Rock of Ages
I was lost, although “lost” suggests I might have had some direction or destination from which to have gone astray. I had neither. I was wandering around confused and bewildered, not sure exactly where I was when I came upon the car. It was covered, as was everything else, with a thick grainy dust but otherwise seemed fine, when so little around it was fine. Oddly, stuck in the windshield was a small stone; it had smashed into the glass with a force which, in the way of distressed auto glass, saw cracks fanning out in crinkly lines. It looked like a large bug in a spider’s web. Idly and curiously, I touched the rock and – oops, oh no — it fell loose and out tumbled, too, tens of little pieces of glass, tiny green-edged blocks. I jumped back. I was rattled, sure that people would think I had broken the window, that I’d done something wrong, that it was my fault, that I had …
Here I was within a stone’s flight of the monstrosity of the World Trade Center carnage — gigantic skyscrapers now accordioned down into the earth, thousands of poor souls lost within the wreckage, the world turned upside down, slaughter and destruction everywhere, pain and confusion, heartbreak and agony. And I was worried about a cracked windshield, about bits of glass, about a rock.
That’s a bit of what shock can do to you. And shock is what we were all in there at the scene of the horrid crime. And far beyond, too. In nearly every heart of those watching the otherworldly events of September 11, 2001. This was beyond our comprehension. I had seen wars and mayhem but nothing like this. Battles, real and cinematic, seemed always to be in jungles or deserts, not in cities. Maybe the British or Russians or the Germans or Japanese have seen huge buildings destroyed all at once but we never had. I never had.
Until September 11, 2001.
It was a nightmare in the middle of the crystal clear day. A broken windshield? Yes I could try to understand that when I could understand nothing else around me. Without thinking, I picked up that stone, carried it with me as I walked around gathering what detail I could, a newspaper writer trying to make some small sense of what was senseless beyond anything I’d ever seen.
The rock, something of an arrowhead in shape with edges and a flat base, was part of a building or flung free from the foundation or the sidewalk or the very earth itself and hurled down the street into a parked car’s window. At some point I must have absently stuck it in my pocket. I found it later and have kept it since.
I had been at work that morning at the nearly empty newsroom when my son called to say that something terrible was going on in New York, something had crashed into the World Trade Center towers; maybe it was a rocket, maybe it was a plane. We have television sets all through the newsroom and I rushed over and turned one on. Indeed something horrible was going on. The picture showed, crystal clear, the Trade Tower building, violated. People were shown running in fear and pain. Around the newsroom, people began to cluster watching in the silence that befalls even the noisiest at moments of high horror and confusion. I rushed back to my desk to get my gear, pens, notebooks: We are 100 miles from New York City; I could be there in two hours in normal times. Normal times? Just then, a great groan went up from the people at the television set and as I looked over I saw the hands of everyone – each and every one – unconsciously go to their heads, to cover their mouths, to hold their foreheads, to shield their eyes. The second plane had hit. What the hell was happening?
What were we waiting for? Reporter Mark Pazniokas and I bolted down the stairs and out, nearly bowling over the bemused souls arriving for work, unaware their world had just skipped a beat, been wrenched into a new direction enitirely. We headed off instantly, others would follow. We’d work out the details later, just get going!
Mark is a good friend, another poor soul addicted to the Boston Red Sox and co-conspirator with me on a season’s ticket plan, a guy who coaches his daughters’ soccer teams. A very good reporter. But who knew what qualities it would take to cover this? Who had any experience doing this kind of story? We had our Notebooks, our different backgrounds but we rushed off with little else except an urgency and a puzzlement that very, very bad things were happening and we didn’t know what was going on.
As we drove along, we heard on the radio that the Pentagon had been hit. We heard that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. There were false alarms of other attacks, accounts of the president trying to get back to Washington, of the great cities on the planet in disarray and turmoil. Soon we heard, too, that one by one the great, majestic World Trade Center towers had caved in on themselves and were simply gone. Gone? How could that be? We would see the collapses later in the millions of television replays but, then, Mark an I, we were forced to try to imagine and absorb such a thing on our own, driving across the excruciatingly beautiful early autumn landscape of Connecticut under a sun and sky aching beautiful in their clean sharp brightness. It was a glorious day and evil work was unfolding. We made what small talk as you could make under such circumstances but I don’t remember any of it.
Soon, we heard that the city was closed. All the entrances blocked. No cars, planes, boats, buses or trains were being allowed in. Well, how could they close off a city this size?, we wondered. We’d find a way in. We could do that.
Indeed, they did close off the city. In self-defense, a city so vast and mighty as to be almost beyond rules, hunkered down. Police manned the bridges, the tunnels. Go away, was the message. Every entrance, each bridge and tunnel, all streets and avenues into the busiest city in the cosmos were blocked when we got there — after a surprisingly clear drive at ferocious speeds through highways and roadways largely abandoned by people who had otherwise gone home to watch their life changed forever, to be with their families at a moment of confusion and uncertainty. We tried several crossings into Manhattan before realizing it wouldn’t work, these guys were serious about closing the city. So we abandoned Mark’s car at 139th Street in the South Bronx and started walking. We slipped across the highway overpass and worked our way down through the city streets, expecting that we would find a taxi, a bus, the subway to get us to the other end of the island. We expected to take a bus or a cab to the greatest single moment of slaughter in American history.
But there were no buses. No taxis. No subways. Everything was closed down. So we walked some more. And more.
The odd thing is that it all seemed so normal. You’d barely know that a calamity of until-then proportions was unfolding at the other end of this amazing island. Nearly running down from the Bronx, passed through the layers of the great city’s varied textures: through hard tenements and tough housing projects as the neighborhoods blended, Latino, African-American, Manhattan commercial as corner stores and bodegas gave over to shops and fancy stores, through the beginnings of the city’s astonishing accumulation of commerce and wealth and energy. It seemed quieter, yes, and they had set out concrete barriers near a police station, we noted, but everything seemed almost as it always was. People shopped. People strolled the streets, stopping to look in store windows as they’d always done, on all the other days when jetliners had not careened out of the sky into the throat of the two tallest buildings in the tallest city of the land. The weather was exquisite, I remember that so clearly. The city was beautiful beyond compare as we raced down the 140 blocks southward on Third Avenue, mile after mile, a half-marathon I wasn’t entirely used to running. We never stopped, even as I realized that the wingtips I wore were not exactly the best thing for such race. People said, later, “Why didn’t you stop and buy some sneakers or something?” Of course. But who thinks logically at such a time? Maybe many do. I didn’t.
As we got closer there were suddenly signals that, no, this was not normal. We came upon a long line workings its way, waiting its way, at the Red Cross blood donor station in the basement of CitiBank on Lexington Avenue, 40 blocks or so north of the disaster and out along the street and around the corner. No one said anything. As yet there had been no call for action, no pleas for blood donors. People just knew to do it. Hundreds of people just left their offices to give blood for those who were injured; blood that would barely be needed for that as so few of the wounded survived at all. We stopped to get our breath at a church, and to pay our respects and to collect our thoughts. There a woman from the Philippines told me, “I must pray for the poor people, … not for me, for them. God save us all.” By now it was after noon and the midday Mass was nearly full. Closer, still, we started running into a few of the ghost people, people covered in dust who had gotten out of the buildings just before they came crashing down but who, frosted I the chalk of the wreckage behind them wandered around in the dazed state that people reeling in shock endure. They had been through hell yet couldn’t go home. We talked to some; they told of the horror, of their lost friends. A group of tourists from Israel passed by. “You must be strong,” they said. We passed more and more policemen directing traffic away; we ran into college kids who were distributing water to the officers and others, trying to do something sane in this otherwise insane moment. Finally, only blocks from what would be Ground Zero, we saw the great gaping tear, the ragged whole in the heart of the city. A strong wind had carried the smoke and dust low and away to the east but the air was still thick with a powdery, grainy dust that you could almost write your name in. I tasted that dust for days and was spitting and coughing it out for a week. Pages of office paper floated everywhere, possibly important documents but now grisly confetti. Everyone moved in a slow motion, or so it seemed. A rich, almost beautiful plume of dust and smoke rose up out of the rubble a block or two away, looking as volcanoes look. Later in the afternoon, after wandering around the scene, I watched as a third building fell down, so shaken by the fall of the towers that its root wrenched free. Everyone ran away. I ran away.
Mark and I talked with as many people as we could, trying to get closer to the scene, trying to get by the barricades, by the iron-eyed police resolutely turning people away while, within, their hearts were aflame at the loss of friends and colleagues ans strangers in the city that they so proudly sought to defend from all enemies. They had most of the streets blocked but we were able to get closer through alleys and roads that even their vast efficiency couldn’t cover. We talked with people on the street. We talked with police, firemen, medical people, volunteers. We’d split up, meet again, go our own ways. It was a blur, a blur in a fog of dust, of suffering and loss. Other of the paper’s photographers and reporters arrived, having gotten to the scene in various ways. We all shared and exchanged and contributed, none quite knowing what was the larger picture. I came upon the car with the rock in the window. I wrote a column, helped in a modest way with the news reporting thereafter. It was a blur, a blur in a fog of dust, of pain and loss.
Truth be told, most of our readers knew more than we did from the broader explanations and images collected by the mighty engines of television and the organizing coalescence of newsrooms. But we did our best. We tried to tell the story from inside the dustcloud, from the fringes of the ferocious damage. We tried to tell of the horror people experienced, the ghastly scenes they’d witnessed. Mark and I talked with a bartender who lived nearby, high in a building that faced the towers. He told us how he watched from his window those poor, poor people trapped in the doomed building, looking out the great hole in the side as others hurtled to their death. He said he didn’t know what to do, “I waved to them,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I waved. And they waved back.” And they died. He cried telling the tale; my eyes mist up writing it all this time later.
We tried to tell the story, that night and over the days to come, of the great loss everywhere. I sat for an hour with a young woman who had rushed from her office to volunteer, to help, to do anything. They told her to wait and to help the injured and the wounded when the survivors were brought out of the wreckage. She talked with great spirit and purpose until I noticed that she was talking too fast, too fast. She would pick up her medical kit and put it back down again, pass her flashlight from hand to hand. She would wring and twist her small towels, over and over – but if she were talking on the telephone you would never know from her voice that she was a even bit distracted. And her eyes, ultimately, were streaming tears because she knew she knew she knew that there would be no survivors to tend to, to direct to the ambulances. We listened to a fire department official at an impromptu tell us of the monstrous loss of his compatriots. Even covered in the day’s grit and poisons, reeling under the confusion and pain and agony, we couldn’t believe what we were hearing. “Two hundred, probably a lot more,” he said, staring through us wide-eyed reporters as if we were made of glass. Two hundred! Good Lord. What was the worst before this? “Six,” he said. A warehouse fire. Years ago. “We know how to do six,” he said softly, thinking probably of the knocks on the six doors, the processions, the bagpipes, the muffled drums, the salutes. But 200, 250? Worse, if worse is imaginable, the number would grow far beyond that horrid first night’s accounting. Three hundred and forty-three died that morning.
That first night, and later until called home three days after, I heard things like that, saw the aching survivors coming out praying that a father or sister or mother or beloved might somewhere be found. They came with their photographs and testimonials, hoping against all reason and logic that somehow somewhere someplace a wounded or confused person might turn up and turn out to be their missing uncle or boy friend or neighbor. None did. None. There was so much pain, so much sorrow.
It would break your heart.
But, as always there was more to see. There was such strength to see, so much resolve, so much dedication and professionalism and humanity.
Somehow the great city of New York, all elbows and rudeness and coarseness in other moments, somehow New York City knew what to do. The blood donor lines stretched for three hours, but we never heard anyone complain or saw anyone give up and go away. The college kids turned out to help because it was in their nature to do so; they were not terrorized or cowed into submission but came out to do a simple deed because it was right to do so.
“I just wanted to do something to help,” Abigail Smith of Middlebury, Conn., said as she was handing out water to police and fire officers near Gramercy Park, only a dozen blocks from the still-smoking carnage. “No, I didn’t want to hide somewhere. I have to do something to help. When the planes hit, we were all so scared. But we needed to do something, anything.” So she and her pals left their dorms and classes and did what they could to help on the streets.
Wandering through those city streets closer to the scene, a scene which simply did not exist as it did before any more than the world would ever be as it was before, I got turned around, lost in the haze and confusion. The dust and debris from the towers was everywhere. I started coughing a little and my eyes were red and scratchy as tears caused by the gravelly air and my emotions trickled down my cheek. I stopped and leaned up against the side of a building trying to catch my breath in a Sahara of destruction. Out of nowhere a construction guy showed up on his way to far more important duties than checking on me. But he asked me if I was all right. Me? At a moment when thousands were dead, he stopped to ask about me, a stranger in the fog of chalk and grit. He then took off his own paper face mask and gave it to me, said I would need it, that he had more back at his truck. And he disappeared. The elastic band ultimately snapped on that face mask and it was lost, or I’d have saved it, too. Imagine that. Someone comes upon a stranger in a situation like that and gives away his own face mask. A small thing? If you think so, I am making no point at all.
So much is made of the heroism demonstrated at the Trade Center Towers that it can dull your sense of exactly how true it is: There was heroism there such as you may never see again or may see, in different scale, every day of the week. Men and women risked their lives and lost their lives for strangers. They brought incredible knowledge and courage to their tasks. Early on, we saw that they had strung out long lines of ambulances running up one avenue, front-end loaders up the next, generators stretched to the distance on the next one. They knew what to do. They had a plan. They implemented it. Somehow they knew what would have to be done when airplanes slammed into two enormous buildings and those buildings collapsed killing thousands. They knew what to do and they did it. Who knew how to do that? How did they know? But know they did.
And they worked so hard and so well, when every bone in their bodies and so many atoms of their souls and spirits surely screamed out for rest.
But that first day, the second and third and on and on, firefighters went down into the hole looking like bumblebees with their yellow and black stripes on the thick, heavy coats. Engineers studied the ruination and were calculating how to rebuild before the first stretch of metal, twisted like licorice, would be carried away. A continent’s most diverse city came together in that horrid season of loss and showed itself to be taller than any of its buildings, stronger than any of the metals and minerals that were otherwise ripped and shredded apart, wiser than the all the wisdom of its universities and colleges, more beautiful than its art and glamour.
It was not the strength of rage or the determination of the desperate that shone so at that time. It was so much more than that.
On the day after the evil catastrophe, I was resting at a fire department water and supply station with some powerful men and women who were taking a brief moment from their deadly and hauntingly frustrating efforts. At this point they were looking for bodies rather than for survivors, a huge distinction.
Humbled, I mostly listened as they talked. Lt. John Cronley was taking a breath between his trips into the ghastly remnants of the Trade Center foundation. Covered with two days of dust and bits of debris, he looked like something from another planet. The 23-year-veteran talked of what he saw in the terrible rubble of the World Trade Center. He shared his own weariness and pain, the pain and weariness of his colleagues. He told of the awesome strengths and even more awesome spirit being dedicated to responding to the carnage and destruction in his hometown. But if I am lucky enough to live for a hundred more days or months or years I hope I never forget his larger message:
“When I first heard what happened I was full of anger and rage,” he said. “When we got here and saw what happened, I was so mad I couldn’t see straight. It made me dizzy. I can’t describe how mad I was.” But something happened. “I realized I was so mad I couldn’t do my job,” he said in that brief moment between acts of doing his job so well. “I had to put down that anger, or I couldn’t go on. I needed to do my job, and that was in the way.”
Here is a man who had lost hundreds of his friends and colleagues, who has seen up close the horrors others of us cannot even imagine yet he found the strength to go forward and the wisdom to set aside the anger that would haul him back into the horror if he gave in to it.
That nobility was everywhere at Ground Zero, and at the Pentagon where I was irresistibly drawn to visit some days later. I have not yet found my way to the Pennsylvania field where so many others perished as a result of so much hate but I am positive that the same testimonial would sing out in its greater power.
In my clumsy way, I tried to write of that from the scene, from New York and Washington. I hoped to share the vast authority I saw in the small messages of love and remembrance that appeared, sparkled like leaves in the autumn. On every wall, pillar or memorial, people put out pictures of victims, of families who mourned. There were thousands of them. Thousands. They reflected the pain and the loss. They captured some of the reverence and love and patriotism that this ghastly hate crime inspired in a vaster quantity than the fear and terror the acts were intended to have created. I found myself returning to New York several times and I think that it may have been as hard to read those postage stamps of sadness than it was to have even seen, from the fringes, the greater loss of the attacks themselves.
At Greenwich and Park Place I trembled before the sorrow felt by those mourning Neilie Anne Heffernan Casey, 31 years old and with a smile to rival the sunrise. Her picture was put out there, there with flowers and with candles amid messages of faith. School children from Ms. Brice’s and Mrs. Thompson’s elementary school class in Spartanburg, S.C., drew sad little pictures in honor of those who died and they were as powerful to me as the great Masters, of “Guernica” itself. At St. Paul’s Church, at Trinity Church, on the walls of Canal Street shops hundreds, thousands of messages moaned in the national agony that so many thousands of people were cruelly murdered.
They were so, so sad. “Dad, Jeff and I love and miss you so much,” said a tiny card written in a tiny hand. The heart hurts to imagine that being written. A banner was sent from Paolo, Portugal. A small market’s window on Hudson Street was a stamp collection of messages, hundreds of brief reflections on a horror real but beyond imagining. “God is the answer.” “We love you, New York.” “You will live forever in our hearts.” “You honor us.” Again and again, hundreds of feelings like that.
There was sadness. There was ache. There was love and faith. There was purity of spirit. What there as so little of was rage. I counted only two that sang out the anger and bitterness that such an awful event can create. Two.
In New York, as at the identical places near the Pentagon in northern Virginia, the small altars of candles and flowers did not commemorate the primal drumbeat for vengeance and justice that may throb within us. The prayers did not pray for our own safety, our own comfort, our own peace of troubled mind; instead they prayed for the peace of those who were lost, of those who mourned. They reflected the love for our neighbors, for pure strangers, for brothers and sisters we have never met. There was nothing of the terror that terrorists hope to inspire. Instead, everywhere there was the strength that comes from the tested spirit. There was deep sorrow, yes, but it was and is not despair and it cannot be despair when hundreds and thousands of people cry out in heart-scalded ache at the loss at people they do not know. There was born a unity of purpose and the purpose is to honor those upon whom a terrible crime has been inflicted.
Our souls and intellects are blessedly incapable of truly envisioning the agony of airplane passengers knowing that they will die in the next instant or the horror of Pentagon workers shattered into eternity from their paperwork routine or of thousands of workers in great, safe towers realizing in a blinding sunburst instant that all is over — or understanding that the distant wave from a man far below would be their last lovely act this side of eternity. But we can understand fully, exactly, totally, surely the sorrow upon the spirit behind the gentle, loving tribute offered by the friends of Angela Houtz, barely 27 years old: “A beautiful new angel watches over us.”
When I was called back out of New York I returned to an office where extraordinary journalism had been performed. Amazing skill was applied to delivering the news of the nation’s single greatest outrage. I was proud to have been a part of that. I found, too, a sense that maybe some of our work had “come up small” in the corrosive words of my editor in representing the towering anger felt by so many other hearts, anger that inspired ferocious comment and angry headlines across the land. This was accurate and, to a lesser extent, it was right, too. What the country saw, absorbed and digested would inspire a boulder to anger. Distilled and focused in excruciating detail, what happened on September 11, 2001 in front of the entire country’s eyes was horrifying and enraging. But that horror and rage was not what we had found there ourselves. How odd.
In time, I went back to the newspapers of the moment to try to understand better what I had merely seen. The coverage of the New York newspapers and the reports and commentary from even humbled visitors was truly a gift to history and the nation. It illuminates so much of what happened so very well, reflecting and enhancing a sense of detail and understanding from which we all can learn more about ourselves.
Interestingly, the writers of those closest to the tragedy, the New York observers whose neighborhoods, families and souls were assaulted so violently, the Washington witnesses who saw their security and community so horribly violated wrote most powerfully, most profoundly of the vast heroism, the indomitable spirit. Exactly as did that noble fire fighter, New York and Washington set aside honorable anger choosing, instead, to dwell in the better spirit of honor and respect and humility. The awesome strength and bravery and determination which flowed like some huge tide, overwhelming even the urge to declaim the vile, monstrous men who did this terrible thing. A magnificent unity was hammered out on this terrible anvil and it brought us together more than even our natural and human burning anger of the heart. It was not that there was no anger. There was great anger, rage. I felt it then myself, feel it myself today. Instead, in better souls, the power of goodness was revealed in its better glory by the glare of suffering and awesome loss.
Those who hate us with a homicidal intensity beyond most of our understanding did not succeed at all in their blinded effort to shatter our resolve. They hoped to terrorize us but they created strength instead; they hoped to destroy but inspired courage and caring; they hoped to bring down a people and a system of brotherhood they despise yet they created love and unity where it did not always exist in such force before.
It was a unity that was unnaturally unraveled, I think, as, finally, a sense of vengeance was unleashed and manipulated by those who superimposed an agenda quite separate and quite different from what took place on September 11, 2001. National shock and pain was cynically harnessed to lies and cruel calculations to create a new and bloodier war which killed more thousands than ever, shattered a world unity of caring hearts. We went from being the center of much of the world’s gentle compassion to a target of disdain and bitterness, split at home over a war manufactured from falsehoods and mistakes. Our own leaders did this for their own purposes, exploiting the pain of 9/11 for their low and violent goals. Some day they will answer for this dishonor. Thank heaven there is a Hell.
Not a week has gone by but some image, some memory, comes back to me of being amid the assault on a great city, a great nation — a great people cruelly, viciously, hatefully assailed. It seems like it happened both just yesterday and a thousand years ago. Looking at my little rock, I certainly think of the death and destruction of that day; I think of those poor, poor people mourning their children and parents and friends and lovers and neighbors. But as much as that, I can I think, too, of the huge courage, the skill and wisdom, the generosity, faith and love that flowed around that otherwise terrible moment.
That to me must be the greater, enduring memory of the day, of every day. The small rock on my desk tells me that the larger, uplifting and ennobling lesson has to be deep in my own heart and spirit or, otherwise, I may fail those people who were so noble and pure in their gift to us all.
In our own ways, we can all think back to September 11, 2001 for exactly what it was – a turn in time, when the world swerved in a different direction entirely. Looking back, we know it was monumental instant, an astonishing festival of someone’s mad hate, violence and destruction. And yet, what also happened on that day reveals something far different and better than just the hate and violence. Love and the greatness of spirit is the stronger message.
That is what the rock reminds me.