These are journal entries that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the horrific tragedy that struck New York City on that fateful Tuesday in September, nineteen years ago, when the beautiful blue morning skies over the city turned grey with the thick smoke of death and destruction...
I had last
visited the World Trade Centers two summers ago. As is the drill, I had taken a
family member visiting from India to see it. I remember sitting by the waterfront at the
base of the twin towers, at dusk, waiting for the lights of Manhattan to come
on before we went up to the deck. The two structures seemed so colossal, so
strong and so invincible from such close quarters. Never in my wildest
imagination could I ever have thought that a powerful jet liner would one day tear
through those walls as though they were made of paper…
My school is
housed in a church building which has to be evacuated as it is a high-profile
religious institution. And it is only the second day of a new school year. But
everyone is wonderful - the teachers, the parents and the children in
responding to this emergency. There is no hysteria or panic, although many
families do not know the whereabouts of spouses, friends, relatives. Phone
calls are being made but the cell phones are not working too well. At a time
like this, communication is what is needed most. And it is communication that
is the biggest obstacle this morning. However, by 2.30 pm each child has been
picked up or sent home safely.
I have a few
bad moments when I hear about the plane crash “somewhere” in Pennsylvania. My
older son is in college in Philadelphia and I haven’t been able to reach him on
his cell phone for hours and am worried about him. But then I do reach him and
am relieved to know he’s OK. My younger son is in high school in the Bronx. All
entry into Manhattan has been cut off and he doesn’t have a cell phone and I
can’t reach him. Fortunately, a limited
subway service into Manhattan is started by late afternoon and he is able to reach
home. Otherwise he would have had to stay overnight in school in the Bronx.
Today I vow to get a cell phone for him too.
say, everyone is reeling with shock, disbelief and an incredible sense of loss
and sadness - for the innocent people who perished; for the complete
destruction of the two towers that symbolized Manhattan and represented the
global nature of all New Yorkers; and most of all for the feeling that life has
changed and somehow we must learn how to live in the shadows of uncertainty and
fear, haunted by these horrific images of death and destruction.
subway the faces around me are somber, sad and puzzled. Gone is the bravado and
confidence that one normally sees in a New Yorker. It is replaced with hurt and
a complete failure to understand what has happened and why. Of course, everyone
is trying to carry on as normally as possible and engage in their daily
routines. The Mayor asks us to. He seems stunned too- but is responding to
rescue and recovery action despite the fact that the city’s
Crisis Control Center has been destroyed and that hundreds of firefighters and
policemen are dead or missing or hurt. City schools are closed only for one
day. The whole city is being urged to carry on. But you can tell that on the
inside people are hurting terribly. After all, how can anyone push away those
horrific images? How can anyone’s life be normal after this?
are being felt by us in various ways. Riverside Church has no internet or long-distance
services. Our Internet service provider is located downtown and has suffered
some damage. Verizon’s downtown cables have been destroyed and massively
mangled. The phone at home too is intermittently non-functional. None of the
local TV networks - ABC, NBC, CBS - can transmit. All their transmission
stations operated from the top of the World Trade Centers.
Wednesday evening and the acrid smell of smoke and burning has reached us
uptown. I have to keep the apartment windows closed because it is difficult to
breathe and my eyes are smarting with smoke and other particles. I am thankful that we are still alive and
well, still have a roof over our heads and have plenty of food. My heart goes
out to those who are inconsolable as they continue to wait on the streets and
hospital corners for some news of their loved ones.
Manhattan is closed completely all the way below 14th street. It will be days
and weeks before the shock even begins to wear thin, and they are able to clear
the debris. I write as though the worst is over and behind us. And even as I
write I ask myself "But is it?"
All day on
Tuesday and Wednesday, I can only sit in front of the television. I am
mesmerized and it’s as if an unseen force is keeping me riveted to the TV
screen. All the channels are disrupted and blurred. Only one channel can
transmit clearly via New Jersey. And I sit there in a stupor- watching those
images again and again and again. The horror of it is hypnotic - the enormity
of the attack, the crumbling of the invincible, the happening of the
unimaginable. I still hear a part of my psyche say that this a disaster movie
all over again. The mind cannot accept it.
I struggle to find and cross the line between fictitious polaroid
imagery and this ghastly reality.
It is only
on Thursday afternoon that I can muster up enough courage to venture up to the
23rd floor of my building. And through the south facing windows I gaze upon the
Manhattan skyline. It is such a lovely afternoon, sunny with a slight haze in
the distance. I see the Empire State
Building. I see the Chrysler Tower. But I cannot see the World Trade Centers.
It is calm - so peaceful, so quiet in the city. No wailing of sirens on the
streets, and no droning of planes in the skies. Even the mighty Hudson seems to
stop in a moment of silence with not a ripple on its surface. I gaze back at
the gap in the skyline. It is like looking at a watercolor of New York City in
which someone with a gigantic paintbrush has gently brushed away the Twin Towers,
blending them into the white and grey skies beyond. Perhaps my eyes are
deceiving me. Perhaps if I peer hard enough into the distance the Twin Towers
will emerge, ever so boldly, from behind the late afternoon haze. But the
skyline remains unchanged. Yet so changed forever.
I feel pulled towards downtown Manhattan. I need to get closer. Even though I
am only a couple of miles north of the crash site, I feel removed from it -
distanced by an eternity. I have to live it, see it, breathe it, sense it from
a closer vantage point. I want to be nearer Ground Zero. The subway stops at
14th Street. No train can go beyond that. I come out of the underground station
and out of habit, immediately turn my head upwards to look for the Twin Towers.
I always looked for them to get my bearings when I surfaced from the subways.
They helped me know north from south every time I found myself in the maze-like
narrow streets of lower Manhattan. But of course, the towers aren’t there.
Instead I am hit by a strong blast of acrid smoke stinging my eyes as I walk
out onto the streets.
Once on the
street level, I find myself right next to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The whole
square is cordoned off. There are dozens of Radio and TV vans from all over the
world lined up by the streets. Several commercial spotlights for TV
transmissions flood the square with a white light that is as bright as day.
People are huddled, gathered in groups talking about lost loved ones, showing
pictures around in case anyone had been spotted being brought into the
hospital. There is a low, hushed sound to people’s conversations. A sense of
fear and horror lingers. Long lines of
people wait to donate blood. I walk on past walls and bus shelters and phone
booths covered with photos and fliers of missing people. Each piece of paper
has a story to tell. Name, height, age, weight, color of eyes, which floor the
missing persons were last seen on, which multinational corporations they worked
for, whether they had been a mother or father or brother or sister. Even friend
or fiancee or cousin. Each photograph pulsates like a living, breathing,
smiling individual who has a full life still to be lived.
I make my
way further south, the smoke becoming denser. It is an eerie sight. The streets
of Lower Manhattan are empty of vehicles. Hundreds of people are just walking -
in shocked disbelief, grappling with the reality of what has happened,
struggling to make sense of this tragedy that has occurred through deliberate
acts of human cruelty. Many wear masks, not able to breathe freely in the smoke-filled
air. An occasional vehicle rolls by silently- Department of Sanitation, or
NYPD, or American Red Cross Disaster Relief. There is no need for sirens or
traffic control police on these empty streets. How can this be, I ask myself
incredulously for the thousandth time. Film and television images of New York
being trashed and destroyed abound in my mind- but only in Hollywood blockbusters
such as Armageddon, Earthquake, and Deep Impact. How could the unthinkable, the
unimaginable really have happened?
I walk down
to Houston Street before being stopped by a police barricade. Not even
pedestrians are allowed beyond this. I stand there along with several other
people. We are all there with the same purpose, or the same non-purpose. Just
standing in a trance, too stunned to do or say anything. In any case, there is
nothing to say. Nobody has the capacity or the words that will adequately
express what we are feeling or describe what just happened.
It is late
in the evening. Staring down the street it is hard to distinguish the buildings
in the faint light of dusk - or is it just the dust and smoke darkened by acts
of evil? Shadowy outlines of buildings stand silently as a plume of smoke
swirls around them from a still smoldering pile of shattered steel, crushed
concrete and broken bodies. And that smell!
Strong, acidic and metallic, rising from the rubble of burning glass and
metal and human bodies. Where else could they be-
those thousands of people whose smiling faces are now looking down upon me from
every wall and lamp post in the area?
It has been
raining continuously since yesterday quenching smoldering fires and washing off
some of the dust and ash that is covering the city. But not even these tears
from the clouds above can wash out the slivers of fear and the specks of pain
that have been firmly lodged into the eyes of New Yorkers.The rain comes down
into the sea, water meeting water. And I can be sure that tears of grief are
rolling down the face of Lady Liberty who stood by helplessly as the city by
her precious harbor was invaded, raped and ravaged by the hand of hate and
I feel that I must go downtown again. I call my friend Nancy and she is as
eager as I am to visit the Site. Of course, once again, we’re not allowed to go
beyond a certain point. This time we reach Canal Street and head out West to
West Side Highway. There is a crowd of people all over, and photos, letters,
notes stuck on every wall and shop window. One Café has large glass walls and
outside on a table someone has left a pile of sticky notes and pencils. Passers
by stop, write a note, pen a thought, pencil in their love and support and
stick it on the café windows. There are thousands and thousands of such notes -
from Nancy and I, from other New Yorkers, from people across the country, even
across the world.
Highway is being used by the Rescue and Recovery crew. Firefighters, policemen,
volunteers go in by the hundreds to do what they can. I watch as van and busloads
of tired and exhausted firefighters return from their shifts. The expressions
on their faces is one of physical and emotional fatigue - a kind of
hopelessness that comes from knowing deep within that there is no chance of any
more survivors, that to clear this mountain of rubble is going to take not days
and weeks but months. Each time a group of tired workers leaves, or a group of
fresh firefighters returns to yet another shift, the bystanders cheer loudly,
urging them on with all they’ve got using their voices, their hands and home-made
days after the event, I meet people whom I have known for years and who have
variously experienced this attack of terror on their lives. New stories told to
me by friends and acquaintances keep surfacing in an unrelenting series of
painful spasms. I find it impossible to push these stories to the back of my
mind, to unfreeze my being from the icy coils of panic. How must it be for
these people who have actually lived this fear?
How can Sheryl
overcome her grief of hearing her fiancee call her one last time from the 102nd
floor of the World Trade Towers, after which there was only a silent and
devastating wait that is stretched into infinity? How can Charlene move beyond her shock to
discover only incidentally that three of her business colleagues who did not
even work at the Twin Towers were there that morning for an American Express
meeting and have not been heard since?
How can Lisa
ever forget the horrific images of debris and fire and fear that met her eyes
as she stepped out of the subway station on Wall Street that morning just as
the second plane hit the Towers? Or Rick, who was under the airplane as it
struck the first building. He ducked for cover, and saw debris fall all around
him, exploding like a million bombs as it hit the ground. It was a few minutes later that he realized
that the debris had turned into human beings who were falling from hundreds of
feet above, all around him. The bodies were breaking up into pieces as they
struck the ground, and then body parts were flying off hitting other people on
the streets. Will these images ever fade in Rick’s memory? Probably not. And I
won’t forget the shell-shocked look on Lisa’s and Rick’s faces as they rambled
on, deliriously describing their experience to me.
will John at his law firm, or Arthur at the Justice Department who both ran out
from 7 World Trade Center just in time before the building collapsed, with
falling debris and bodies hitting them from all sides. They lost their offices
and everything they had - photos, college diplomas, files, data, their business
lives. Today both shrug it all off, just glad that they are still alive. And what about the pain that Dora feels- Dora
who I see everyday and who knew Mychal Judge, the Firefighter’s Chaplain. They
attended the same church and met every Sunday for years. Mychal died while
attending to a dying fireman as the first tower fell right onto him - crushing
him. Or how can I not think of the terror that George must have felt - George
who worked in an insurance company on the 102nd floor and with whom I had had
several telephone conversations each year because that was the company that
insured the children in my school. I read his obituary in the New York Times
earlier this week.
And so it is
with several other parents at my school who worked on and around Wall Street
and the World Trade Centers. The stories are told and retold. And interspersed
with these tales of horrific truths are the city’s attempts to comfort and
console and start the healing. For somewhere the healing must begin. I feel
it’s too soon for any kind of healing. But a start must be made.
Church holds one of the first inter-faith services open to the public. People
flock to it - still numb with shock, still in denial, still not wanting to
believe it’s real. The service is telecast live on PBS. I watch it at home on
TV. Away from the prying eyes of people. Being able to cry in private. There
are religious chants by Rev. James Forbes, Imam Al-Hajj W. Abur-Rashid, Karda
Al-Quari Sheikh Ahmed Dewidar, Rabbi Lester Bronstein, Cantor Benji Ellen
Shiller, Ven. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki. Each chant, regardless of faith and source,
is haunting, its melody echoing of the eternal nature of pain, sadness, love
and beauty all at once. Between these religious invocations are expressions of
healing and faith from the Arts. A mezzo soprano singing a Fransiscan prayer,
Mandy Patinkin singing selections from Sondheim and Rodgers & Hammerstein,
violinist Joshua Bell playing the soul searing Meditation from Thais, Matthew
Rushing dancing from an Alvin Ailey choreography and Lillias White singing Duke
Ellington. Across faiths, across race, across disciplines the words and music
of comfort and understanding begin to flow into the mind and soul.
hosts yet another service - reaching out to the tired and weary and
grief-stricken people of Manhattan. This time to come listen to the wisdom of
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who was recently nominated for
the Nobel Prize for Peace. I am able to get a front row seat. I don’t know how.
But I accept that as a gift. At a time when I cannot understand how it is that
I am alive and yet 6000 people only a few miles from me have lost their lives
and have been incinerated to dust, I have stopped asking why and take
everything I get as a precious gift. There is a beautiful Buddhist ceremony as
the monks sing and invoke the Boddhisattvas . Thich Nhat Hanh sits serenely,
cross legged, a mere 7 feet away from me. I gaze at his face and feel the
energy of peace that emanates from him. He speaks for 90 minutes and talks of
mindful listening. The West is not brought up to value mindful listening, he
says. Rather success here is measured in terms of verbal skills. He emphasizes
that the key to good communication is not in talking but in listening - between
parent and child, between partners, between nations - really listening by
keeping an open mind and not judging. Mindful
listening, mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful drinking: Let’s be
mindful of every little step we take, every little breath we breathe, every
little word we speak. I come away from the three-hour service feeling comforted
and a little calmer.
things that happen that are not for me to reason out or question. There are
things that happen for which I find no answers, and that I cannot understand.
The tragedy remains as a horrific shock. Perhaps the biggest disaster that I
have known. I know that this is certainly not the biggest tragedy in the
history of mankind. There have been worse. The Black Plague, the two World
Wars, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, every nation’s fight for freedom, the
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, natural disasters, and dozens of other
tragedies. But for each one of us, the magnitude of a tragedy rests upon
proximity, and the probability that it could have been “me or mine”. And it
could have been me - if I had happened to have an appointment to see my
financial advisor on Wall Street, or if I had happened to visit my immigration
attorney’s office downtown, or if I had happened to take a morning off to visit
Century 21, or if I had happened to show another visitor from India the World
Trade Center...The possibilities were endless.
But I was
not there on Tuesday morning, and nor was any loved one of mine. And for that I
will remain eternally grateful. The sadness, too, will remain. There is too
much and too many that will be constant reminders around me of that horrendous,
shocking, heart-stopping moment when, a couple of miles away from where I sat
in my office in a tower, the first jet liner flew into one of the Twin Towers
followed by ever increasing horror as the tragedy continued with the second
plane, and extended even further with the crumbling of the first tower and then
the crashing of the second tower, killing thousands of innocent people.
September 11. A day that will go down in history as one having stunned the
world. It’s hard for me to accept this act of terrorism because it happened in
New York City - a city that I thought was strong and invincible - the pulsating
nerve center of an economic power; a microcosm representing the world and where
people from all over the world live in close proximity; a dynamic emblem of
freedom, democracy, and diversity. A city that never sleeps had been stunned
into a stupor. For people like me who had made a conscious choice to live in
New York City, it was like a personal assault. This city gave me the
opportunity to accomplish what I never would have in any other part of the
world. This city let me, a foreign woman of color and a single mother, go to school, start a career, raise my children, and live a respectful life. This city gifted my children a free and high-quality public
education without asking who they were or what they believed in. This city
allowed me to dream and aspire, and then provided me with the opportunities to realize
those dreams. How can I not feel angry at those who invaded my life and injured
I am always amazed when I think back to how from those initial weeks of raw emotions - of shock, sorrow, anger and fear - New Yorkers banded together and bounded back to a better and stronger place. I hope we can remind ourselves of our resilience and inherent goodness to once more work together and overcome the sorrow, anger and fear that is currently sweeping across our country...