and tried to help anyone who seemed to require assistance. Amidst the soot-covered rubble, he spotted a baby carriage resembling the one from his dream the night before.

Next: Part III: The Days After