It began as a beautiful late summer day in New York City. A few hours later, everything changed.
“I was the evacuation contact for my floor,” said the receptionist from a major Wall Street bank. “One person was in denial, he refused to leave. Another completely freaked out and someone had to escort her out of the building.”
In hindsight, denial and panic were understandable. No one could have expected the clear blue sky to turn black that morning. At that time, few could have known that people were capable of creating such senseless and overwhelming destruction and death. No one knew that 19 deranged men armed with box cutters could shake the very foundation of millions of lives.
“When the buildings came down you couldn’t see anything or even breathe,” she continued. “It was like being covered with a blanket and being told to run while you’re completely terrified. I went out with a friend of mine and we ran for a half block or more holding on to each other. We hit some type of railing and my friend went over and fell 15 feet down. I felt my way along the railing and down some steps and could hear her yelling for help. I felt around on my hands and knees pushing rubble around looking for her but couldn’t find her. I looked until I couldn’t hear her anymore. I didn’t find out until ten o’clock that night that she was OK. She had sprained her back when she fell and someone helped her get out. I ended up walking five and a half miles home to Brooklyn. I don’t know how long I was in the black cloud; my sense of time was gone.”
When that receptionist told her story just a few months after September 11, 2001, her office was clean, she smiled when people came in, and she cheerfully greeted callers. But the terror of that morning was evident in her eyes. Ten years later, it probably still is.
The morning of September 11, 2001, was the last time anyone would walk to an airport gate with a child or spouse to wave goodbye. Nobody removed their shoes or other articles of clothing, and neither were Ziploc bags required for shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes of three ounces or less. The world had long since dealt with a rash of hijackings in the early 1970s — early on that morning, air travel was simply a means of transportation. A few hours later, it became a means of mass destruction.
Just down U.S. Highway 41 from South Hillsborough, President George W. Bush made a decision not to needlessly terrify a class of elementary school students in Sarasota. Informed that a passenger jet had attacked one of the World Trade Center towers, he quickly finished reading a story to the children and left the room. As he made his way to the school’s media center to address more than a hundred teachers and students assembled there, the second tower was hit. Except for the security officers and some members of the media, no one in that room knew what had happened. Few, if any, could possibly have realized that their lives had already changed. The president made a brief appearance in the media center and quickly left the city as another airliner crashed into the Pentagon, and yet another crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
For three days air travel stopped. The only planes over American skies were military fighter jets on patrol. The nation came to a standstill—an opportunity, perhaps, to absorb shock and grief on a scale that was unimaginable by this generation.
When flights resumed on September 14, air travelers had gone from waving to loved ones at the gate to being anxious and frightened people clinging to each other outside of the security areas. At Tampa International Airport that morning, men in fatigues carried automatic weapons while airport security officers searched potted plants and garbage cans. As the first flights were announced, there were tears, hugs and lingering goodbyes. No one boarding a plane was taking his or her life for granted that morning.
Nineteen deranged and fanatical men with box cutters murdered thousands of people and caused destruction on a scale that was inconceivable when the sun rose on that beautiful September morning. They kicked off two major wars resulting in a death toll that may never be known. They revealed cracks in the very foundation of civilization, shaking the illusion of security and decency among all of humanity. Yet even before that morning ended, awareness was already sinking in. On United Flight 93, the passengers fought back in what was described as the first victory in the War on Terror.
As the sun set on September 11, 2001, few people, if anyone, understood what had happened that day. Few people, if anyone, resolved in their minds the scale of the tragedy. Ten years later, few people, if anyone, can truly resolve it. But now, everyone knows that life can change within hours. Everyone knows that it is possible for a beautiful sunny day to turn black.
Civilization was diminished that morning. Yet ten years later, even as memorials are erected and tears still flow, faith in the future is returning. The Pentagon has long since been repaired, and a new World Trade Center is reaching into the sky in Lower Manhattan. Life changed that morning, possibly forever, but life goes on with a new and enduring appreciation for those beautiful sunny mornings.
Poem by John F. Foster:
Emerging dazed and ashen
like stricken miners from a nightmare tunnel,
they lurch into the gray soot of mid-morning.
Coughed up from a cauldron of imminent collapse,
trembling in unison with the ground, they flee the surreal horror.
Zombies choking in a snowstorm.
A blouse torn away, a glimpse of blistered skin.
Swollen lips beseeching a cell phone.
A dark suit staggers, clutching a scorched briefcase,
like his eyes.
Rage of traffic down
Blurr of yellow slickers works against the tide,
putting caution aside for the sake of
Heros are born
Against a cerulean sky, two symbols of America
have been cleft and left in agony, their wounds
belching fire, spewing terror, rattling death.
Like the mantel of ash below,
a shroud of screams cloaks the streets,
screams not only from ground zero,
but from above.
Above the street survivors,
Above the din of meltdown
Above all of the above,
It is an indelible hurt. A violation.
A tragically defining moment
in our country’s history.
A moment to be remembered in sorrow for victims
and in tribute to courage and sacrifice.
A moment to be mourned today
John F. Foster
© July, 2011