Remembering 9/11/2001: Pages from a journal 19 years ago

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.

Needless to 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.

On the 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?

The after-effects 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.

It is 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.

Downtown 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.

That evening 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 terror.

This morning 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.

West Side 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 signs.

Even several 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.

And neither 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.

Riverside 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.

Riverside Church 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.

There are 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.

Tuesday, 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 my city?

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...