This essay, published on Sunday, September 11, 2011, is exclusive to Notablog. Comments welcome (post here).
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[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 ]
TEN YEARS LATER
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Ten years ago on this day, the city of my birth, the place that I still call home, was attacked in a way that has left the kinds of emotional scars none of us ever imagined even remotely possible in twenty-first century New York.
There had been Nostradamus-type warnings of disaster at the turn of the century, but when Times Square greeted 1 January 2000 with no Y2K apocalypse apparent, there was a sense that we were on the precipice of something epic. The end of the twentieth century, the bloodiest in human history, brought signs of real change, after all. When my 70s' high school classmates signed my yearbook with comments like "Love you, till the Berlin Wall falls!," there was such a sense of permanency in the inscription that nobody even thought to question its relative transience. The Berlin Wall did fall, the USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended. What could possibly go wrong for those of us who awoke on September 11, 2001 to a beautiful, cloudless, sky-blue, late summer morning?
When human ash rained down on my Brooklyn street, when the acrid smell of death stayed with us for what seemed like months, we knew that something epic had, indeed, happened.
Now, ten years later, a new "permanency" is emergent. A generation of kids has grown up with war as a natural part of their global landscape. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these kids—those who started kindergarten, first or second grade in September 2001—will soon be signing their high school yearbooks with the inscription: "Love you, till the War on Terror ends!"
But if the twentieth century taught us anything, it is that permanency is overrated.
And yet, there is something achingly permanent about these scars. Each individual, or at least each individual who experienced that day, and who has lived in the metaphorical and literal shadow of Ground Zero, bears spiritual (and, for some, physical) scars. Time may be a Mederma of the spirit, but the scars have never truly disappeared. They are now a natural part of each individual's own personal landscape.
After posting my own thoughts "as it happened," my reflections a year later, and, in 2003, my lamentations on the changed NYC skyline, I turned to interviewing others. The exercise was as cathartic for me as it was for those whom I interviewed. I was privileged to interview individuals who were brave enough to show me their scars, so-to-speak; they were courageous enough to articulate the drama of their own experiences on that horrific day.
Today, I return to each of the individuals profiled for my "Remembering The World Trade Center" series. Each provides his own reflections "ten years later" (and the opinions expressed herein are solely those of the people expressing them).
My friend Ray was the first person to offer his thoughts, in 2004. Ray worked in the NYC Mayor's Office of Operations, and soon found himself engulfed by incomprehensible horror. Today, this is what Ray tells us:
Ten years since 9/11 have gone by, but to me it feels like it was only yesterday when I heard the plane crash into the first tower directly across the street from my office window. I still remember clearly the horrific sight of people jumping out of windows from the tower. I remember escaping the Ground Zero area, heading north to pick up my sister and stopping somewhere around 14th Street and seeing one tower collapse. I remember watching from my sister's office window as the second tower collapsed. I remember making the long trek over the 59th Street Bridge into Long Island City, Queens. And it's not just remembering what I saw, but all senses: the foul burning smell when I returned to the area; the dust piled over everything, which you could not help but get on your hands; the sounds of emergency vehicles during the attack and after, during the rescue/recovery. This tragedy will never be forgotten, 10, 20, 30 years after 9/11. The magnitude of it all was so immense that to me it will always feel as if it just happened. As the anniversary approaches, as with every anniversary past, my emotions sink into a solemn state, from the pit of my stomach to the pain in my heart. One would think that with the death of the Devil himself, Osama Bin Laden, the sadness would subside, but it hasn't. His death did not bring back anyone who died that day. His death did not make NYC, PA, & DC safe again. His death did not heal the hearts of countless families who lost someone they loved. We go on living our lives just as we did post-9/11, but never would we go on living as we did pre-9/11. Myself, I go on with my life and enjoy every moment I can with those I love, because you just never know when it will be the last time you ever do.
In 2005, I turned to Patrick Burke, who, on September 11, 2001, was principal of the High School of Economics and Finance, which was located only one block south of the World Trade Center. Today, Patrick is the Program Coordinator at Hunter College of Teacher Education Programs in Adolescent Mathematics (Grades 7-12). Annoyed that it has taken ten years for a WTC Memorial to open, Patrick focuses too on the painful memories within:
I don't dwell on this most horrific day on a regular basis; but, with the 10th anniversary of that day approaching, I've had to confront my memories. . . . I was reminded of my visit to the "Newseum" on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC two years ago. There is a 9/11 exhibit there. I was mesmerized by that exhibit and kept looking and watching and absorbing the images I was viewing, feeling a swelling sense of emotion within me, and then had a complete breakdown right there in the middle of the museum. I rushed to the nearest restroom to collect myself and found emotional relief in the quotes from media double entendres (e.g., "SCHOOL TESTING MUSHROOMS") engraved on numerous wall tiles on the restroom walls.
In 2006, I turned to Cousin Scott, who took us inside the North Tower, where he worked on the 89th floor. Scott seems to have filled his quota of near-misses; two weeks shy of the 9/11 tenth anniversary, Hurricane Irene destroyed his house, and he was lucky to have "escaped unharmed, as the foundation literally exploded, making the house uninhabitable and in imminent danger of collapse."
Scott says that "after 9/11, my life was severely damaged, both personally and economically." Nevertheless, in looking at the big picture, he believes he has reaped great rewards over the past decade. He recently had the opportunity to meet former Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld and our most current Medal of Honor winner and lots of other wounded and non-wounded soldiers, the Real Heroes of America. . . . In speaking with them, these true heroes, I was . . . rewarded. Later, I was again rewarded when I received several phone calls from people who had needed some help in the past ten years and I was lucky enough to be there for them. Their thanks and my opportunity to help someone else . . . a very good ten years.
In 2007, Charles Pomaro gave us a glimpse of the recovery efforts that took place in the days, and weeks, and months, after 9/11. Today, he tells us:
After 10 years, I still have sadness in my heart. Every year since 9/11, I have attended a memorial sponsored by my good friend Senator Marty Golden on the 69th Street Pier. I honor the day with my family, the families of those who lost loved ones that tragic day, servicemen from all branches of the military, rescue workers including: policemen, firemen, and EMS, community officials, members of the community and anyone and everyone who feels the need to show their support. I will never forget the World Trade Center, as a New Yorker, as a construction worker who helped build the original structure, as a volunteer responder who helped pick up the pieces, and also as a human being who like many others has the memories of the Twin Towers cemented in my mind and heart.
On this 10th anniversary, I, as the President of the Shore Road Parks Conservancy, along with the other officers of the organization, are sponsoring a Memorial Walk along the bicycle path on Shore Road. We will meet at John Paul Jones Park (Cannonball Park) where Councilman Vincent Gentile will hold a vigil; then we will walk behind a banner that reads "We Will Never Forget." Walking with us will be students from the various neighborhood schools, community groups, politicians, servicemen, individuals from the community and again anyone who would like to join us . . .
Eddie Mecner, a New York City Firefighter, gave us much to contemplate in 2008, as he told us of the FDNY's harrowing efforts to help those trapped in the Towers. The horrific effects of 9/11 are still with him; on September 8, 2011, he attended the funeral of a close friend of 15 years from the Engine 5 firehouse, Raymond Ragucci, whose cause of death was "likely related to the Trade Center . . ." Ray "always cared about others, enjoyed all the firehouse activities, and . . . stayed close to all the members in the firehouse even after his retirement in 2004." As he has done for the past 9 years, Eddie will join his firefighter brothers, who will
ride up to Boston to attend a memorial mass for Manny DelValle. Ray would always come with us and the Delvalle family would always be comforted by Ray's caring presence. A group of retired and active fireman would get together for lunch on a regular basis and Ray was always a joy to be around. [He] will be dearly missed by all of us in his extended firefighter family.
Lenny Trerotola told us of the very personal loss of a family member, his sister-in-law Lisa (Spina) Trerotola, in 2009. Today, he reflects on the 10th anniversary:
It is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since that fateful day on September 11, 2001. For all those that were touched by the event, I would say that most have moved on with their lives. They have adjusted, adapted and have lived one day at a time in order to reach the places they are at now. For those that were either not yet born or were too young to understand this tragedy, it is our responsibility to make sure that they understand this horrific event and afford those people who died on that day and after, the respect that they deserve.
I can say that my niece and nephew, who lost their mother Lisa on that day, now understand what happened. My son Nicholas, who was born in 2002, is becoming more conscious of the event. He has heard the conversations, has seen the images on film and in pictures and continues to process the magnitude of it. My family members and those of so many other families have run the gamut of emotions every year since this has happened. So, even as politicians, special interest groups, profiteers and other people with agendas still continue to haggle and lose sight of what is most important, those who were impacted remain true to honoring the memories of those lost and rely on their faith from within, in order to help relieve some of the sorrow that still pervades us due to this ever-haunting memory.
In reflecting on this memory, how can we forget the images of the planes crashing into the towers and the Pentagon; the collapse of the Twin Towers; the pictures of those who jumped high from the towers as opposed to being burned alive; the frantic phone calls made to family members from people inside the towers, the Pentagon and from doomed Flight 93 that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania? This followed by the impassioned cleanup of these sites (which resulted in additional deaths) and the subsequent funerals of so, so many people, both civilians and uniformed personnel who had no idea that their lives would be cut short that day. In addition to all of these images, the thoughts that are evoked by imagining the horror felt by all of these people as they lived this nightmare in their various roles, whether it be as a passenger on one of the planes, a person trapped in the North Tower or a firefighter racing up a staircase to help save victims.
Finally, after all of the human pain that our populace has endured, there have been some lessons learned. The attacks led to many changes that have greatly impacted our society. For example, the war in Afghanistan, development of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act, wholesale changes in airport security and changes in operations and equipment for the NYPD and FDNY as a result of uncoordinated uniformed personnel operations and substandard radio devices.
As we embark upon the tenth anniversary of 9-11, we will all remember this day in our own way as we continue to keep the memories alive of so many that were lost. As a people and as a nation, I can only hope that each year we will continue to do this in a way that will be a powerful reminder to those who participated in or remember the event and a lesson in faith and patriotism for those who were not yet born.
In 2010, I interviewed Tim Drinan, who was a student at Stuyvesant High School, which was in diagonal proximity to the World Trade Center. Tim remembers:
For me, the events of September 11 were—and are, still—intensely personal. When I think about that day, ten years ago, the first things that come to mind are not terrorism or planes or George Bush. They are details and fragments that somehow don't fit together: I'm a 15-year-old boy, with an egg salad sandwich in my locker and brown Teva sandals on my feet. I'm standing in a science room on the seventh floor of my high school with the kids in my homeroom and no teacher, staring calmly out the window. . . . [It] is strangely transfixing to watch the tallest buildings in the city burn.
It's a few days later and I'm lying in bed, unable to sleep or get up, unable to listen to the TV or turn it off, unable to eat or get hungry. I walk around the neighborhood in the sun, searching for a newspaper.
It's a few weeks later and I notice a huge golden statue from the World Trade Center plaza on a barge behind the school, flat as a pancake.
It's a few months later and I'm sitting on the wood floor in the auditorium with a few other students, memorizing our lines for With Their Eyes, the play we decided to write about the impact of September 11 on people in our school. Someone in the cast says something and before I know it I am pounding the floor, just like everyone else, gasping for air, laughing and laughing.
It's a few years later and I'm crossing my college green when I come across a small plaque in the grass honoring three alumni who died in the World Trade Center. Someone has laid three white flowers across the top of the plaque. I kneel for just a moment, and then continue on to class.
It's a decade later, and these are my memories to make sense of—or not.
Our lives and our cities and our friendships have a way of absorbing shockwaves, and sometimes there is no telling when the ripples will cease.
If the tenth anniversary of September 11 provides any enduring lessons, it is that the ripples never cease. Not in the lifetimes of those of us who lived to bear witness.
Ultimately, it is our willingness to own the memory of darkness that lights the way to renewal.
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