Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

I have been very reluctant to ever write about the terrorist attacks of September 11 because I feel as though it's not my place to put such words down on paper. I was not directly affected by the attacks, after all, as I didn't lose family members or friends on that horrible day.

I've always thought that talking about--and writing about--9/11 should be reserved for the people who were there and dealt with it firsthand, or for the family members and friends of people who can no longer speak.

I was not in the city when it happened, and as I've said, I didn't lose anyone close to me.

I was in New Rochelle, in my sophomore year of college. I was sitting at the wooden, lopsided kitchen table in a rented house next to train tracks and a church. I was eating a bowl of cereal and listening to Howard Stern, back when he was on regular, free radio.

That's how I heard about the first plane.

No one knew what was going on, and classes had not yet been cancelled for the day. I drove with my buddy to campus and we listened to the news on the car radio. There were reports of bad things happening all over the place. I distinctly remember a report of a kitchen fire in the White House.

As we got closer to campus, the reporting had escalated from "terrible accident" to something else entirely.

I sat in an English class, listening to my favorite professor. He was on campus very early, working, and had not heard the news. Someone came into class and told him what was happening, and we were all dismissed for the day.

I watched the second plane hit later that morning from the dorm room of our freshman first baseman, and by the time I left, practice had been cancelled for the evening and residents started making plans to go home for a few days.

I remember watching and listening to everything that was happening and walking around in a state of being that I don't much want to ever feel again. It was like watching a movie; it was like it wasn't actually happening.

The filter of the television and the radio made it seem unreal, somehow, and yet just 30-some-odd miles away, thousands of people had been killed in a senseless act of violence.

At the same time, many more were risking their lives to save others.

As any of my favorite comic books have told me over the years, when the villains show up, the heroes can't be far from the scene. And on that day and in the subsequent days and months, the heroes arrived and proceeded without concern for themselves.

It's because of the nature of things that I just don't feel worthy of writing about 9/11. Good, brave people were killed; many died trying to save complete strangers from an inevitable fate.

I was in New Rochelle, listening to bad things happen on the radio.

Years later, in my first job in publishing, I helped edit a book about the attacks on September 11. Actually, that book--which was part of an elementary school series about disasters--was one of the very first that I ever worked on as a professional editor.

Part of my job as the assistant on that project was to help the editor gather stories, photos, and quotes from people directly affected by the attacks and those involved in its aftermath.

I read about mothers who said goodbye to little children for the last time, and people who stood on line for hours to donate blood. There were stories of rescue dogs who refused to stop searching the rubble, and would have to be pulled away, whining, because they were unable to complete their task.

I've since heard and read thousands of similar and heartbreaking stories.

While doing research for the book, I came across one image in particular that has been seared into my brain ever since.

A firefighter, dressed in FDNY yellow, sprinting up a staircase inside one of the Towers. To his left there is a line of terrified, innocent people--moms and dads and sisters and brothers--running down to street level.

The firefighter--someone's son, someone's brother, someone's husband--is on the right side of the stairwell, alone, sprinting up the stairs.

Superman does not exist. Spider-Man is a figment of Stan Lee's imagination.

But that firefighter, alone on the stairs and probably just as terrified as the people evacuating the building, showed the world what heroes look like. I have no idea if he made it out alive. I assume he didn't. I also assume he knew that outcome was likely as he ran to save the lives of others so that they might go home to their parents, or their children, or their husbands and wives and brothers and sisters.

He had no superpowers. He couldn't fly. He wasn't invulnerable.

But he sprinted up those stairs anyway.

-- -- -- --

My father works in an office a few blocks from where the World Trade Center used to be. Today, and for the past 10 years, the view towards that side of the street has consisted of a gaping hole.

Yes, they are rebuilding. Yes, that is probably the right thing to do.

No comments: