This was written some years ago, now reprised—another year has gone by and I continue to think about my experience at Ground Zero. These are just my own musings from shortly after the horrific events. I certainly don’t own the story, but we still share it and we share what we all went through wherever we were on September 11, 2001.
It was a rare experience for us as a nation to come together regardless of our politics, regardless of anything else that makes us unique. People drove on the highways more politely, a form of empathy. Strangers talked to each other in the grocery store, a form of empathy. There are countless examples. We were bound, E Pluribus Unum.
We have descended now into political and faith-based camps more rigidly defined than ever. From politicizing the constructions of mosques in our country as un-American to the xenophobic demonizing of others not like ourselves to the degradation of what our constitutional freedoms and obligations should mean—we are not now what we were as a people soon after September 11, 2001.
As you will see if you read a bit further, I was shocked and heartbroken at what I saw. I was more deeply moved than any other time in my life. I was angered at a seemingly incongruous disconnect at the twin tower ruins. I restrained myself, and retreated into considering what the event and aftermath meant to me.
I hope we can all take a few moments, or longer, this week to remember those we lost, what we gained, and what we’ve lost again as a nation. I don’t mean to minimize the murderous horror of fourteen years past, I’d just like to see a bit more national comity, including from me.
Thoughts from October, 2001
I normally put a photo of mine to lead my posts. I don’t have a photograph to show you. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
I don’t own this story, I was just passing through. We all were. We continue down a path that others have laid out. We can shape our destiny in the choices we make for ourselves—we can make our path our own. But it is all about the choices we make along the way, and the leaders we elect to make those choices for us.
As with most Americans, indeed as it was with most people across the world, we were united for a time in grief and solidarity.
Nous sommes tous des Américains indeed.
My wife and I were scheduled to go to Buenos Aires in the fall of 2001 for one of her business meetings. She was on the board of directors of ASAE, a national association based in Washington DC that serves the needs of association executives.
We were excited. Though we’ve traveled extensively, this would be the first time either of us ventured southward from Central America. We even upgraded to Business Class using some of her million mile travel award points, since the eleven hours on the plane wears hard on the sturdiest of lumbar structures. It was going to be great—and at the time we had a tremendous advantage in the currency exchange with Argentina.
I was in my kids’ school on September 11. I volunteered a lot. I forget what I was doing or why I was there on that day. I heard something from the library and went to investigate.
The TV was on. I saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. The world crashed. I really had a hard time processing what I was seeing. I don’t remember now what I was thinking then. I remember feeling drained and hollow though.
It wasn’t more than a few weeks later that the board of directors meeting scheduled for Buenos Aires in October was rescheduled to take place in NYC. We flew into La Guardia and checked into our hotel—one of the nicest I’ve been in—the Waldorf-Astoria. My bride’s time was filled with board meetings, but I was free during the day. I only had to dress up and stand next to her in the evenings at the scheduled soirees—including a dinner at Gracie Mansion where we listened to Mayor Guiliani thank the ASAE for supporting the city. He gave us NYFD ball caps with FD pins attached. I count it as an honor to have that cap.
I had mixed feelings about taking the subway down to Wall Street. I had to check my own heart and soul—my own motives for visiting the site. I did not want to make it a personal hajj to Mecca—nor to make it about me and what I was feeling. I think I did get to that respectful place by vowing to honor those lost and to honor the bravery of the police and firefighters who gave their lives trying to save those in peril.
The Blue and Red lines only went down to Canal Street Station which was about three stops before Wall Street. Even before arriving at Canal Street the odor seeped into the subway car. You couldn’t escape it. It became pervasive, nearly overpowering. Everything smelled of burnt. It was the first indication of horror, and not the last.
I got up to the street and started walking south. As you might imagine, I was overcome with emotions. I never before felt such a connection to the police and firefighters and found myself touching my forehead in an imitation of a salute—a silent thank you to some stranger in uniform—an acknowledgment of their service, bravery and loss.
St. Paul’s Chapel is a tiny 240-year-old church at Broadway and Fulton and hard up against ground zero. From just after the tragedy it became and remains a destination for pilgrims coming to honor the dead. For eight months after the World Trade Center towers fell it was also where hundreds of volunteers labored in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day tending to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the rescue, construction and security workers on the site.
When I arrived at the historic chapel I was stunned by what I saw. The entire wrought iron fence surround the church grounds was covered with stuffed toys and hand-made posters. I broke down and wept. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t nearly ready to see this outpouring of love and affection.
I made my way down Broadway to Albany or Carlisle Street, then west to the site. It was on one of these narrow streets that I put away my camera. There were workers in the streets, just below the surface, repairing the infrastructure and utilities. The workers had made and displayed a series of signs, mostly written out on cardboard. They were all a variation on a theme. “Please don’t take photos.” I’m convinced that what they were saying was that we needed to honor the dead in a way that did not turn the site into a tourist destination. My mixed emotions about visiting returned. I vowed to honor the requests, in spite of the many vendors across Manhattan that were selling trinkets and images. They could do that, and I’m sure for a variety of reasons—some good, some venal. I decided I would honor the requests of the workers.
Immediately after reaffirming that decision I turned the corner to Washington Street and started walking to the site. I didn’t get far. I could see the smoking hazy scene from two blocks away, the torn jagged aluminum siding from the Trade Center angling skyward.
In front of this scene was a man with a camera. His family—his wife and two daughters standing in front of that horrific carnage—were smiling for the camera. My first reaction was to get in the face of this guy and ask him if he’d seen the signs. I quickly stopped myself. It was not my place to confront or judge anyone else there. I could only decide for myself how I would handle things. I turned around and left, retracing my steps back to St. Paul’s. I lingered for some time absorbing the scene at the church and just watched the people. I must have stayed for a couple of hours, but had to get back to the hotel. I’m not one to be overly talkative, but the day’s journey to the site of terror served to make me even less communicative. It was a weight that in some ways still remains.
I know my thoughts and feelings can’t compare to those directly affected. This post does indeed sound like it’s all about me. For my friends here who know something about me, I know you will recognize my heart in this. I will not go on to now preach about the solidarity so soon lost. The last 14 years are what they are. We can all only continue to go on, but hold fast some simple ideas that helps shape our personal and collective choices: love, honor, duty, sacrifice, coming together as a nation and remembering the fallen.