September 11 - I'll Never Forget

Sep 11, 2009

As today, September 11, 2009, has gone on . . . I can't help but remember that horrible day eight years ago when the world, as we knew it, halted. A few weeks after the attacks, I flew home to be with my family and on the plane ride back to Texas, I wrote about what I experienced while there.

I'd like to share that with you . . .

The side of my face aches from pressing against the airplane window. My mind tells me that if I twist enough or lean in a little more, I’ll find what I seek. Those towers are out there . . . somewhere. I must just be missing them. Am I looking in the wrong direction? After all these years, how can I not know where to find them? I thought they were to the right of the Empire State Building. Maybe if I turn a little more . . .

But they’re not there. And the skyline that was as familiar to me by the age of three as Big Bird and Barbie dolls no longer exists. For the first time ever, my last view of home is not the World Trade Center. Elevator music pipes through the airplane as we taxi down the runway. Do they always do that? Or am I just suddenly aware of it because the words are so bitterly true?

Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking.

I start to cry and instantly I’m afraid that the people next to me will think I’m strange. I glance at them. They, too, have tears in their eyes. It’s impossible to look across that river and not weep.

From the first moment I saw the twin towers on fire, and knew there was a great chance my father was in them, I needed to be there. Even after I heard from my dad – knew he was okay – I had this overwhelming desire to go home. I needed to see my family and friends, touch them, know they were alright. Mourn the people we lost. And then, when that was done, I needed to see for myself what remained of the city I love.

What follows are the details from my visit. Never one to lack things to say, I find myself unable to talk about what I saw this past Saturday. The thought of it makes my eyes well with tears. I feel the need to throw up. I cry myself to sleep. I will never be the same again. I wish I could forget. I hope I never forget.

The first thing you notice is the smell. I wish there was something with which to compare it. But, just like you can’t explain colors to a blind person, there’s no way to illustrate the odor that hits you when you first rise from the subway stairs. It’s not a rotting smell, like I imagined it would be. It’s not a burning smell, either. It’s the smell of tragedy. It’s all around you and as you walk, you can feel yourself breathing it into your lungs. I know now why they wear those surgical masks. You inhale the smell and the ash, your breath becomes labored and it burns. The ash doesn’t just get into your mouth, though. It flies into your eyes and they sting and hurt. They start to tear, but it doesn’t really matter. That’s all they want to do anyway.

The second thing that strikes you, almost as quickly as the smell, is the stillness. There’s a reason New York is called “the city that never sleeps.” One of my favorite places has always been Times Square at midnight. It’s as bright and busy as if it were noon. This past summer, I took my best friend to New York City for the first time. Her continual question was, “Why is everyone beeping their horns?”

I laughed and told her, “They beep because they’re in New York. That’s what they do.”

But they don’t do that anymore. There are no horns. There isn’t even any talking. There’s just silence and it’s frightening. I videotaped the financial district on Saturday and when I showed the tape to a friend at night, she said, “Where’s the noise? Doesn’t your camcorder have sound?” I told her there was no sound because there was nothing to hear.

For the past three and a half weeks, I have been mentally walking the streets in the financial district. In my mind, I’d get to the end of each street and there’d be a blank space. I didn’t know what to put there. I no longer knew what I would find. Thus, when we got into the city, I told my dad that there was a certain way I needed to approach the disaster. I needed to walk down Liberty Street and Nassau and Church and Wall. I had to see what was at the end of each street. I wanted to fill in the question marks in my mind.

I was told you couldn’t get near the disaster, but that’s not really true. Oh, you can only get within a block on all sides, but that’s close enough. You don’t need to be any closer to see it. The rubble is so massive – so expansive – it’s overpowering. I now understand why more bodies haven’t been recovered. There’s still so much wreckage to search. Overall, the disaster covers 17 acres of the financial district. In some spots, it’s easily 40-50 feet tall. In other spots, it’s much higher. The actual rubble looks just like it does on TV, but a million times worse, a million times larger. The lower walls remain of the towers – at least, parts of them – and one can see that the towers truly did implode. The walls surround the piles and piles of steel and glass and ash. They are a brownish color, which seems confusing at first because they always seemed gray and silver. It takes me awhile to realize that they are the color of the ash. From numerous spots, smoke billows out of the ground, soaring hundreds of feet into the air. On Friday, many new fires had begun. The workers removed pieces of steel and inadvertently, released oxygen to areas of smoldering ash that had been buried and they began to flame. The bombings occurred weeks ago, but it looks like it just happened.

There is ash everywhere. It’s light tan and resembles sand, especially since it rained all day Saturday. There are clumps of it on the ground that make you feel like the beach must be nearby. It covers doors and fences and windows, even 20 stories high. People have taken their fingers and written things in the ash. “Thank you, firefighters.” “God bless America.” Even blocks away, when you’re certain you’ve left the nightmare behind, you find ash on window sills, on the road, and when I look at my dad, I see it is on his coat.

Broken windows are more common than whole ones. There is still glass on the ground and my dad continually tells me to watch where I step. There are cars on the roads that are covered with ash, their windows blown out. Someone has taken the time to cover the windows in plastic, but the cars remain untouched. It seems there is no one to retrieve them. A nearby parking garage holds hundreds of vehicles. The exits are blocked off, so even if the owners have survived, there’s no way to drive the cars out of the building.

I am overcome at the sight of a bicycle on Nassau Street, chained to scaffolding that covers a sidewalk. It’s a black bicycle, but it’s covered in ash. The lock and chain are nearly tan with the dust. I stare at it for what seems like hours. I take pictures of its loneliness. I’m desperate to know, did someone ride it to work on the 11th? Did he chain it here and then walk into his office building? If no one’s claimed it after all these weeks, does that mean that there isn’t anyone to do so?

Workers surround you on the streets. There’s so much to do that doesn’t even involve sorting through the rubble. Buildings need to be secured, electricity needs to be reinstalled, roads need to be fixed, phone lines need to be rerun. I walk past a construction worker on the street and smile at him. He surprises me when he stops what he is doing, stares directly in my eyes and says, “Thank you for that smile.”

On every street, every street corner, you see soldiers, police, and firemen. The roads are lined with military vehicles, police cars and repair trucks. My father refers to it as “New York under siege.” We can’t help but say, “Thank you,” as we walk by each one.

At times, we turn onto a street to find it completely deserted. Never in my life did I think I’d find an empty New York City street.

I videotape the wreckage from all angles. I try to show the enormity of the attack. I find it odd to be carrying a camera into the city. I can count on two fingers how many times I have ever had a camera with me in New York and both of those times were to photograph visiting friends, not buildings. But New York is no longer regular to me. It’s somewhere I barely recognize and I need to capture the change on film. As I tape, I can hear my dad behind me, talking to a group of people. He’s telling them about that day. What it was like, what he saw, what he heard. I shudder as I listen to him.

There are people on every street corner, passing out small booklets with titles such as “Fallen, But Not Forgotten” and “After the Dust Settles.” They contain photos of the attack, of the leftover rubble, of the victims. Some booklets contain inspirational or Biblical messages. In the past, such “religious” material would have been quickly discarded. How many times have I, myself, walked by people handing out fliers and ignored them? Now, New Yorkers grab what the people hand them. They are told, “God bless you. God bless America.” They say, “God bless you, too.”

My dad and I speak little as we walk. There’s nothing to say. At one point he puts his arm around me and whispers sadly, “Look what they’ve done to our city.”

I carefully read the “Missing” fliers posted around the area. There aren’t as many as we saw on the news. Many have been taken down. Some have blown away. The ones that remain are a sad reminder of the hopeful wishing that existed in those first few days.

American flags and flowers are draped over fences near the site. Signs that scream “Crime Scene. Keep away” remind you that this was no accident.

I was certain that I’d break down into tears the moment I first saw the disaster, but I find that I can’t. I’m too shocked, too stunned, too busy trying to look at everything around me. It’s so hard to take it all in at once. My eyes don’t know where to look first. I can’t afford to cry. My eyes have to be clear. I need to see.

My dad and I come to the intersection of Liberty and Church Street and suddenly, I’m confused. I know where I am, but something doesn’t fit. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be looking at. All I see is a huge area of concrete, full of makeshift tents and military personnel. My dad senses my confusion. “That’s Liberty Park,” he says. I don’t understand. Liberty Park is where I used to go watch people play chess under the trees. Where are the trees? “Sucked out of the ground,” is all he says.

“Do you want to walk anymore? Is there anything else you want to see?” my dad asks me. I tell him I’ve seen more than enough. I had thought I’d go to a nearby fire station which lost 11 men. I’d planned on going to Union Square to see the memorial. But I no longer want to do any of these things. I need to leave this area. These streets with closed stores, empty of vendors and tourists. These roads full of death, not life. Full of sadness, not joy.

We make our way to midtown and I’m relieved to see that life there, if not normal, still exists. People are shopping. Some are even talking. We walk into Macy’s and I’m accosted by 25 perfume vendors. I smile as I make my way through. New York will come out of this, as strong as ever. Nowhere else has the strength, the determination and the will of New York. Nowhere else has such passion to survive.

We head to Penn Station and I pass a vendor selling t-shirts. I see that there’s a variation, now, on an old saying. “I still love New York,” the shirt screams. I finally start to cry. In this world of uncertainty, that’s one thing, I know, which will always be true.

7 comments:

Susan Fobes said...

I have a t-shirt I bought when I was last in New York (you know, the I love New York kind), but this one had a picture of the Twin Towers on the front. Maybe it's weird, but I haven't worn it since the attack. I don't want to wear the image off...

JaelCustomDesigns said...

Popping in from MBC! Now following you...

I'm originally from NY and now reside in NC but, when the attcks happened I was at work and I completely lost it! I had family working downtown and I couldn't get in touch with anyone. All the phone circuits were busy and I was overcome with emotion.

I couldn't believe it had happend. I have a huge painting of the original New York Skyline in my living room. It looks so different to me without the twin towers. We'll never forget that day, we lost a lot of people! They'll never be forgotten!

Kelly Seiler said...

My son has a painting print of the old skyline in his room. Sometimes, when I'm lying in bed with him, I just stare at it and can't believe it no longer looks like that. I still get that sick feeling in my stomach ever year on Sept. 11. I imagine I always will.

Ekta said...

Hi! Started following your blog from MBC and I must say, u write BEAUTIFULLY! I love the lookl of your blog too... Its cool!
Speaking about this particular post, We Indians too were shocked when the news came in. I was in New Jersey for the past 2 years and had been to NYC a couple of times. NYC skyline looks something out of this world... Wonder how it would have looked with the twin towers. The void would always remain!

Kelly Seiler said...

Thanks Ekta! I'm so glad you found my blog! NYC will never be the same without those towers, and we will never, ever forget that day or those we lost.
Looking foward to getting to know you!

Ekta said...

Hey Kelly... I am a stay at home mom of a one year old boy. You can follow my blog at http://ektanshu.blogspot.com/.
My blog is completely dedicated to my little one.
Feel free to drop by and go thru my posts.
Happy blogging!

Kelly Seiler said...

I'm following your blog, Ekta. Cute little baby!

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