It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style.
It's hard to believe that it's been five years since the collapse of the twin towers. In September 2001, I was still a graduate student in Ohio, with about another year to go until I finished my degree. I was in early that morning to get an experiment started, and shortly before 9AM, a grad student from the lab down the hall stopped in to tell us to turn on the radio. It was still pretty much utter confusion at that point, with reports that one plane had hit the World Trade Center, but no one knew exactly what was happening yet. Was this a horrible accident? At that point we still went around our business. The experiment that I was setting up was a quantiative real-time PCR, and because the real-time cycler was shared equipment that we had to sign up for, I needed to get the plate set up and started on time or else tick off the person who was next after me in line. So I mixed, diluted, and pipetted, trying to pay attention to the wells instead of the craziness playing out on the radio.
Then, a few minutes later came the gut-wrenching news that a second plane had hit the other tower. Audio of people in the area gasping and screaming as they watched from the street below. Soundbytes from experts and reporters on the scene. This wasn't an accident; we were under attack. We'd switched the radio between a few stations and I think were listening to Peter Jennings by this point in the game. Then shortly thereafter, news that a fireball was seen at the Pentagon, though it hadn't been confirmed yet if it was another plane or perhaps a bomb. New York, Washington...what was next? We certainly didn't fear for ourselves; it was pretty outlandish to think that a small Ohio university would be on par with the WTC and the Pentagon, but there was a palpable sense of fear and worry for those who were in places more likely to be targets.
Then came news that one of the towers had collapsed. I remember the shock in the voices over the radio. Then the second one, rubble. Going to college in Connecticut just an hour away from Manhattan, New York City was one of my favorite day trips, and I'd fallen in love with the city. How could one of its landmarks just be *gone* in the span of an hour? It was unfathomable.
Friends were going crazy over email. I knew people in most of the big cities in the country; everyone was checking in to let friends know they were all right, or asking for information on people they knew were in NYC or DC (or who may have been flying across the country that day). It was a long and frightening day, not knowing if many of my friends were all right, if they were near the towers that day, or if Boston, or Chicago, or LA was next.
Word came in about an airplane crash in Pennsylvania. Unconfirmed reports, they said. Speculation that it was headed to the White House. Rumors that it had been shot down. Such a mess; we weren't sure what to believe or what was known.
By maybe 11AM that day, the Powers That Be decided to close the school and send everyone home. By that point many of us were considering it anyway; we all had someone we wanted to give a hug to, tell them we loved them. I picked up my daughter, then not quite 2 years old and beautifully oblivious, not understanding why mommy was so upset, and went home for the day. On every channel was the surreal image of the second plane hitting the tower, the towers' collapse, a repeating loop. Stories of jumpers before the towers fell. Still not sure if all my friends were safe. I recall the utter strangeness that came from not hearing a sngle plane in the sky during my hour-long drive home, as air travel had been grounded by the time I left.
I put my daughter down for a nap and flipped through channels for the next few hours. No one seemed to know anything. Terrorism was, of course, suspected and there were reports of groups claiming responsibility, but again, many of these were unsubstantiated rumors. Still so much hope that masses of people would be pulled from the rubble. Calls went out to donate blood, but I was pregnant with my son at the time and felt woefully useless, stunned by the events and unable to do enough to help.
I spent much of the evening checking my email like a fanatic. Reports of friends who worked in the WTC trickled in; assurances that people had heard from a friend of a friend who was on the phone with someone potentially affected earlier, and they were fine. One friend's dad was narrowly spared; he was running late and arrived just after the first plane hit, his second close call in his employment in the WTC (the first being the 1993 bombing). Phone and email service in New York, as I recall, was spotty and unreliable at the time, so we couldn't be sure if we hadn't heard from someone because of this or because the worst had happened. What had come out, though, was that a classmate had a new job with Marsh & McLennan, whose offices were on floors 93-100 of tower 1, and no one had heard from her.
We watched for days waiting for masses of people--and then, as time passed, anyone--to be pulled from the rubble. Hope waned and then died. The smoking wreckage was impossible to look at, even though it was on every news broadcast. My classmate, Stacey (tribute page here) didn't make it. Stacey was 5 days younger than me. Smart as hell, and only 25 with so much to look forward to. I didn't know her that well in college; she was always more of a friend-of-a-friend, but her death was a blow to us all.
In the aftermath was a country united in grief. Hell, well beyond a country; people from around the world mourned. But it was also one where so many looked upon anyone with brown skin with fear. Living near Detroit (which has a large Muslim population), there were certainly acts of violence carried out against people just because it was assumed they were Muslim (and therefore, they must either sympathize with the hijackers or be somehow in cahoots with them). Even friends who were of other religions or ethnic groups but "looked Arab" were targeted, or others who were of middle eastern descent but born in the US just as I was. And look at us today. More divided than ever, international goodwill evaporated, in a war where so many other young people have lost their lives and their futures. 9/11 is a such a tragic day for so many reasons, but the terrible nature of that day is compounded by the fact that so little seems to have been learned from it.
My son was born into a post-9/11 world. I have no illusions that the cliche of "world peace" will be accomplished in their lifetime, but I hope they can learn from our mistakes.
What a beautiful essay and recollection of Stacey - I also remember, just after the first tower collapsed, calling my sister who lives very close to Stacey's hometown to make sure that no one in the family was doing any daytrips to the city on business, as was quite common then.
PharmSis was holding my newborn nephew as we talked through the shock of that day. We still talk a lot about the importance of us setting the right example for our kids as we live in this jaded and now very polarized post-Sept 11 world. I still don't have the answers and I still worry about their future for the many reasons you note.
My greatest concerns are the lack of tolerance for dissenting views (the hallmark of democracy, I was taught) and the inability of us to have rationale discussions about anything (politics, science, etc.) without the debate degenerating inevitably into a name-calling screaming match. As the debate rages on the ABC 9/11 show last night and tonight, I see enough blame to go around regardless of political affiliation.
I sadly feel little control over how we have moved on politically as a nation, but I know that we parents can at least have some influence over how future leaders approach their world.
The shock was followed and felt as closely here... someone had found a radio to put on in the office, it seemed like the world was faling apart...
- a perhaps stange side effect of 9/11 was to end terrorism in Northern Ireland. I've been brought up in a county where random acts of violence on civilians was daily news - since I was a child.
That terrorism was funded and given moral support by the USA until 9/11 - when it became a busted flush.
Then that kind of terrorism stopped - only for a new kind to be generated..
I'm not sure I should have said that - and I won't say anything about how pissed off I feel about the 3000-odd lives in Lebanon being turned into a statistic...
I think we need to connect more, build bridges, and stand up against those that wish to divide us, even when it's hard.
... sorry again for speaking my mind...