What do you see out of your window today?

9/11 Ten Years Later

A story by Jean McGavin



September 11, 2011

It has been impossible this last week to avoid the crush of constant discussions and special programs in the media about 9/11. I have listened to some, but there is much too much. My own memories are raging and I have spent the entire week working hard to process those memories and the accompanying emotions. There is so much to explain, like the odd things that each of us did that day, trying to be logical or practical or brave or return to normal. In many cases, those efforts contradicted each other. For many of us, the terrifying, the massive, the incomprehensible gave way to small symbolic tokens or acts of kindness that served as guideposts as we stumbled, or marched or soldiered through the next 10 years.

9/11/2001, I walked out of my apartment, one block from Ground Zero, about 3:00pm, glued to the hip of my 9/11 buddy, Jack. The lucky ones among us found 9/11 buddies that day – a survival companion whom we will love the rest of our lives. In addition to Jack, I had brought with me my purse, my son’s asthma medication (because the air was full of God knows what and none of which would be good for his lungs), a change of underwear and socks for my 2 kids and me. I had changed from a skirt and sandals to long pants, sneakers and socks and had donned a raincoat and carried an umbrella all of this as protection from debris and to be prepared for whatever we might find on the street. I left our cat and 2 tortoises, all of our photos, clothes, passports, checkbooks, computer, phone charger. Illogically, I thought I would be back the next day. We had had no power since the collapse of the 2nd tower and hence, no phone, television or radio and no comprehension of the scope of the disaster. I was no more logical than the emotionally shattered man in the lobby of my building, covered in dust, hands full of crumpled papers and muttering that he had to get back to the stock market and asking when would it be open. I knew the towers had collapsed but somehow I did not know what that meant in terms of loss of life, or loss of my neighborhood or that we would be at war for the next 10 years. I did not know about the other buildings at Ground Zero, or about the Pentagon or flight 73 heroically crashing into Shanksville, PA. I did not know that my parents on vacation in Ireland were frantically trying to get news of me. My 10 year old daughter had somehow miraculously gotten through to my cell phone asking me nonchalantly if I could come to school to pick her up. I told her that I was "sort of stuck" but that I would try. My mission in leaving my apartment was to get to my children. I needed to get to my children. I wanted to get to them and return our lives to normal.

Jack and I walked out of the apartment into a world of debris. There was paper everywhere. Dust and crumbly rubble and paper. The pristine walkways and manicured lawns and gardens of Battery Park City were coated with gray dust and stuff and we waded through the surface of a new type of planet. Our courtyard, formed by a square of 6 buildings, had blocked the views of other buildings – all other buildings but the Trade Center. Now, the Trade Center was blocked as well. Passing out of the courtyard, through the driveway, past the guardhouse from which the guard had fled, where our world opened up to the rest of Manhattan, there was the Trade Center – but all sideways and crumpled and smoking, burning and black – a fractured mountain of piercing shards of steel beamed walls, smoke, and fire. This mountain – inert except for the smoke, fire and firefighters – belied the dead. There were no piles of dead – everything and everyone was dust and we were wading through the everything and everyone. Walking to find my children I did not pass through recognizable death – only destruction, and the destruction was so vast as to not be comprehensible. It was just too massive and my eyes were captive to it. I looked and looked trying to understand and even though I knew what that mountain of shards was, what it represented, the hate it screamed, I could not somehow put all of that together in my mind. My mind was protected and could not fathom all that this steel and fire and smoke spoke.

It spoke of children, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers calling to their mothers or fathers or to God for help, calling last words of love, and screaming in fear as 107 floors of steel fell from under them and on top of them, as they were pulverized by the energy of that crush of steel and fire. It spoke of planes roaring at a city, a community, a people, a way of life, at top speed with the aim of greatest possible destruction. It spoke of hatred and complexity and a total breakdown of dialog and thought and common good. It spoke of arrogance and pain and nothing left to lose. It spoke of 7 heavenly virgins and greater rewards and of the lack of earthly woes. It spoke of the loss of our backyard, our home, neighborhood, community and our sense of security. It spoke of shattering of gashing of roaring of sobbing and it spoke of loss. And I could not look away. I wanted to look away. I wanted to be brave and walk away toward the future, and I want to do that today, ten years later. But, that mountain of steel is still there in our collective memories, our zeitgeist, on tv, on the radio, on the internet and in the conversations of everyone I meet. Ten years later and that mountain of shards and smoke and fire are there and we can not look away.

Two days after 9/11, we waited 4 hours at a pier holding station set up for those who needed to get into their apartments for animals. We were processed. We showed id’s and were vetted and we waited. 15 or 20 people at a time were loaded into the backs of small pick-up trucks and ferried to the site. We were taken to the water side of the World Financial Center and from there we walked to our apartments, accompanied by soldiers with automatic weapons with whom we walked the 21 flights in the dark to our apartment, where we were allowed 5 minutes to gather our animals and whatever else we could throw in a pocket or bag. I picked up our animals, passports, checkbooks and walked back down the stairs. Walking back to our pick-up truck transport, I found a small pine cone lying on the grand and granite steps of the World Financial Center, which had been horribly damaged in the attacks. This pine cone was life in the midst of destruction and I picked it up as a precious talisman for me and my children to remind us that life goes on, to remind us of rebirth.