On the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11

OPINION: Cheryl Pearl Sucher on 9/11. With special feature audio.

It’s the end of the summer in the United States.  The long, lazy three day Labor weekend has just passed as did the threat of an impending East Coast hurricane which faded before hitting land, resulting in only tidal surges that closed the beaches to families eager to bask in the last sea salt spray.  It’s back to school and back to work and as I sat down this morning to revise my recent rumination regarding my time back in the States, I heard on the radio that it was only a few more days to the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. 

I was immediately thrust back in time to 2001 when I was living in Dunedin with my Kiwi husband who was in his second year as an adult student at the University of Otago.  A few days before 9/11, I had returned to Manhattan for a brief visit to see family and friends and say the Mourner’s Kaddish over my parents’ and grandmother’s grave before the Jewish New Year. I had stolen away without letting many people know because my choir was performing a few weeks after my return, and I was hoping my absence would be invisible for if it was noted, it might jeopardise my participation in my choir’s upcoming concert.  I think we were singing Mozart.  It must have been Mozart because I would have moved mountains to sing Mozart anyplace, anywhere.

September 11, 2001 was also the day after Labor Day. The city was going back to work and back to school. I was still jet lagged and woke to hear on national public radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  Initially, I thought it must have been a plane like the B-25 bomber jet that had crashed into the Empire State Building during heavy fog in July 1945.  I turned on the television and saw the flames, then went down to my lobby.  Seeing my concierge, I asked her if she had heard that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center.  A tough middle-aged Irish woman, she just stared at me, paused, and said ‘Did you have something to drink last night?  Are you dreaming?’

I went to the gym to work out and while warming up on the treadmill, I looked up at the television and saw a second jet fly into the second tower, then heard the television announcer frantically pronounce that another plane had just crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC and a fourth plane had gone down in rural Pennsylvania.  At that point, everyone ran to the street, eager to find their loved ones.  It was as if the world had gone mad.

Disbelief then solidarity

This is what I remember.  Young mothers carrying their crying children in their arms.  Lines forming at the American Red Cross across the street from where I lived, everyone wanting to give blood.  Fire engines screaming down the West Side Highway.  Overcrowded buses waving commuters on for free.  People in work clothes streaming out of subway stations, walking barefoot and dazed through the packed streets, stopping one another, asking each other what was going on, where they were going, where they were coming from, where they were going to.  There were crowds before the windows of electronic stores where multiple televisions showed the falling of the towers.  Cascading screams of disbelief were followed by moments of stunned silence.  We, New Yorkers huddled together, finding solace in community, not knowing what would happen next.  Would chemical bombs be unleashed?  Would we be strafed by bombers?  It seemed as if anything was possible for everything that had already happened defied not only expectation but imagination.

I was alone.  Miraculously, soon after I returned form the gym I was able to telephone my husband in New Zealand to tell him that I was all right.  An hour later, all landlines and cellphone communication went down for 48 hours.  Every bridge and tunnel leading into and out of the city was shut down indefinitely.  The only way to leave was by foot or by ferry.  I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the supermarket and stood in line for hours to  buy water.  The checkout girls worked without respite.  Julianna Marguilies, the Good Wife, stood in line before me.  It was New York.  We were all in this together.

For some reason, my connection to the Internet never went down and I became a conduit for friends and family all over the world who were searching for loved ones they had not yet heard from.  I was able to find every single one except for the sister of my friend Dr. Robert Klitzman.  Karen Klitzman worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.  Within hours of the fall of the towers, Dr. Bob’s mother acknowledged that her daughter had not survived and began preparing for her funeral, which I attended the day before returning to New Zealand.  It was the first of many funerals that would mark New York City for years, a memorial without a body as Karen’s human remains would not be identified for many months.  The life of the city paused, an indefinite caesura, marking the endless search for lost loved ones as well as the hunt for the perpetrators. 

Haunted by images
I lived on the Upper West Side, far enough from the horror that the gruesome smell of death and the flying paper detritus which haunted downtown took days to reach me.  That first night, I couldn’t sleep, fearing that a commercial aircraft would fly into my apartment on the 16th floor.  When phone service returned, I called my husband, explaining that I was afraid to get on a plane home.  He supported me and told me that I had no choice.  My doctor told me not to watch too much television, but it was compulsive, a strange and horrible addiction.  We were haunted by the images of destruction and loss.  The city that I loved was a war zone.  Playgrounds were full of families listening to the terrifying stories of those who had fled downtown, running to safety, trying not to look as they heard the horrifying, rhythmic fall of bodies crashing to the ground as desperate individuals jumped from the fiery towers.  Those who had room and those who didn’t have room made room for those who couldn’t return to their homes below 14th Street.  We recounted those we knew were lost, those who had not yet been found, asking one another what they knew, what the government knew, what they had seen, what they had survived. 

I contacted Radio New Zealand and spoke to the producer of the Saturday Morning Program, then hosted by John Campbell, to see if they had spoken to anyone on the ground in Manhattan.  I had just appeared on the program a few weeks before to talk about going to my first rugby match ever at Carisbrook, the House of Pain.  It was a tiebreaker between the Wallabies and the All-Blacks to decide that year’s Bledisloe Cup, and because I had bought my tickets very late, my husband and I discovered that we were seated in a sea of yellow, surrounded by inebriated Wallaby fans singing Waltzing Matilda.

The All Blacks lost.

When I spoke to the Radio National producer, he said that John Campbell was eager to talk to me.  We recorded the interview because I didn’t know if I could hold it together.  I remember him asking what they were going to do with all those bodies. I gasped, realising that most of dead had been incinerated by the falling towers and the planes vaporised by burning jet fuel.  Triage teams had assembled at the numerous major hospitals, all tertiary trauma centers, waiting for victims that never arrived.  The extent of the tragedy shuddered through the city like a sudden, violent earthquake.

Within a few days, public transportation was renewed and the thoroughfares leading in and out of Manhattan island opened to vehicular traffic.  I went to visit my cousin in New Jersey, and as my commuter bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel, I caught my first live glimpse of the burning rubble of what came to be known as the Pile or Ground Zero.  It evoked images of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Dresden.

Boarding a plane
I returned home to New Zealand on the second day that commercial international aircraft were allowed to fly.  While we were advised to get to the airport hours before departure due to expected congestion, John F. Kennedy Airport was as barren as a Wild West ghost town.  National Guard sentries stood with German Shepherds and machine guns.  It took me less than five minutes to check in and get through security.  I counted less than 20 passengers on my flight from New York to Los Angeles, though my flight from Los Angeles to Auckland was packed with Kiwis eager to get home.

When I returned to New Zealand, I was met at Auckland Airport by my friend, an Air New Zealand flight service manager, and her teenage daughter, who embraced me with tears in their eyes, accompanying me to the domestic terminal where I would get my connection to Dunedin Airport. 

Once on land and in my husband’s arms, I felt secure but strangely displaced, wrenched from the long months of healing which would affect all my friends and neighbours and family members back home in New York.  The first phone call I received after arriving at our apartment was from the president of my choir.  I thought she was going to tell me that because of my absence, I wouldn’t be able to perform in the upcoming concert.  Instead, she said that a number of singers had heard me speak on the Saturday Morning program and wondered if I would get up during our next rehearsal and relate my experience of 9/11.  It was the first time I felt acknowledged and even accepted by many members of my choir who seemed to be a closed clique.

Only hours later, I would once again keenly feel my displacement when I went to the coffee shop where I worked on Saturday mornings.  Before too long, a regular suggested that the attack on America had been deserved due to its unwelcome foreign incursions.  Then someone made a very bad Bin Laden joke.  I turned pale, suddenly ill with rage.  The city I had left behind had been stunned by mourning, united by grief.  Those who had been murdered were innocents -  window washers, stock brokers, mothers, fathers, children, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Jews, bicycle messengers.  Civilian casualties in a new war that was just beginning.

My Dunedin friends couldn’t understand why I was so upset by their remarks.  In frequent political discussions, the United States was seen as a militaristic bureaucracy with rapacious multinational intentions.  While I acknowledged their perspective, I felt it was my responsibility as an American abroad to humanise my homeland.  What I had known and what I had recently experienced had little to do with the generalisations that I was hearing in casual discussions and portrayed in the media.

Rather than weeping and stamping away in a huff, I went home and did what I did best, which was write a short essay about my recent experience.  I read that essay at Jewish New Year services at my Dunedin synagogue, and the response encouraged me to submit it to national publications.  It was subsequently printed it both The Otago Daily Times and The Listener, the first of many articles I would write about New York after my visits home during those early years of recovery. 

Lest we forget
Since then, I have felt compelled to explain my city and even my country to my New Zealand compatriots.  Similarly, when I return to the United States, I feel like an ambassador of all things Kiwi, bragging about the accomplishments of our artists, chefs, entrepreneurs and scientists who are definitely NOT Australian, elucidating that New Zealand is more, much more than the home of the All-Blacks and the land of the Hobbits.  Lately, I’ve also had to explain the tarnishing of our clean, green image, and what is being done to rectify or disguise our country’s numerous environmental conundrums. 

Similarly I feel compelled to write about how this crazy American Presidential election is viewed not only from New York City but from the small towns and villages I visited during my long road trip back to New Jersey from California after flying home from Auckland.  Like that day I returned to Dunedin literally hours after the tragedy of 9/11, I feel compelled to write of what I know rather than what I have heard, addressing biased assumptions and media sensationalism with the uniqueness and admitted limitations of my own experience. 

I hope to report the work of those individuals who quietly fight for justice, care for the wounded, console those in mourning, advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves and appoint themselves guardians of the earth and its precious resources.  All those people who do not troll on the Internet or complain about everything that is wrong with their lives and the world but who do what they can to enact change.  The people who do not sink into the easy abyss of cynicism.

My father, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the war, used to tell me over and over that without hope there is no existence.  So I can only hope that we never forget what is most human in all of us, never succumbing to silence in the event of global tragedies as well as in personal injustices.  During this very solemn anniversary, it is important to remember that this is our right and responsibility.

Cheryl Pearl Sucher is an award winning fiction writer and journalist and a frequent contributor to the NZ Listener. 

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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