Refugees of the World Trade Center Disaster

Journal of Olivia Blair after 9/11




September 11 2001

It was 2:00pm in South Africa and our first day of sightseeing in Cape Town. We were just about to leave the Castle of Good Hope, when a woman approached us to ask if we had heard the news of the multiple airlinehijackings in the United States. This is all she knew  – a tiny snippet of information which was to grow within an hour into something beyond our wildest imagination. Her small piece of news alarmed us but we had no idea of the scale of the massacre that was unfolding in our own town. We hurried back across Cape Town to our hotel to get to a television, we were anxious to learn more news.

CNN and Sky were the only channels with breaking news, screening the pictures of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, as we turned on the television. Time stood still, our vacation grinding to a halt, we were frozen in a state of dread and
disbelief.  Faces we had passed every day, walking through the Towers on the way to the subway, were now running from a hell raining from the sky, a lethal blanket of burning fuel, debris and dust. These pictures, a mere surface of the deep horror of two jetliners, laden with 10,000 gallons of jet fuel each, crashing through offices full of people. We saw Aaron Brown on the roof of a building many blocks north of the area, admirably trying to describe the indescribable image behind him.

We had two English friends staying in our apartment, four hundred yards from the Towers. We had encouraged them to stay on in NY once we had departed. When we dialled our apartment the line was dead. We knew that they had become temporary
morning regulars at a café next to the World Trade Center, before setting out on their day of sightseeing. We prayed that they had not been caught in this cloak of death enveloping lower Manhattan.

We grabbed for the phone to dial our family in England to let them know that we did leave for vacation and were on the other side of the Atlantic and out of harms way. I tried to get through to my colleagues at the office downtown but lines into the US were paralysed.

We were never away from a television for long, during the rest of our week in Cape Town. It was our lifeline, our need to be part of the reality of a place from which we had come.

September 21 2001

Our flight from Johannesberg to JFK was only the third from South Africa since 9/11. The queues for bag searches were long and the security officers seemed nervous of their task. My suitcase was checked and a nail scissors was confiscated, when I questioned whether I could go through into duty free and purchase another, the officers did not hesitate with their reply "of course you can Mam". There seemed to be no point to this ridiculous exercise.

The plane made an unexpected refuelling stop, our anxious 15 hour flight became 18. Our seats on the plane were very close to the cockpit. We had read so many reports about how security would tighten and pilots would eventually be locked into their cockpits, with any food being passed through a service hatch. Flight attendants casually drifted in and out of the cockpit, a couple of tourists even paid a visit.  It was strange to witness such a lack of caution amongst airline staff, so soon after a world disaster.

JFK airport felt tense, there was a heightened sense of fear, a cold emptiness. We took a courtesy bus to the subway. The subway train was at first silent but by the time we had reached Canal Street, we had been subjected to the proclamations of two women bible fanatics, waving their books at us. The women were shouting about how we all needed to repent immediately, we were being punished for all our sins. The voices were unnerving, we were already on edge, anxious about facing our home. A respectable woman next to me lost her temper and screamed at the preachers to shut up. It made no difference, the religious barrage went on and on until we got off at Canal Street, the closest we could get to our borrowed corporate apartment in Duane Street.

Canal Street was very busy with police checkpoints everywhere. All we had were our passports and flight tickets, no proof of where we lived or worked. We hoped in desperation that they would let us through. Once through the checkpoint we walked for a few blocks. As we approched Duane Street, I was wishing that they had been able to house us further away but would not dare to seem ungrateful. I prayed that the apartment would be on a low floor of this 50 story high tower. I guessed that we would be one of the few residents staying in the building and I was right. Our apartment on the 23rd floor overlooked ground zero. It was a cold clear day and the view was uninterrupted. Plumes of blackened smoke rose from the devastation.

The answer machine light was flashing with messages, I felt like an intruder in someone else's house when I pressed play. The first message was a hysterical women, "where are you, where are you, Elaine, get out as soon as you can, get out of the city, go upstate, go anywhere, just get out of that place, it's too dangerous." Listening to the messages had me dumbstruck, for the first time I was privy to the very personal horror experienced on September 11. The second message another woman "Elaine, call me,
let me know you're okay, please just call me."

There was a knock on the door and a lady introduced herself as the cleaner, she said that she had been in the building on the 11th and that this was her first day back to check on the apartments in her charge. Then she broke down and cried openly, trying to make us understand how terrible that day had been. We just gaped at her, knowing that anything we said could never be enough. She said that it was impossible for us to understand, not having witnessed the city at its worst, she was right.

The fire station opposite the building was drowning in wreaths, flags, childrens' drawings and personal letters of sorrow and pride.

Later on in the day we started to make our way to our apartment in Battery Park City, anxious to check on our home. The smell was musty and sharp at the same time, a bit like a cupboard in an old house but not as comforting. It burned your throat from time to time. We moved with the sea of people down Broadway , like cattle going to market. My husband dragging an empty suitcase now with a broken wheel, unused to being wheeled across uneven streets.

There were tourists everywhere craning there necks to get a glimpse of the steaming graveyard that used to be the World Trade Center. Pointing their cameras at almost any building, to record that glimpse of history forever, before a policeman waved them on, to keep the herd going. We were angered by the swathes of the many spectators that were compelled to make the journey to a site for the dead.

This was our home, our neighbourhood, a place we had not seen since we left for South Africa and they were slowing our journey. A place that we had grown so fond of over the past 17 months. A place between a magnificent cluster of skyscrapers and a river. Anxious to check our nest, scared that it may have changed forever but aware that we were far luckier than most. Lucky just to be part of the audience and not a member of the cast.

How could we not be like the others and turn our heads as we moved along the Broadway sidewalk adjacent to the site. A site we had only seen on television from a land of contrast, spectacular landscapes and wildlife, a land that had huge troubles of her own. Nothing could have prepared us for the naked, mangled smouldering metal that had imprisoned and encased so many lives. A site that we caught sight of through a gaping hole that now gave a full screen view.

As we entered Battery Park City, journalists approached us thrusting microphones into our faces, repeating over and over "are you displaced, are you displaced." There were high fences everywhere, once inside the checkpoints, it felt more like a military compound than a once normal neighbourhood.

October 2001

Tony Blair visits Egypt and upon his return speaks at the Annual General Meeting for the Womens Institute.

Imagine what it must be like to be a prisoner in your own home, with the world outside your front door moving on without you, leaving you behind.

Imagine living in fear of the violent beatings that begin or end every day, that you are supposed to accept without protest.

Imagine giving up the child that you have so carefully loved, protected, cosseted. The child that you have woken up for every day and gone to sleep dreaming about every night.

Imagine giving up a daughter to matrimony before she has barely entered her teenage years, or surrendering a son to the duties of war.

Imagine you are that child, separated from your parents, suddenly without that love and support that only a family can provide. Feeling like the kidnapped, the abandoned. All for the sake of tradition.

This is not a life some of you would say but this is life under the Sadat regime. This is life for many women in villages across Egypt, the many women who are expected to endure a lifetime of suffering.

We can not and should not rest, until women cease to be oppressed in Muslim countries.

October 11 2001

Leaving the apartment in at 7.30am, I noticed something strange.  An unusual mist covered lower Manhattan, a mist of a sort that I had never witnessed before. I was in a perfect position to see it and its cloak over the buildings around the World Trade Center. The atmosphere outside felt overwhelming and intense, almost hanging like a drape from this strange cloaking mist. The mist covering the tops of the buildings was like a protecting hand. Perhaps a cloak summoned by the souls freed, when the Towers collapsed. I felt my eyes welling up and an odd sense of safety and comfort surround me. Like something, someone watching over us, something higher had taken control.


Friday November 2001

I volunteered to help out at Ground Zero through the Red Cross. I was assigned to Respite 3, the kitchens at the Marriott Hotel. We were given our yellow hard hats, masks and goggles. The shift was from 6:00am to 4:00pm and the workers on the so called pile, continued to stream through the doors for feeding all day long. Some with dirty blackened smoke stained faces, some with sad faces and some with the odd smile, queuing up for more. Yellow overalls, gas masks, grateful faces. Many empty stares and no
talking, faced with cheery helpers from every state. I looked into the eyes of some of the men to whom I was serving food, trying to see in their eyes what they had been seeing.

During meals we sat in groups of two and three and a firemen or policeman always joined. At lunch a policeman who bore a striking resemblance to Rudy Giuliani sat with us and talked cheerily about his two children. His son was training to be a pilot in the air force and was now a senior due to graduate next May. His daughter was teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand and seeing the world during her breaks. He recalled that as a child his daughter was always glued to her mothers side and they could not believe how much she had changed over the years. A fireman who was sitting directly opposite me did not utter one word, he seemed to have no desire to enter into conversation, just wanted the company.

Upstairs on the second floor, the oasis, dimmed lights, reclining chairs, a bank of televisions, internet access. There had been a masseur available the week before for tired muscles but the Red Cross concerned about possible lawsuits had banished the widely appreciated service. There was a room for first aid, mental aid, supply aid. Some people had used their life savings to fly from Europe to volunteer, sure that volunteers would be in short supply.


December 2001

A grim tale on our doorstep

A neighbourhood in the midst of a massive killing. People going about their macabre task of pulling out human remains, bits of bodies and charred chunks of flesh, heads, hands, arms, legs, feet and the unborn, a numbing job. Bits of people with wallets, tattoos, cufflinks, keys, watches, photographs, palm pilots full of names, gift pens and wedding rings attached, evidence of a 20th century life and people they loved left behind. We just went about our lives as best as we could alongside the 24 four hour reminders of the bizarre parade of characters and their gruesome work. We continue to eat and sleep amongst the unending horror but still living.