This essay, published on Sunday, September 11, 2016, is exclusive to Notablog.
This essay has been translated into Portuguese by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos, and into Spanish by Emfurn.com, with the assistance of Joanna Davies.
[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; 2021]
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO:
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS OF A VIDEO TIME MACHINE
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
The Twin Towers, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001
Fifteen years. It has been fifteen
years since my city, the city of my birth, the city I still call home, was
changed forever by an attack of unbearable madness.
New Yorkers were awakening to a beautiful late summer day; the cicadas were particularly loud, as they always are at this time of year, their songs echoing throughout a tranquil urban landscape. It had rained the night before---I remember that all too clearly, because I was scheduled to go to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees face off against the Boston Red Sox. They had already won three straight games---Friday, Saturday, and Sunday---against their celebrated rivals, and we were going for a four-game sweep. But on September 10th, the Yankee game was rained out before it began. I had last seen the Twin Towers up close, driving a visiting friend back to Penn Station on the weekend before September 11th, as we craned our necks upward to see the tops of those remarkable buildings. No other opportunities presented themselves for me to drive passed the Towers again, for a week later, they would be no more.
Like many New York dog owners, my first order of business of the day was to walk my dog. When I walked outside with Blondie, I was stunned by how such a rainy Monday had given way to such a blazingly sunny, clear Tuesday morning, with a breathtakingly beautiful, virtually cloudless, blue sky. It was a working day, but also the day of highly contentious primary elections for the next mayor of the Big Apple. A heavy voter turnout was expected, for Rudy Giuliani was at the end of his two-term limit, and a new mayor would be elected to run City Hall, and to take over the political reins of a metropolis that had weathered the storms of high crime and urban blight over a controversial eight-year period of tumultuous social and cultural change across the political landscape. A heated mayoral race was shaping up in both of the major political parties; Michael Bloomberg would ultimately win the Republican Party nomination over Herman Badillo, and Mark Green would ultimately win the Democratic Party nomination over Fernando Ferrer. But because of the events that took place on the morning of September 11, 2001, the primaries would be postponed till September 25th. None of the Democratic candidates received a majority of the vote on that date, and it was not until October 11th that Mark Green beat Ferrer in a run-off; on November 6th, Green would be defeated by Bloomberg, who would eventually dispense with that two-term limit (a "one-time only" agreement with the City Council) and reign over the city for three terms.
Politics, politics, politics was on the minds of so many voters that morning. And since the polls opened at 6 a.m., many went to cast their votes before work. Some took their children to their first day of school. It was a godsend to be running late for those who worked in the Twin Towers, but who arrived at their destination after their typical 9 a.m. start. If the planes had struck an hour later, there may have been 50,000 people in the Towers. But two of the most iconic buildings in the world had already been struck. There was simply no workplace to enter anytime after 9:03 a.m.
Over the years, I had developed a habit of taping news events, in case I'd want to write about them. I remember especially taping the full twenty-four hours of coverage devoted to the New Year's Eve millennium celebration, welcoming the year 2000, as broadcast on ABC television and hosted by Peter Jennings. There was no Y2K apocalypse; the Berlin Wall had fallen; the communist menace that was once the Soviet Union was a thing of the past. A new century, a new millennium, had arrived with a blast of optimism.
Nobody ever dreamed that in less than two years, that optimism would be crushed under the weight of domestic and foreign threats that had been growing underground for decades, awaiting for the right moments to spring forth.
As the early morning hours progressed, I was communicating with a friend on email. And uncharacteristically, even though I knew it was Primary Day, I was not watching "Good Morning America," my morning show of choice on the ABC network. A little after 8:45 a.m., my sister called me from work; she was serving as Deputy Superintendent of High Schools at 110 Livingston Street, the headquarters of the New York City Board of Education (later renamed the NYC Department of Education, under Bloomberg). She told me that a plane had struck the North Tower of the Trade Center and I should turn on the TV. It must have been a terrible accident, we both reasoned.
I turned the TV on, and simultaneously grabbed the first VHS tape I could find. It was a tape that I had used only five days before this sun-drenched morning: a recording of the MTV Video Music Awards that aired on September 6, 2001. It was a particularly memorable night, held at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, because Michael Jackson made a surprise appearance in performance with *NSYNC of their song "Pop" [YouTube link]. Jackson was in town recording a special in honor of his 30th anniversary in the music industry, and that special, taped from Madison Square Garden on September 7th and September 10th, was later aired by CBS in November [full concert YouTube link], featuring a performance of "Dancing Machine" also with *NYSNC [YouTube link]. (MJ is one of the famous people who avoided death on 9/11; he was due to attend a WTC meeting that morning, but had overslept.) On the same video tape was a documentary feature that appeared a day or two after the MTV Video Music Awards. It was "Backstory," a production of AMC---when that channel actually showed "American Movie Classics." The feature told the story of the making of "An Affair to Remember," a tear-jerker of a film, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. In retrospect, little irony was lost on me as I reached for this tape in preparation for this essay, for in that 1957 film, the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world, plays a key "role" in the unfolding plot events of the love story. The documentary reminds us how "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) had countless references to the Grant-Kerr classic.
In my reviewing of all the video tapes that I recorded of the news events of 2001 and beyond, I decided that, for the purposes of this year's fifteenth anniversary, I would focus only on the September 11th coverage as it unfolded on my television, in the minute-by-minute all-day taping that I had archived for future reference. For this essay, then, I confine myself only to the television coverage that I watched from 8:45 a.m. until midnight on that tragic day.
And so, when I popped in that first tape of the dozens of tapes I own of the television coverage of the tragedy and its aftermath, I saw that as soon as the AMC "Backstory" concluded, a startling image suddenly appeared on the screen of a helicopter view of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which had eclipsed the Empire State Building of "An Affair to Remember" as one of the two tallest buildings in the world. The tower was billowing black smoke. I was immediately transported, as if by a Time Machine, back to that tragic morning, and I can relate here my thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout that day by following the timeline of what I witnessed on TV and on the streets of my hometown.
One eyewitness was on the phone with the morning anchor of "Eyewitness News," on Channel 7, Steve Bartelstein, who told us that we were seeing "live pictures of the World Trade Center where a . . . [relatively small] passenger plane" had slammed into the North Tower of the Twins. The pictures were coming from NewsCopter 7, where we typically heard the gentle voice of John Del Giorno giving us a not-so-gentle picture of the city's rush hour traffic woes. "Our minds flashed back," Bartelstein said, to that day in February 1993 when the WTC had been rocked by a truck bomb. But this was something entirely different.
Another eyewitness, Sandra Rodriguez, came on the air; she said she saw a small passenger plane, "definitely not a Cessna," heading for the North Tower. Winston Mitchell, News Director and Producer of the PBS show, "Transit-Transit News," was watching too; he saw the plane smash right into One World Trade Trade Center, on the North side. It looked like the plane went right into the building and never came out. A few moments later, it appears that a second explosion has occurred. The commentators remark that "people are running up the street," but they suggest that this second explosion must have been the jet's fuselage exploding within the North Tower. But from what I saw, it seemed as if another plane had flown into the South Tower, though I was not entirely sure what I had just seen. Was this indeed a second plane? Or a replay of the first plane crash? I was utterly confused and totally dumbfounded when I first saw this. And this was only compounded by the fact that my TV screen had suddenly frozen, nine minutes into my video recording of the events. I switched to other stations, in search of more information, but could not get Channel 7 back immediately; I finally settled on CNN, whose reporters clarified, with a review of their video footage, that a second plane had indeed flown into the South Tower, which created much more debris than the first "accident."
CNN taps into local ABC coverage and asks Dr. Jay Adlesberg, a regular contributor to WABC broadcasts, to speculate on what could be happening to create this kind of navigational or electronic equipment failure. How else could two commuter planes within 18 minutes of each other, smash into each one of the Twin Towers on such a clear day? That this could have been a deliberate act was something that nobody wanted to contemplate as a reasonable explanation. CNN switches to the local Fox-affiliate, WNYW, Channel 5; now, reporters are confirming that the second plane---two planes, in fact---have crashed "deliberately" into the Twin Towers. "That is a very hard thing to watch," the WNYW reporter states. The crash is shown over and over again, as if it is on a tape loop; first in real-time speed, then in slow motion, and in ever-slower motion. Former NTSB spokesman, Ira Furman, who is now on the phone, states emphatically that this cannot be an accident. It is "inexplicable," Furman says. There is great visibility out there and no pilot, and certainly no two pilots flying two different jet planes, could possibly smash into those buildings accidentally or by navigational failure. Furman reminds us that there are planes that might approach within a mile or two of the Twin Towers, especially along the Hudson, en route to landing at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, but it is just not possible for a pilot during the daytime to mistakenly hit such large objects. The second aircraft was clearly heading for the South Tower, observes Furman. It is reported that the first aircraft seems to have flown through Westchester and across uptown Manhattan straight to its North Tower target. But the second plane went in a southwestern direction, speeding up as it smashed into the South Tower.
We later learn that each of the planes that hit the Twin Towers had departed from Boston's Logan International Airport en route to Los Angeles. American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767, which departed Logan at 7:59 a.m., would hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175, another Boeing 767, departed Logan at 8:14 a.m., and would hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. Learning of this as the day's events unfolded, I couldn't help to let a bit of gallows humor enter my consciousness, perhaps the only way of computing such a nightmare: the Red Sox fans must have been pissed off that the game was rained out last night, after losing three straight to the Yankees, and decided to take decisive action against New York, since the Yankees were vying for their fifth World Series appearance in six years. Alas, those Red Sox fans would soon be singing "New York, New York" in Fenway Park, in a show of solidarity with their New York rivals; Yankee fans returned the honor when catastrophe hit the Boston Marathon years later, singing "Sweet Caroline" in unity at Yankee Stadium.
At 9:17 a.m., the Associated Press reported that the FBI investigation had not yet determined if this was a terrorist attack, but that the NYC field office would provide information if planes had been hijacked, perhaps, and involved in this event. CNN reports that "rescue operations are underway," as smoke is billowing out of both buildings.
There was "just pandemonium" and total "panic," says one of those who had escaped the North Tower; debris was falling all over, observes Rose Arce, a CNN producer. There is no traffic on the West Side Highway. The clock ticks toward 9:25 a.m., and the Associated Press now reports that U.S. officials have confirmed that this, indeed, is an act of terrorism.
Meanwhile, CNN notes that President George W. Bush is in Sarasota, Florida, at an event promoting education reform, being held at Emma E. Booker Elementary School. He is made aware of the attacks by his Chief of Staff Andrew Card, but the President, says one reporter, has a way of letting journalists know that he was not going to interrupt a class full of elementary school children and scare the hell out of them and their parents. Moments later, the event concludes, and he appears outside the school and announces to the crowd that he will be returning to Washington, D.C., for an "apparent terrorist" attack has occurred in New York City. He asks for a "moment of silence," and departs.
At 9:29 a.m., CNN reports that trading on the markets in New York has been postponed "indefinitely." The scene switches to Aaron Brown, now reporting on the roof of a midtown building. This was his first day on the air at CNN; at 9:36 a.m., he observes that the West Side of New York is in an "extraordinarily chaotic" state and that what he sees in downtown Manhattan is simply "grotesque." One minute later, the Pentagon is hit, but it's not until 9:40 a.m. that CNN provides a flashing "Breaking News" announcement that there are "Reports of Fire at Pentagon." The network interrupts a joint appearance of First Lady Laura Bush with Senator Ted Kennedy, to report that the Pentagon is indeed being evacuated, and that smoke is rising hundreds of yards into the air. On the scene, Greta van Susteren reports that there was a huge noise, which could have been a plane or a bomb, but a large plume of smoke had emerged from the Pentagon and the situation was becoming chaotic.
By 9:43 a.m., the chaos is spreading throughout the country. The growing fear is palpable among reporters, those they interview, and viewers at home. At least this viewer.
The phone rings; it's my sister again, I am reminded that she needs her asthma medication, and that I have to get to the pharmacy, just a few blocks from our home. I kept the video tape running, but I took my Sony Walkman---remember those?---which was a compact cassette player with an AM/FM transistor radio. I walked down the flight of stairs from our apartment, the second floor of a two-family house. And as I neared Kings Highway, walking toward our local pharmacy, I looked to the North sky. On a clear day, one could sometimes actually see the top of the Twin Towers from this vantage point; but the clear day was gone. Dark smoke was beginning to move toward Brooklyn like an ominous cloud. Entering Kingsway Pharmacy, I chatted with Alex, its owner, while I waited for the prescription to be filled. We were both in shock over the events that had transpired.
I tell him that the announcer on the all-news radio station WINS 1010 AM has just informed us that the FAA has grounded all air traffic nationwide. It was 9:53 a.m. and the station is now confirming that a plane slammed into the Pentagon (we later learn it was American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757-223, having departed from Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport, that struck the Pentagon). The White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and State Department buildings are all being evacuated since they have been designated as credible targets of planes still unaccounted for. Alex and I are both clearly shaken by the news. For the first time, I hear the name of Osama bin Laden uttered; he is known for funding and staging spectacular "coordinated" attacks against the perceived enemies of Islam. When my sister's prescription was ready, I left the pharmacy, gave Alex a hug, and started walking back toward my home. I suddenly heard a horrific crashing, rumbling sound in my earphones, the WINS reporter screaming at the top of her lungs that the South Tower was coming down, creating an explosive cloud of debris. My heart began to race, and my legs took me right back into the pharmacy, where I told Alex that the South Tower had collapsed. Practically in tears, I regained my composure, and again began walking slowly, listening to the radio, and not realizing that the pace at which I was walking was increasing with each step. I was soon jogging, and then running, back home. This gigantic black cloud was almost cascading toward Brooklyn. I ran up the stairs into my apartment and by 10:05 am, I was back behind closed doors. But the safety of home hardly provided me with any feeling of security.
My VCR was still taping and CNN was reporting that the Sears Tower in Chicago was being evacuated. Panic seemed to take over the country; my only comfort was knowing that my brother Carl and sister-in-law Joanne were a few doors away, and that my dog Blondie was in my arms. I had a feeling of overwhelming vulnerability, a feeling that I had not known before.
The TV screen was showing me a picture of southern Manhattan completely engulfed in smoke. Rose Arce, the CNN producer, summarizes the events she has just witnessed: the South Tower seemed to buckle, people were jumping from the towers. And then the building just collapsed, disappeared, creating a cloud of ever-growing debris that looked like something out of a science fiction film.
It is in the nature of these unfolding incidents that some reports will be erroneous. One such report came in at 10:12 a.m., that some kind of explosion had occurred on Capitol Hill. Or perhaps outside the State Department. Five minutes later, we learn there were no explosions after all. But unbeknownst to us at this time, United Airlines Flight 93, a 757 that had departed from Newark International Airport at 8:42 a.m., also Los Angeles-bound, had already crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m., due to the heroic efforts of its passengers, who knew they were doomed but would not go down without a fight to retake the plane.
I switch back to Channel 7. An Eyewitness News "Special Report" is in progress; I learn that all Hudson River Bridges and tunnels are closed, all mass transit into and out of Manhattan has been suspended. There is no bus service to Penn Station; over time, we learn that a veritable fleet of boats operated voluntarily by complete strangers were picking people up in lower Manhattan and getting them to their destinations in the outer boroughs and in New Jersey. Three area high schools were evacuated; some schools were identified as triage centers for the injured, and only parents would be allowed to pick up their children from schools. But the anchors on the air are now warning us that it "appears that the North Tower is leaning." John DelGiorno, still in NewsCopter 7, can't confirm it. The fire is obviously spreading upward, consuming all the floors---and the people---above the point of impact.
The clock ticks to 10:28 a.m. and the North Tower begins to collapse, pancaking down in front of my eyes. It is too horrible to watch; "this is just so tragic . . . it is so horrific," the anchors say. What else can they say? They don't know what to advise young children who might be watching these scenes at home; indeed, they don't know what to advise adults who are watching these scenes at home. And with the loss of the antenna on the North Tower, they've now lost radio contact with DelGiorno. "It is just so surreal; we're trying to talk, but words cannot describe what we are seeing." The reporters are relying on cell phone hook-ups and walkie-talkies to communicate with their studios.
At about 11:30 am, having urged my sister to come home, I had to walk my dog Blondie. Nature knows no restrictions. My brother had exited his home too, just a few doors down, almost simultaneously. We could hear the roar of F-16s flying above. And it was snowing heavily in Brooklyn. On a warm, late summer day in September. My brother Carl said aloud, "I don't know what this is, but it can't be good." It was in fact a mixture of concrete, toxic debris, and pulverized human ash. Blondie did her thing, and we got back into the house swiftly.
I was beyond numb. My sister worked with others at the Board of Education to connect with those schools in lower Manhattan that were being evacuated. To the credit of hundreds of administrators, teachers, and others, not a single student was lost, not even those who were close to the carnage at the WTC. There were even reports (later proved false) of a bomb in Stuyvesant High School, on the periphery of the WTC site. My sister didn't get home till well after 11 pm, more than twelve hours after I had started watching this unfolding nightmare on television. Before dawn, she was back on the job. She told me that she saw hundreds of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, away from an area that appeared to be covered in the dust of a nuclear winter. She saw thousands of papers flooding downtown Brooklyn, and whole, thick, intact law books that had been explosively propelled across the East River, perhaps from one of the law offices at the WTC.
Throughout the day and into
that night, I did my share of channel surfing, watching every channel from the
local networks to the cable news outlets to ESPN and TNT, which were streaming
local coverage. Everyone from Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and the late
Tim Russert on NBC to Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer, and the late Peter Jennings
on ABC, all of whom were summarizing the day's events, were replaying those
shots of the second plane smashing into the South Tower, the two Towers afire,
the debris and people falling from the top floors, the incredible collapse of
the two buildings, and in the late afternoon,
the collapse of 7
World Trade Center. Around 8:30 p.m.,
the President addressed the nation from the Oval Office, pledging to bring
justice to those who were responsible for these atrocities, and to make "no
distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor
them." By late night, footage is found showing the first plane
smashing into the North Tower. The overall emerging consensus was that these
attacks were the likely work of crazed Islamic fundamentalists, who had warned
the West just three weeks prior to September 11th, that an "unprecedented"
attack on U.S. interests would occur. Unfolding on the local ABC affiliate was
film of spontaneous gatherings in Palestinian territories in the Middle East,
where people were celebrating the deadly attacks.
James Wooley, former
head of the CIA, was already speculating that this could have been an amalgam of
two plots, involving, perhaps, Bin Laden, the Iraqis, or even the Iranians. By
September 14, 2001,
the President stood on the pile at Ground Zero, among rescue workers,
promising that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us
But what we saw over the next hours, days, and weeks, was not invading armies seeking justice in foreign lands, but an army of first responders assisted by hundreds of volunteers who had joined the rescue and recovery efforts. So many people had volunteered that the mayor was imploring prospective volunteers to stay home, for there were more than enough people who had already come to Ground Zero to assist their fellow New Yorkers. But the help offered among those who had survived the tragedy went beyond the clean-up. Indeed, for days after the tragedy, we would see the tears streaming down the face of Howard Luttnick, the CEO of the financial services company Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 of the 960 employees who worked at the firm; on that day, Luttnick was given renewed purpose, and ultimately provided the victim's families with 25% of the firm's profits for five years, and full health insurance for the decade that followed.
In some respects, those 102 minutes from the first strike of the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. to the collapse of that tower at 10:28 a.m., felt like 102 hours, as if everything were moving in slow motion. But those 102 minutes also sped by. And the memories are still so vivid, as if everything happened yesterday. There isn't a day that passes where something does not remind me of 9/11. It could be a plane in the sky or in the Hudson; it could be news of other terrorist incidents at home and abroad. An out-of-town visitor once asked me if New Yorkers will ever "get over it." Well, maybe in places like Panama City, Florida, Walmart can get away with Coca Cola store displays in the shape of the Twin Towers. Or maybe in San Antonio, Texas, you can air "Miracle Mattress" ads [YouTube link] for a "Twin Tower Sale" that spoofs the collapse of the WTC. In both cases, you can soften the spoof with a 'we'll never forget' message, but perhaps I'm just one of those arrogant (or overly sentimental) New Yorkers who still sees this city as the center of the universe. So I'm a little sensitive about people telling us to "get over it." The lack of taste and commonsense on display in advertising never ceases to amaze me. Nevertheless, you have to have a sense of humor if you live in this city. And I've never lacked for a sense of humor. Even I can laugh to the point of tears over Chris Rock's SNL monologue [YouTube link] on the terror at the Boston marathon or the potential problems with the new Freedom Tower. But no, New Yorkers have never gotten over it (and at least that Texas commercial sparked national outrage).
September 11th was the most horrific catastrophe
I've ever witnessed or experienced in my entire life.
Let us contemplate a few statistics: "The number of people believed to have been killed in the World Trade Center attack hovers around 2,780, three years after the attack. [In actuality, the attacks on September 11th "killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000 people."] "No trace has been identified for about half the victims, despite the use of advanced DNA techniques to identify individuals. Six weeks after the attack only 425 people had been identified. A year after the attack, only half of the victims had been identified. 19,906 remains were recovered from Ground Zero, 4,735 of which were identified. Up to 200 remains were linked to a single person. Of the 1,401 people identified, 673 of the IDs were based on DNA alone. Only 293 intact bodies were found. Only twelve could be identified by sight." Among the 2,996 dead were 343 FDNY firefighters (including two paramedics and chaplain Mychal Judge), 37 police officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, 23 NYPD police officers, and 8 emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Included in that total of 2,996 are the 19 hijackers who brought death and destruction to the other 2,977 people. Fortunately, political correctness has not compelled us to include their names in the many memorials that have been erected to honor the dead.
But these numbers tell us only part of the 9/11 story. Among those who were injured and who were first responders to the events of 9/11, more than 21,000 people filed eligibility claims under the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund by 2015; the bulk of the approved claims were those of first responders, many of whom contracted cancers most likely from Ground Zero toxic debris. In fact, we can add a confirmed 127 FDNY deaths to the total of the nearly 3,000 who were murdered, and perhaps a total of 150 to 200 additional deaths among first responders who died of various respiratory and lung diseases, and over 50 forms of cancer, all most likely the result of sustained contact with poisonous toxins in the months of clean-up that followed the attacks. Just this past week, 17 more names were added to the FDNY wall of memory, 17 more lives now confirmed to have been snuffed out by the after-effects of diseases caused by Ground Zero toxins.
It was a brave NYPD officer, James
Zadroga, for whom the Zadroga Act was named; he was the
first person to die of a respiratory disease attributed to his rescue and
recovery efforts at Ground Zero. Whatever one thinks of the Act or the
Compensation Fund is irrelevant to the fact that James Zadroga is the name of
a real individual who died due to his heroism as a first responder. Behind every one of those numbers is another real individual.
And statistics never provide us with the full picture. Which is why watching
these images from the television coverage on September 11th, as I did last week,
provides us with a more enriched snapshot in time. The old adage that a picture
tells a thousand words could never be truer for the carnage we witnessed on
9/11. I cannot begin to communicate to young teens who were just born or not yet
born when this attack took place just how horrific, how beyond terrifying it was
to see people jumping out of the upper floors of the Twin Towers; one cannot
begin to imagine the kind of inferno that was engulfing them within their former
offices, and how some made conscious decisions to jump because jumping was
preferable to dying in that inferno.
I have to say that the closest I've ever come to a feeling of wanting to jump out a window was when a fire broke out in my apartment on October 10, 2013. Ironically, during the day's coverage of September 11th, firefighters reported that the visibility in downtown Manhattan was like being inside of a house fire, filled with blinding smoke, except you were outside. I thought of exactly that analogy when my own apartment caught fire from an overturned tea candle. On that night, I was watching a baseball playoff game in my room, a tea candle flickering as the air conditioner cooled the area. I walked out on a commercial break and heard something burst. I ran back into my room, and saw that the tea candle had somehow tipped over, and a slim line of fire was traveling up four cardboard file boxes several feet away. I screamed out to my sister, who had just had surgery to repair a broken wrist. She quickly ran to my room, and got on a ladder, as I ran back and forth from the tub, filling pots of water to douse the fire. While I was on the phone with Emergency 911, I heard the FDNY fire engines approaching, the closest firehouse less than 10 blocks away from my home. I've never seen young men throwing their lives into danger the way they did. I could have kissed every last one of them for saving our apartment and saving our lives. The fire marshal later told us that fire expands at the rate of five times its intensity every 20 to 30 seconds; we had less than a minute before the fire would have hit my library, a veritable tinderbox awaiting ignition. We would have lost our apartment, the lives of the tenants below us, the house we lived in, and our own lives. The smoke was so thick I could not see one quarter of an inch in front of my face; I was convinced I would hear a thump---either my own body hitting the floor or the body of my sister, just from smoke inhalation. When the marshal identified the tea candle as the source of the fire, he looked at me, holding it in his hand, and told me: "These things keep us in business." We sustained enormous damage from that fire, but we were alive to talk about it. And I must confess, I've never lit another candle in my home, except the kind you blow out, right after singing "Happy Birthday."
If I had to jump from the second story of a two-family house, I would have. I don't know how on earth to place this in the context of buildings that were 110 stories high; I have no way of computing in my mind the level of intense burning heat, heavy smoke, debris and death all around, and contemplating a jump to certain death when one was facing certain death by not jumping at all. Those pictures of people jumping to their deaths, some of them holding hands as they leaped, are seared into my consciousness.
September 11, 2001 remains a date etched into our collective memory as New Yorkers, as human beings. And that is why what started as a report of events "As It Happened" has turned into an annual series in remembrance of those whose lives were snuffed out, those who perished in my hometown, in Washington, D. C., and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
September 11, 2001 left wounds that have scarred the human souls of those who have survived to pick up the literal pieces of the loved ones who were lost. In too many horrible cases, those who survived never had pieces of their loved ones to pick up, so-to-speak, to identify, or to touch. Some were lucky enough to have their loved ones identified by a single singed part of an esophagus. But there are pieces that remain entombed below Ground Zero, in the hopes that future generations with more accurate instruments of genetic discovery might be able to identify the remains of the dead. More than half of the bodies of nearly 3000 murdered people were pulverized by the collapsing towers; their screams were almost heard as a choral lamentation as the floors pancaked down. Their ashes rained over the East River and onto the streets of Brooklyn, as the winds swept southward. I will never forget this day. I will never forget those whose lives were lost. The people we knew. And the people we never had the chance to meet.
On September 1st of this year, I had the occasion to pick up yet another prescription from the same pharmacy I had gone to on September 11, 2001. There was Alex, still, this time with a huge lipstick mark on his right cheek, planted there by his wonderful wife, Lana, the greatest pharmacist one could ever hope to have, all in honor of his birthday. Alex, Lana, and their wonderful family have been dispensing health to my family for years now, and they have become like an extended family to all of us; so I kissed him on the other cheek, for his birthday, and I gave him a big Brooklyn hug, in honor of our friendship, the bonds of which first deepened on that dark day.
Perhaps that is the most beautiful thing to have emerged from such tragedy; that New Yorkers met one another on a field of battle, and showed the world what this city is made of, something that will outlast any attacks, any harm, any pain, any hatred that is thrown our way. I remain uplifted by the spirit of friendship, and the bonds that were forged among strangers on that day, something made all the more apparent by my viewing of those tapes I recorded on September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. It was an event that showed the world that New York will always be the center of the universe, at least any universe that honors courage, bravery, heroism, love, and life.