September 11th. Not possible to not write about this day. A day etched and hardwired into my own memory, as it is in that of so many others. A day of shock, confusion, grief and loss. A day that precipitated so much more loss through out the world, for so many families, that we couldn’t even begin to count them. We don’t even know many of their names. Even as some names are lovingly, and rightly so, remembered and honored. Many will stay forever nameless. Forever lost to the sands of time.
On this day we too found ourselves in NY. Our travels had started four days earlier. We were on our way to attend my brother’s wedding and my husband had business to attend to in NY. We were collected at JFK in quite grand style by a large white stretch Limo organised by the office. So American. 🙂 So OTT! We drove along, feeling like royalty, wondering at our first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. The kids were enthralled. We’d rented an apartment through the Internet (a new experience, online bookings, 11 years ago) on the Upper West Side, and my parents joined us from Germany for those few days. Luckily they did, given what was to happen with flights later in the week. The weather had not been great so we had been to all the wonderful museums, including a memorable visit to the Natural History Museum. Being close to Central Park we were able to meet there with a family who used to attend our school back home, the husband a journalist, and explore the city play parks. So different from our more controlled and circumscribed lives back in Jozi. The evening of the 10th we’d had drinks with a friend and having watched the weather reports knew the 11th should be a good viewing day. My parents and I were thinking of going up the Empire State building but our friend insisted we must go to the WTC as the view from there was spectacular!
Well, the 11th dawned, my husband having an early breakfast meeting, headed out very early. The person he was meeting with had wanted to meet at the Marriott Hotel downtown at the WTC complex but fortuitously they decided he would come uptown to the office. My dad, as he is wont to do, needed some fresh air away from the hustle of mothers and young children, and a decent cup of coffee. He too was out the door at 7am! Mom and I got the kids up, breakfasted, and ready for the day. And absolutely gorgeous blue sky day. We headed out at 8am to get my dad and the train for downtown. We had not made up our mind the evening before what exactly we planned to do so my husband had left for his day without knowing our plans. In the end we chose to head for the Empire State building.
At about 8.45am we got to the tube station on 86th and were waiting for the train that would take us toward the Empire State Building. Standing on the platform at 8.55am with my parents and all the kids, some person came hurtling down the stairway, looking completely out of sorts and yelled something like:.. “a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center!” and raced back up again. There were only a few of us on the platform, but we all sank into stunned silence, completely taken aback, and did not quite know what to think about this piece of news. My dad and I thought it was some prank… or something? Our train came soon after that and we all got on. Shortly after getting on there was an announcement stating that this particular train would not be stopping at the WTC due to an incident there. Something seemed to have happened after all. The announcements, slowly getting a bit more ominous about happenings at the WTC, were our first indication on that day that perhaps all was not completely right. I was a bit unsettled about where the train line might stop and decided to get off early at the Rockefeller Center, not realising how far the walk would still be from there to the Empire State building. Coming up to street level at the Rockefeller Center, right next to the NBC studios, we saw people running at full speed into the building. I remember thinking, and saying to my dad, that something was definitely happening and that all the journalists were being recalled into work. It seemed we had entered the subway that morning through a door of stability and certainty and exited through a door into confusion and disorder. We continued walking down 5th Avenue where there was a distinctly agitated atmosphere, but having heard no real news, we were oblivious to what was going on. We passed a TV in one of the shop windows that was showing the very early pictures of the first plane that had made it look like a smallish plane. Dad was confident that all would be sorted out in no time and everything would be fine. My dad, having spent his formative years on the Western Front in WW2, was a notorious under-reactor, forever calm in the face of raging storms, and had great faith in the capacity of Americans to solve their problems. For him they had saved the day when they had eventually marched into his village in Germany, after many months of intense fighting and liberated them from that mad war. And of course they had done the same at my mom’s village in France! We continued walking down 5th Avenue.
Something strange started happening. It seemed more and more people were going the other way, up town, and we were still walking down town. Two elderly parents, a mother, three small children. But no one paid any attention to us. It seemed everyone was caught up in their own personal drama. My mom, ever anxious, thought we should be turning back, was worried about what was happening. My dad continuing on in his mild obstinate manner of, everything will be fine, and we continued our walk down toward the Empire State Building. We now saw another TV screen showing a burning North Tower with another plane flying directly for and into the South Tower….”What!!? How is that possible? This can’t be an accident anymore? Can it still be accidental?” A little later we saw a news banner scrolling the news that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane. People were streaming into the streets, cars stopping, everyone listening to car radios. Something HUGE was going on!! I remember starting to worry about my brother. I stopped to listen with a group huddled around a car radio and heard the news that both towers had been hit by planes, that the pentagon had been hit, but the speculation at that stage was all over the place as to what exactly had happened. A short while on we finally got to the Empire State Building and found that 5th Avenue was cordoned off, the building closed for access, people were continuing to pour out of buildings and had completely taken over the roads by now. I remember feeling shocked, confused and unable to really appreciate what was going on. I asked the policeman standing out front how long he thought the building would be closed for?? He looked at me like I was crazy, a real idiotic tourist for sure! It was dawning on me that this day had unraveled and spiraled completely out of control, and much, much, earlier in the day, and that somehow I was behind and only now slowly catching up.
The kids were tired and thirsty and we found a little cafe open around the corner of the building. We ordered some cokes and sat down. They had the radio on at the counter and I went over to catch up with the news. The gravity of the situation started to seep into every pore of my body. Both Towers, and the Pentagon, had been hit by planes, there was a lock down on US airspace, Manhattan has been closed off and public transport stopped. There was concern more tall buildings may be targets. This was no small accident that was going to be fixed. This felt like war had been declared and we had all suddenly been caught up in a war zone. It was nearly 10am by now and I suddenly remembered my husband had no idea where we were. That he could still be thinking we had headed for the Twin Towers and were caught up in the chaos there. This was before the days of cell phone roaming so my SA phone was useless in NY. Fortunately I had the office number on me. I went outside to find a phone. Tried asking someone to borrow their cell phone but was told the networks were all completely jammed. I joined the ever growing queue for the two pay phones nearby. There were fights breaking out amongst people over who had the more urgent phone calls to make, the police kept cutting in to make their own calls, and people were very frayed and anxious. As we waited yet another man came screaming around the corner from 5th Avenue shouting “the towers have fallen, the towers have fallen….!!!”. It was all too shocking and surreal. I finally got my turn at the phone and having dialed the number was immediately put through. I was met, of course, with such anxiety as to where I was with the family, concern about being caught up in the middle of what was going on, and relief that we had not gone further down town.
As we emerged from behind the Empire State Building, looking down 5th Avenue all we could see was a huge cloud of ash hanging over the horizon. I stopped to take a photograph, the policeman constantly urging me to move aside, to keep the road clear. The irony being that behind him the road was far from clear, it was a teeming mass of humanity.
Now started the long trek back up town toward the office. It was another 60 block hike. It felt like we had joined a column of refugees trudging away from a war zone. All the shops boarded up. The sidewalk jammed with people every which way. People hanging out of buses. The taxis full. We just walked and walked, eventually making it and became absorbed into the fuller narrative of what was happening that day, with TV pictures getting ever more and more graphic. After some time we decided to go back to the flat and crossed Central Park to West Side. At about 3pm, turning into our street, we were greeted by the most amazing sight. A total of five fire engines were pulled up outside our building. It turned out to have been a simple kitchen stove fire. We were amazed by the resource capacity. With so many emergency personnel having been mobilised down town to the WTC, there still were five fire engines to deploy to a simple kitchen fire. Anxieties were running high.
Coming into the apartment there were about twelve messages on the answering machine. Light hearted ones from family earlier in the day…”hey, we just saw the news, hope you guys are fine. Call us.” Then as the day went on and we obviously were not home for hours the voices got more and more worried, more and more hesitant. It was time to join another queue for the public phones and with a bag full of coins I finally made some national and international calls to reassure everyone, including our Manhattan landlords, we were okay. I called my friend we had met the day before who lived in New Jersey. Her husband was stuck in New York, like many others with the bridges and the transport system being closed down. He would not get home for the next two days. Driving out of NY the next morning over the Washington Bridge, we could still see the smoldering smoke rising from Ground Zero. The gap in the skyline bleeding, a piece having been ripped out of its core.
As we drove south the views on the radio shows reflected anger, fear, and increasing nationalism. Having had family and historical experience of the ravages of unfettered nationalism, we were distinctly uncomfortable with some of the views. But we drove on to a wedding. Quite a few family and friends ended up not being able to attend with flights grounded from Europe and air traffic taking time to resume even within the US. A day in history that will not be forgotten, that for many has brought so much more trauma and loss, that was only the beginning.
On another day in September many more years ago, the 1st September 1939, my dad was 10 years old and living in a small village on the western border of Germany, in the long contested state of Saarland, the same village I was born into. Just a stone’s throw away from the border with France. With Alsace. Another contested state. Where many years later he would meet my mother. It was a day that too changed the course of his life. His mother, having gone to church at 7am, as all the village women used to do daily, came home with instructions from the Mayor. “Pack up your homes and meet in the village square at 10 am. All women, children, and those older men not working in the mines. Only bring 30kg per family.” At 10am everyone, including my father, his three younger siblings and my grandmother, congregated in the village square. Trucks pulled up and everyone was loaded up and taken to a sorting camp a short distance away. My grandfather would come home from his shift in the coal mines later that afternoon to find the village empty and his family evacuated. The machinery of war has started. Poland was invaded and two days later Britain and France declared war. The ramifications of this day in history on so many people, continues to be felt. Generations later. The lives lost. The immeasurable harm done. A war experience that left my dad, and subsequently all of us, forever transformed by his intimate meeting with and understanding of state brutality, having learnt the importance of speaking out, the value of standing up for justice, and keeping strong ones own integrity, even in the face of overwhelming fear and difficulty, no matter the cost.
So as we remember the loss of lives and the transforming of our modern day landscape and understanding of the world, may we be mindful of how we move forward. Mindful of how we daily engage with the world around us. We may all be haunted by the harm that is handed down over the years and can never right the wrongs of the past. We are, however, also influenced by compassionate action, generosity of spirit, courage of being, and determined resilience in the face of difficulty, that is present in all our lives and throughout humanity. We can choose to live our own lives with courage, honesty and integrity, in service, with kindness, and with love.