September 11, 2001.
It's a day I'd rather forget than remember... and truth be told, while the Day itself was hard, the following days were numb, and the following weeks were worse.
It's what happens when you work in a war zone, in a disaster area, anywhere that, in the blink of an eye, any previous conceptions of "normality" no longer apply. My office was on John Street, four blocks from the World Trade Center; I was living in Queens at the time.
Since I was running late (as usual) for work that day, I was still at home when the first plane hit. I ended up staying home, follow standard emergency communications protocol on phones, cellphones, and dial-up Internet to coordinate information between my job, my family, and my friends. Since my handie-talkie was over in New Jersey, there wouldn't be much I could do, ham-radio-wise, anyway.
My friends and I had long-standing plans to attend the Maryland Renaissance Faire that weekend -- my first time at that faire, which is set in the time of Henry VIII. (Most faires are set in the time of Elizabeth I.) I was first beginning to get into the "historical accuracy" end of garbing, and since the entire downtown Manhattan area would be closed the rest of the week, I had time to construct my first Tudor gown. I think it will be forever difficult to separate that natural-linen gown and the unanticipated "support the rescue/in memory of/pro-USA" attitude of the faire participants that weekend. The week had been so emotionally rough on us all, and accordingly, we all took advantage of the weekend festivities to try to regain some semblance of sanity. The locals were (of course) supporting the Pentagon victims, which kind of threw me since the World Trade Center was foremost in my mind. But I was one of the closest folk to the NY tragedy there, and news traveled back and forth the way it had four hundred seventy years previously: by word of mouth, by travelers coming from afar.
That was probably as close to "normal" as things got for at least the next two weeks.
I came back to work Monday to a world that was covered by scaffolding, buried in human ash, and carrying the distinct scent of burning steel, concrete, electrical insulation, asbestos, and human remains. Uniformed, machine-gun-toting National Guardsmen controlled every subway station, every subway-station exit, and every approach to every intersection. All roads were blocked off on all approaches (even the wrong-way approaches). Only the most necessary of vehicles, all of whose occupants had appropriate ID, were allowed through.
Many local stores were closed as they replaced broken windows and ruined inventory; others were closed because they were in the exclusion zone limited to the rescue/recovery efforts, or because the buildings had not been checked out as safe.
We had electricity, but no phone or Internet service. Of our individual cell phones, only my Verizon phone worked from within the office; my boss had to go downstairs and outside to get a signal on his AT&T phone. My office-mate's Sprint phone was equally dicey. Transportation had been enough of a question mark that we all called our next-of-kin to let them know we arrived safely at work, and when we were about to leave work. It took two weeks before we had standard phone service, and another two before our DSL connection was back up and running. Needless to say, we had some interesting challenges running an operation which depended on intercity communication, shipment and delivery of printed matter, and Internet connectivity.
While the recertification, rebuilding, and reopening of businesses took some time, underlying everything was the scent of the charnel house. What was it doing to our bodies? What spiritual and ethical responsibilities did I have to those whose only remains were the ashes I was breathing in, daily -- and to their families? And what about those families? As the days dragged on, we heard more and more about the fire, police, and rescue workers who died in the collapses -- and less and less about the civilians whose paths were not diverted from their usual routines?
Eventually the fires died down, the air cleared, and the-people-with-the-money decided it was time to forget about the many unrecovered remains, and start building again. And except for once a year, with a rush of maudlin ceremonies that feel completely unrelated to the actual events, we have. Unless, of course, you ascribe to the "misdirect and cover up" conspiracy theory, or you've not recovered your loved one's remains, or you are fighting for your life or livelihood because of those events. For that reason, I tend to avoid these whenever possible.
This morning, a caller to our local talk radio station complained that there are unidentified human remains from the World Trade Center being mixed with normal garbage at the Fresh Kills landfill; he is part of an organization that wishes those remains removed so that they can be given a "decent burial", even if it is relatively a mass grave of not-personally-identified remains. After so many years, this brought back the smells, the doubts, the ashes... and the first of several poems I wrote in the process of crafting my own recovery. For those of you who still mourn, who still remember, here it is:
Requiem for the Undiscovered Dead -- a Wake for Those Lost in the World Trade Center Collapse, 9-11-2001 ----------------------------- I step out from the subway stair; Respectfully, I sniff the air. Carbon. Fire. Asbestos. Steel. All speak to wounds that must not heal --
For of the thousands in the list
Of people lost, their presence missed,
Are many who will not be found
To lay in fam’lies’ burial ground.
The twinnèd tow’rs that fell, afire,
Became in death their fun’ral pyre,
Their mausoleum, their cemetery…
There’s nothing left of them to bury –
blown upon the breeze
(that only seems to make us wheeze).
What requiem is this, for they
Who died upon that fateful day
And left this Earth without a trace
Or shred their children could embrace?
in the mouth
A dirge that rests unsaid, unsung
While men in blue are lauded high
For those who fell out of the sky
And those who search for their remains.
Who, then, the common soul acclaims?
At least one voice,
one soul who must
Be burden’d with that sacred trust
Shall, with each breath of acrid air
the solemn prayer
That gives them peace.
A song, a psalm
Of mem’ry. I must answer then,
“We’ll not forget.” Say ye, Amen.