Sunday, September 11, 2011

"What you got, they can't steal it, no, they can't even feel it."

(song: 'Walk On')

It has been a day of rememberance but not a 10-year old memory of 'the whole' of a day that changed everything. Today has been a day of remembering the tiny moments, the specific stories from specific voices, the unbelievable details that wove together to make up the tapestry of September 11, 2001.

It has been a day of remembering the faces, the names, the cities and field, the shock and horror, the confusion, the baited breath that held back the flood of wondering how much more was to come . . . when and how would this day end? When planes flew into the giant steel structures in New York, penetrated the rings of the Pentagon on D.C. and ripped open the earth in Pennsylvania, they forever changed the country as a whole, but only through each of us as individuals who are the layers, the threads, the hinges in this beautiful land. It is in this way that I saw today . . . the moments, the people, the stories that blended into each other, creating the landscape we've come to call 9/11.

I thought of the impact of those commercial passenger jets into Towers 1 and 2, blowing fireproofing from the steel beams no one in the command centers in NYC ever believed would bend or break, causing the towers to collapse and fall. I thought of the frantic calls to loved ones and to 911 operators, initially confused and trying to reassure the callers that help was on the way. I thought of the searing flames and two thousand degree heat of buring jet fuel causing survivors on the impact floors to perch on ledges and make horrific, imcomprehensible choices, grasping the only definition of control in the moment and stepping out into the air while horrified onlookers tried to wrap their minds around what their city had become in a matter of moments. I thought of office workers making their way down smoky, debris-filled stairwells, locking eyes with weary, passing firefighters carrying 100 lbs. of equipment on their way up. Omar Rivera was blind and had been led into the stairwell by his whining seeing eye dog, Dorado, pleading with him to follow. As they made their way down, Omar could tell it was tight quarters, having the single-file of survivors leaving while emergency personnel filed up the stairs. Dorado was in the way. So, Omar unleashed him and let him go. Dorado walked down a few stairs ahead, weaving his way in front of a few other people on the way down and then came back, pushing against Omar's side. Dorado wouldn't leave him. Faithful and true. Both survived.

In Washington D. C., a plane tore through the Pentagon, one of our nation's most prominent military centers and symbols. As crews raced to the scene, military personnel inside tried to help one another to safety amidst the burning layers. The thick, black smoke choked survivors, and Shirley Moody thought she was dying. She called out again and again and no one answered. She felt she could only muster one more breath and this time, someone heard her. He needed clarification on where she was, but her voice was gone, her throat thick with smoke. She began clapping her hands as hard as she could. He couldn't hear it, but he saw her hands moving through the dust, with the light shining into the gaping hole above, and he reached through debris and grabbed her hands, pulling her to safety. Shortly after he helped her out, the entire side of the building collapsed. Shirley and her rescuer had made it out alive.

Inside the WTC towers, some civilians checked floors for survivors on their way down. Brian met Stanley who was stuck. Stanley insisted he couldn't get out and Brian encouraged him, saying 'You must try,' and asked him to remember family members who wanted him home. Stanley tried harder and was able to make it over some drywall debris with Brian on the other side, helping him to the stairwell. They walked down until the stairs were blocked by debris, but determined to get out, they moved some out of the way and used some of the debris and the flowing water from broken pipes to create a make-shift slide to get through one area of the stairwell. Both made it out alive. They walked away from the site, but stopped to catch their breath. With his hand on the gate of Trinity Church, Stanley looked back and told Brian, "I think those towers are gonna fall." Disbelieving, Brian looked back and in the midst of saying to Stanley, "I don't think so . . that's furniture and paper and draperies burning," he was stopped by the sights and sounds of Tower 2, the second tower hit, buckling, thick black smoke encompassing the sky, propelling swirls of ash and thick darkness down city streets, overtaking many who had watched in disbelief, covering them, taking the ease of their breath, engulfing their lungs.

An EMS worker was on the scene. She was on the phone with her husband, an employee in Tower 2, who was trapped. She was telling him that crews were on their way to rescue him, reassuring him, when she saw the building begin to collapse. Helpless and in shock, she couldn't bring herself to hang up the phone. On this tenth year anniversary, she would recall how it became a comfort to her later to know that she could be connected to him and bring him moments of hope. What was her shock became her strength.

A young Muslim man was running for his life from the WTC site. The air was smoky and the smell of burning jet fuel, overwhelming. The ashy clouds chased him. In the chaos, he tripped and fell. He wasn't sure if his foot hit a manhole cover or debris or nothing at all, but he fell and rolled onto his back. A Jewish man wearing a yamaka was running near him and came over and said, "Hey, brother, take my hand, let's get out of here." The two ran to safety together, the irony not lost on either of them.
At the WTC site, and nearby, inches of dust covered the scene, smoke continued to billow into the air, and shoes littered the city streets around the towers where jagged, fallen metal reached for the sky.

Earlier, the commercial jet, Flight 93, had been delayed for takeoff on the runway at Newark airport. Leaving later than expected gave the passengers a bit of lapse between the 3 earlier attacks and the moment of their hijacking. Just as their pilot, Captain Jason Dahl, received a text message from United that all in-air flights should be on the lookout for an attempt to take-over their cockpits, the hijackers aboard his flight began leaving their seats. Dahl texted back to confirm the message but before he received an answer, his cockpit door was breached and flight recordings captured his shouts of "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" mixed with a command to the hijackers, "Get out of here!" Confused and frightened passengers making air phone calls home learned of the WTC and Pentagon attacks from loved ones and began to realize their fates. This wasn't a typical hijacking where demands would be made once the hijackers landed the aircraft safely. This was their suicide mission. Lisa Jefferson was the 911 operator who was on the phone with Todd Beamer and recited The Lord's Prayer with him before he and some other passengers recited the 23rd Psalm together. The last words Lisa heard Todd say were to the passengers around him, planning to fight back. "Are you ready? Ok. Let's Roll."

On the ground at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, unarmed F-16s were scrambled into the air at the news that United 93 wasn't responding. The fighter jets were equipped with the devastating but necessary permission to shoot down the passenger aircraft if it didn't immediately respond to orders. But permission was nearly all those first two F-16s in the air were equipped with. In the rush to stop 93 before it made its way to D.C. as expected, there had been no time to arm the two F-16 jets with missiles and the only rounds in their guns were training rounds which do not explode on impact. While the two pilots, 'Sass' and 'Lucky,' scrambled into position, they made their plans. Sass would hit one of United 93's wings with his own and hope to eject before his plane spiraled out of control. Lucky, one of the first female fighter pilots called into action was also new to the field. She hoped her training would kick in like second nature and she wouldn't eject before the proper amount of impact to take United 93 down.
Little did either of them know that before they would make it to the plane, the passengers and remaining crew would have taken care of business. A tearful Sass later recalled how they were the true heroes, brave and willing, and that he could be alive today because of them.

On 93, flight attendants had coffee pots of boiling water, someone ran the drink cart up the narrow aisle, passengers threw plates from First Class. There was screaming. Someone on the recording was heard yelling, 'Let's get them!' After the terrorist who had taken over the plane rocked it right to left then lifted the nose before lowering it, trying to throw the passengers around, the fight intensified. Someone was heard yelling, "Get into the cockpit! If we don't, we'll die." You can hear the cart ramming the cockpit door. There is lots of noise. The valiant heroes did not sit back and wait - - they had devised a plan, voted on it, and acted. They made a conscious decision to wait until they were over a more rural area than they were. When the view from their windows revealed a landscape that would minimize damage in the worst case scenario, they acted. United Flight 93 hit the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at a speed of 580 miles per hour, burying the plane in pieces and fragments, its recorder found 25 feet past the crater. The courage and determination of those passengers is overwhelming and beautiful on this tragic day, when black smoke filled blue skies and turned a September date into an instant well of patriotism and pride.

As the sun rose on September 12, 2011, it rose above a changed America.
At the WTC site, hundreds of shrill, chrirping beeps from the electronic locators of 343 FDNY workers filled the air, a sobering reminder of what was lost. Rescue workers dug through overwhelming piles of rubble, calling out above the noise, silently pleading for an answer at each call. Rescue dogs helped comb the site, the last survivor pulled from the wreckage found by a dog named Tracker. Rain fell. Days passed. And the moment all dreaded came . . the moment when the rescue mission turned to recovery. Flyers and photos wallpapered city walls, fences, lamp posts, any surface that could hold a piece of paper welcomed the desperate pleas of loved ones, hoping beyond hope that their missing was being sheltered and would find the way home.

On this tenth year of remembering and honoring the victims, the heroes, and the stories of survivors who have faced emotions I could never know, I so clearly felt that today was not a blanket remembrance of 'what happened.' Today, I felt like I could see each thread in the tapestry, how each wove into another, how each person who died and each person who lived, how each one wrapped their fingers around that day and without asking for it or wanting to, gripped the circumstances and how their fingerprints remain.

Years ago, in my grief and in the days after 9/11/01, I kept hearing U2 lyrics over and over in my mind. As they always seem able to do, lyrics from my favorite band were able to express my grief, my pain, and my hope.
Here, to end this post of celebration and remembrance, I'll turn the floor over to those boys from Ireland and some words they've penned through the years pieced together and written down by me ten years ago:

"I can't believe the news today.
I can't close my eyes and make it go away.
The city walls are all pulled down,
the dust a smokescreen all around,
see faces plowed like fields that once
gave no resistance.
Voices on the cell phone,
voices from home . . .
voices down the stairwell,
in New York.
It's early fall,
there's a cloud on the New York skyline . . .
Innocence dragged across a yellow line.
September, streets capsizing
spilling over, down the drain,
shards of glass, splinters like rain,
but you could only feel your own pain.
October, talk getting nowhere,
November, December, remember . . .
They're reading names out over the radio.
All the folks the rest of us won't get to know.
Their lives are bigger than any big idea.
One life, with each other, these are our sisters, these are our brothers.
One life but we're not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other,
I know it aches, and your heart, it breaks,
and you can only take so much,
Walk On,
you've got to leave it behind.
What once was hurt, what once was friction,
what left a mark, no longer stings,
because GRACE makes beauty
out of ugly things."


JennJam said...

(Please forgive my typos - - it should be (1) 'bated' breath, (2) "As the sun rose on September 12, '2001,' " and (3) I misspelled 'chirping' when I was writing about 'shrill, chirping beeps.')

JennJam said...

(Good gravy, self - - the Pentagon employee is also named 'Sheila Moody,' not Shirley. I've seen her in interviews for years and can't believe I typed 'Shirley' instead.)