Friday 11 September 2015

Where you were isn't as important as where you want to be

Today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11 and there is a popular hashtag on Twitter to mark the occasion: #WhereWereYou. Many of the responses are from younger Twitter users who report that they were in school, but a few responses are sobering:

"Watching on the street just a block away. These words ring in my ears "Mike, Those are people!" as we saw objects fall..."

"I was about to get on plane to bring poll numbers to White House. It didn't include a single question on terrorism or security."

"High up in my midtown Manhattan office. Associate ran in said TV showing WTC burning. I turned, looked downtown, and saw hell."

"A paramedic colleague jumped in his car from CT and drove down to help. He didn't come back."

"Walking to my office in the South Tower when the plane hit. May not be writing this if I was on time to work that day."

"I don't care about ‪#WhereWereYou, you're still here. Sep 11 isn't about your personal tale but about those who aren't here to tell theirs."

That last one raises a question: Why do we care where we were, where others were? Because geopolitics changed that day? Because it was the defining moment for a generation? Yes, to both of those reasons, and it makes us feel involved, connected to a horror show we felt powerless to ameliorate. All of our lives were affected by 9/11, but most of us were helpless spectators to apocalyptic destruction happening in front of us on live TV. Our trauma cannot compare to those directly involved, but the event shaped our politics, our attitudes, our outlook, in ways that still echo today, however muted by time.

So, I'll play:

At the time, I worked for a French company. We had a videoconference, in French, that morning with the head office in Paris. Just before I left my desk for the meeting, I saw on CNN that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. I assumed it was a small, private plane and I hoped no-one had been killed. I remember thinking that it was early enough that the office the plane crashed into might have been empty, and if the plane did not immediately burst into flames, they might even be able to get the pilot out alive.

Although my French was decent, following and participating in a business meeting in French took a lot of concentration and I thought no more about the plane until building security came in and said we had to evacuate, that we might be a target. I should add that my office was on the 20th floor of Rockefeller Center – the famous 30 Rock, with the ice rink and the huge tree every holiday season. The floors below us were occupied by NBC, who were subsequently targeted with anthrax by mail. I never received another piece of post that hadn't been opened and examined, and I worked there for another year.

Somehow we were made to understand that the plane had targeted the WTC deliberately, and other landmark and government buildings were being evacuated around the country. I remember trying to explain to our French colleagues why we had to sign off so abruptly, but it was very confused. We walked down 20 flights of stairs and regrouped in a conference room at another office owned by the company, in a nondescript midtown office building on 6th Avenue that was not evacuated as a potential terrorist target.

At this point, there was a feeling we (meaning the U.S.) were under attack with no sense of how many more planes had been hijacked and where they were headed. My work colleagues and I tuned into CNN on the big screen in the conference room. Someone brought in the sort of food trays that are served at meetings, which we ignored. My boss's boss had a brother who worked at the Pentagon and she was desperately trying to reach him. She later learned that he was in his office when the plane struck, which was luckily on the opposite side of the building from the impact.

My boyfriend at the time, Hugh, was doing temp work. His current temp assignment was at the WTC. No mobile phones were working – signals were jammed from the volume of calls. I used the conference room landline to try to reach him without success. I know it sounds strange, but I was worried but not frantic. It was so surreal, so hard to take in, that I simply could not believe that he could have been harmed. My coworkers and I saw both towers fall in real time on the news and it felt like watching a movie – it was simply too much to absorb that we were seeing thousands of people perish, live, at that moment, just down the street from us. The adrenaline was pumping, making for an altered state of hyper-awareness that felt more like riding a roller coaster or watching an action movie than being in a real life warzone. I think it's a protective mechanism, our brains don't take in the emotional side at first so that one can function until the immediate crisis is over.

By coincidence, my father was visiting for a yoga event. The class he was attending started at 5:45am, so he had made a habit of going back to my flat for a nap afterwards. I phoned him and woke him, told him to turn on the TV. He didn't believe me at first. When I convinced him I was serious, he asked me what channel. Since I never watch TV, I didn't know what channel CNN was. I remember patiently explaining to him that there was a sticker on the back of the remote that listed all the channels, although it had been worn almost illegible, when he said, "Never mind; it's on every channel."

I then called a friend, a college professor that I thought might not have heard. It seems silly now, but I didn't yet realize that people in classes, people in their homes and offices with no radio or TV on, would have been informed. He knew, and he was worried about his son, who was also temping in NYC. He doubted he was temping at the WTC that day, or anywhere near it, but a parent cannot help worrying. I told him I didn't have any word on Hugh and I knew for certain he was temping in the WTC. I had seen both towers collapse. My friend had nothing to say – what can you say in that situation?

About quarter past twelve, on another phone check, my father told me that Hugh was home. At that point, I left the office and walked home. I always walked the 50+ blocks to and from my office, but all public transport was shut down and the streets were crowded with people, some milling around uncertainly and some trying to get home on foot. I was training for the NYC marathon at that time and I had a painful groin pull that had given me a limp. I don't remember feeling it the whole way home.

It sounds horrible to say this, but I have to be honest and report that there was a bit of a holiday atmosphere all up along Broadway. It was a gorgeous sunny day, clear blue sky, 70s, that felt like summer at its best. Stores were giving away food and beverage to people walking by, and everyone was being really nice to each other. As I said, the shock, the adrenaline, kept the full knowledge of what was happening down the street from sinking in yet. People simply could not take it in and did not know what to think, but they were on their best behaviour. New York is a city of neighbourhoods, and those neighbourhoods can be close-knit, with good people who help each other.

When I got home, Hugh told his story: His train went past the WTC stop and let everyone off at the next one. This is a frequent occurrence in the NYC subway, "due to a police incident", so Hugh's only feeling was of annoyance that the walk back up from the following subway stop was going to make him late for work. When he emerged onto the street, it was to see the towers smoking, crowds screaming and running, and cops herding the emerging subway riders east, away from the WTC. He walked north, skirting as far east as he was forced to by cops and crowds. At one point, police were directing everyone down the steps into the City Hall subway entrance. He had a strong instinct not to get trapped underground but he was herded down with the crowd. When he saw the station and the platform were a solid sea of people, survival instincts drove him to fight his way back up the stairs to the street, right into a huge cloud of dust – the first tower had just collapsed. He made his way north, past people white with dust, floating pieces of paper landing on him, to Houston Street. There he saw a woman with her hand over her mouth screaming "Oh my God, oh my God" over and over and pointing downtown. He looked back in time to see the second tower collapse. He then walked home, well over 100 blocks.

We got take-out and camped in front of the TV. I called local hospitals in the evening, to see if I could go give blood – the feeling of helplessness, of wanting to do something was overwhelming. (The Onion captured this feeling well in its now classic 9/11 coverage). But the hospitals were overwhelmed with offers to donate and were advising people to stay home. The grim truth was that there were no survivors needing blood. Medical staff not on duty had raced to emergency rooms to help cope with the casualties, who never arrived. They were also refusing volunteers on site. Unless you had Red Cross or other formal disaster relief training, you weren't allowed south of Houston Street.

My office – indeed, most of the city – was shut down the next day. The building where my father's yoga event was being held was turned into a makeshift morgue, filled with charred body parts waiting to be matched with missing loved ones. My dad, Hugh, and I walked in the park, and went out to a cafĂ©, just to get away from the TV coverage for a few hours. But there was no relief. The smell from downtown permeated the air and served as a constant reminder. The TV was now listing names of the missing, showing photos, interviewing crying relatives. The scale of the death, the vague numbers of passengers and office workers, were now being replaced with individual names and faces and life stories. The NY Times ran bios of each victim, every single one, over the following weeks. Nothing seemed to matter; everything paled in relation to the scale of the senseless loss of life. The news reported the search for the missing, the dogs sniffing at the smoking rubble, the hope fading. They hid rescue workers for the dogs to find because they were getting depressed at finding only body parts, no living victims.

The following day, we went to an Indian restaurant downtown and saw the memorials to the missing, those now iconic street corner collections of candles and photocopied pictures. It is gut-wrenching to recall even 14 years later.

My father's flight was cancelled, but eventually he got home. Work resumed at the office, albeit with the anthrax scare keeping us all jumpy and leery of our formerly beloved landmark building. I put off running the marathon until the following year, ostensibly due to my injury, but also because my heart was no longer in it. It seemed so selfish, a petty goal in the face of the loss so many had suffered. But I did run it the next year. Life went on. 9/11 became something we now talk and think about only on its anniversary, when the names of the victims are patiently read aloud, a process that takes many hours, to let their relatives know they are not forgotten.

My memories of the event matter only to me, and not even to me so much anymore. #WhereWereYou and other "never forget"-type memorials are meant to help us avoid repeating horrors in our history. This is not a political essay, but I think it's safe to say that the U.S. response, and subsequent destabilization of the Middle East, have made the world less, not more, safe. It might be more useful to start a hashtag #WhereWillYouBe to begin a dialogue about the world we want to live in, the safer, kinder world we had hoped to create in the initial global goodwill that blossomed after 9/11.