These reflections appeared on the Atlantis discussion list and in
The Free Radical, published in
the days after the tragedy of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
This account has also been translated into
Romanian courtesy of Essay
[REMEMBERING THE WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020]
AS IT HAPPENED ...
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Photo by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
With an avalanche of email coming into the NYU server on September 11, 2001, from family, from friends, from colleagues, and from total strangers, I asked various members of Atlantis to forward these messages to the discussion list. These messages tell the story of an unfolding catastrophe:
Message #1: Posted to Atlantis at 1:20 p.m. on 9/11, only hours after the Twin Towers had collapsed.
... Most of my loved ones are safe, but we have not yet heard from a few friends and relatives who work in what used to be the Trade Center.
We are all devastated over this tragedy.
Though I've thought about such apocalyptic destruction --- especially when the World Trade Center was bombed last time --- I never thought I'd see the day that the Twin Towers would be brought down in rubble, and that they would never be a part of the skyline of my home.
The thousands of people whose lives have been snuffed out, the millions of people who are directly affected by this... I just can't tell you how horrific all of this is.
I only know that when I went out to walk my dog for her second walk of the day, in the late morning hours, the sky was gray with smoke, and it was raining white ash. I live in Brooklyn... and the F-16s are flying above.
I'll be in touch.
Take care, and thank you,
Message #2: Posted to Atlantis at 7:22 a.m. on 9/12/01. (Also see "The Day After in New York," posted to SOLO HQ.)
There is an eerie calm over the city this morning; the streets are quiet, except for the distant sound of F-16 jets patrolling NYC.
All of my family members are now home, safe and sound. Several were close to the carnage and witnessed the actual terrorism first-hand. It is a sight that they will never, ever forget.
All were impressed--but never surprised--over the extent to which New Yorkers have shown their amazing resiliency and humanity toward one another. There are actually too many volunteers.
The only near-fatality of an extended family member of which I am aware is my sister-in-law's cousin. He was on the 89th floor of the first tower that was struck; that strike apparently occurred on the 96th floor, but the devastation quickly spread to the floors above and below. He was able to get all of his workers to safety, except for two who were killed. He is now in Bellevue Hospital, recovering from smoke and ash inhalation, but we expect a full recovery.
A couple of other people we've not made contact with just yet... but we're pretty hopeful that they are okay. But the world, as they say, is small ... and it will be hard NOT to know somebody or to know somebody who knew somebody who was killed in this horrible, horrible tragedy.
I think back to March 1999, when THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION interviewed me atop the World Trade Center, in the Windows on the World restaurant-lounge. They picked the building because of its significance as NY's tallest, and because of Rand's paeans to the skyscraper. Jeff Sharlet, the reporter, interviewed me for three hours, as I sipped seltzer and looked out over New York's grand harbor, the Statue of Liberty looking tiny--but like a guardian to our gateway.
They invited me back the following week, and the photographer took me to the top of 22 Cortlandt Street, so that he could get a "Howard Roark"-type photograph of me, with the Twin Towers behind me, in the frame. I remember how I could hardly deal with the fierce March wind as I stood on the roof, 40 stories up, across the street from the Twin Towers. But if the wind hadn't taken my breath away, I would still have been literally breathless from the sight. I have lived in New York my entire life, and I have always marveled at the magnificence of our skyline.
In any event, the photo appeared in the CHRONICLE, along with the interview, on April 9, 1999, the first major academic press discussion of how "Ayn Rand Has Finally Caught the Attention of Scholars."
Other photographs taken that day have been used for a NAVIGATOR article on my work and can be found on my website in the photo section.
I looked at the article last night, and saw that photo, my eyes like slits from the wind, and could not believe that the two buildings used as backdrop for that photo, the two buildings between which I am situated --- have ceased to exist.
We are stunned and devastated. This city has turned around over the last decade; we have been proud of the remarkable drop in crime rates and welfare rates. Our city is cleaner, safer, alive, and more civil than I've ever seen it.
And then this happened. I do not know how long it will take for lower Manhattan to climb out of the rubble. I only know that New York is still one of the greatest cities on the planet Earth, and if anyone ever doubted it, all they need do is look at how people have taken a hands-on approach to this nightmare. We will survive. And we must prevail.
I am totally inundated and will not be adding Atlantis email to my queue at this time, but I am very touched by the great outpouring of personal support that I have received from so many of the participants on this list, and from all over the world. Thank you... most sincerely.
Message #3: An excerpt from an article entitled "Personal Reflections from New York," composed on 3 October 2001, and subsequently published by The Free Radical. I've omitted the political points that I made in that article---as they are the same points made relentlessly in many foreign policy writings since. Here, I'm more concerned about preserving and presenting my "memoir" of those difficult hours and days after the attack.
It started out as a day of routines. I'd gotten up, enchanted by the quiet of a late summer morning beckoning toward autumn. I walked the dog, ate my breakfast, and answered my email. And then, my sister called me from work. "Put on the television, there was a horrible accident. A plane hit the Trade Center." I'm thinking a small private plane, but the local TV station is showing a virtual holocaust, and my mind is racing. By the time the second tower had been struck, I was simply incapable of processing what I was seeing. My eyes saw a second plane hitting a second tower, but my mind was second-guessing my vision: Is this an instant replay? How could that be an instant replay when one building is on fire, and now the other one is on fire? What is going on here?
Two hours later, the Towers no more, routine had interfered with the unfolding nightmare. I had to walk the dog again, but this time, the peaceful quiet of a late summer morning had turned to solemnity. The sky had blackened over Brooklyn, the air smelled like burning plastic, and it was snowing a curious white ash. I figured it was debris, even if it did look like the nuclear winter of an atomic blast. I later learned it was vaporized human remains. Now, there were F-16 jet fighters over head, and they remain with us.
These images have been replaying in my consciousness every day since September 11th. While many friends and family members barely escaped--for example, my sister-in-law's cousin was on the 89th floor of Tower 2 and somehow got out alive--too many others remain missing. Their bodies will most likely never be found. My landlady's brother-in-law. Dead. A friend's uncle. Dead. Two of my sister's former students. Dead. It gets to the point where you fear looking in the newspaper because you know you'll recognize a face and you'll have to deal with one more day of mourning.
We will survive. ... But is surviving enough?
The problem is that this war involves unrelenting and arbitrary terror. Terrorism, by its nature, undermines our need for efficacy in such a way as to almost paralyze our ability to act. It strikes civilians in unpredictable and violent ways; paranoia becomes a social disease as even the people who live next door suddenly become suspects. We want to resume our "normal" way of life, but some of us can't help but feel that our attempts at routine are temporary and illusory as we await the next catastrophe.
Several days after the tragedy, I went to the Brooklyn Heights promenade to see the skyline. I looked out over Manhattan island, and the Towers were just gone, a cloud still hanging over my home. And I wept... not merely for what had happened, but in fear of what may still happen.