Monday, September 5, 2011

Remembering What Everyone Might Like to Forget (on the 9/11 attack of the World Trade Towers)

During the seven years since the horrific events of what are generally referred to these days as simply “9/11,” I have resisted writing about the subject, in part because it seemed to me that nearly everyone in the United States had experienced the destruction of the World Trade Towers, the attack upon the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93—which was to have been crashed into the U.S. Capitol building—near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and there could not possibly be anything new I might say.

I still believe that to be so. Any of us might write about our experiences on that morning and throughout that September day—and many have. Moreover, with the confirmed deaths of 2,974 individuals, and the subsequent illnesses of fireman, police, and other workers who tried to help individuals to safety and later worked in cleaning up the disastrous collapse of both towers, there are hundreds of individuals who have much deeper experiences than my distant witnessing of events.

What we all generally forget, however, is precisely that—our general forgetfulness. Howard reminded me last night that most of his students at SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture), where he is teaching this semester, were only 11 years of age when these events took place, and, accordingly, their memories of it were those of children rather than adults. Millions of grade-school children today could not possibly comprehend how far-reaching those events, occurring before their births, have been upon their lives: that the war we continue to fight in Iraq was a indirect result of that terrible day in 2001 and that some of their individual freedoms have been permanently curtailed because of those events in the years since.

Perhaps we owe it to our future generations, even to ourselves, to once again share our experiences of that day. And in a series of books such as my cultural memoirs, I now perceive it absolutely necessary to remember my own experiences of that day—even if they might vary little from millions of other folks and I, like most others, might like to forget.

Howard and I arise fairly early, he at 5:00 each morning, I at 6:00. Accordingly, when a short time after 5:46 Pacific Time on September 11th Howard heard the news report and saw the image on television of American Flight 11 embedded in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he quickly awoke me to tell what had happened. I ran to the television set to see the same image.

Although we now know that many people working on the 95th to the 103rd floors and dining in the Windows on the World restaurant were killed immediately, it looked eerily quiet from the camera’s vantage point. I commented to Howard that obviously the crash had killed people, but we were uncertain even how the large the plane was. It looked almost like a small engine plane on our TV set.

“How could such an accident happen?” asked Howard in a tone that sounded more like a lament.

“People don’t just accidentally fly into The World Trade Center,” I answered, with suitable bluff. “No planes are allowed in that air path.” And immediately we both contemplated the possibility of a terrorist attack.

For a few minutes we sat spellbound by the scene before us. We were nearly speechless. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I reported, as if somehow seeking Howard’s permission.

As I began my walk down the hall, Howard screamed out: “Come quickly, come quickly. Another plane has just crashed into the other tower!”

I hurried back, to watch the scene replayed, a clearly full-sized jet crashing into the South Tower. Now we and everyone knew: these were terrorist acts.

Our eyes were cemented to the television, when a few minutes later an ABC newscaster announced that they were temporarily switching to a developing story in Washington, D.C., where it appeared that the Executive Office Building, near the White House, was on fire.

The D.C. newscaster, however, soon reported that from a distance it appeared that it was the Executive Office Building, but it was believed to be coming from the area of The Pentagon, across the Potomac in Virginia. And soon we saw a fire billowing from the Pentagon itself, where, we now know, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, killing another 189 individuals.

“What’s happening?” I asked in utter disbelief.

And a few minutes later, as if in answer, it was reported that yet another plane apparently had been hijacked.

In Los Angeles, September 11th was a voting date, and the front of my Sun & Moon Press offices was a polling place. I was forced to abandon the television to shave, shower, and dress. By 6:45 Pacific Time, I was opening up my office for the voting registrars.

I greeted them and briefly helped to set up the voting booths. We all expressed the hope that the local election would be called off. But, by the time we were to open, we had still received no word of cancellation.

I was almost angered by all the noise of the gossipy women behind the voter sign-in desk, and retreated to my back office to watch my office television set. Although it was illegal of bring a television into the voting area, one of the women working there, called to ask her daughter to bring in a set.

At almost the moment they opened the doors to voters, I witnessed the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapse, people running in absolute horror in all directions. I was incredulous. Peter Jennings, the ABC newscaster, was nearly in tears. He would continue to report all day and into the night, in all for 17 hours straight, and I watched almost every moment.

About eleven minutes after the collapse of the South Tower, it was reported that the missing hijacked flight, United Airlines Flight 93, had crashed into a hillside in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

When the North Tower collapsed at 7:28, I finally began to cry. I was now worried for friends. Playwright Jeffrey Jones worked in the Towers; I had met with him there on one trip to New York to discuss theater. Poet Tan Lin (brother of Viet Nam Memorial sculptor Mya Lin), whose book, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe I published, lived nearby. Artist Susan Bee’s studio was within visual distance of the Towers. Fortunately, these friends all survived.

As I report in “Death of the Father” [My Year 2002], I called my parents, who at the time had still not heard what was happening. How could anyone not know what was going on? I wondered.

Yet the television showed even President George Bush peacefully sitting in a classroom at Emily E. Booker Elementary school in Sarasota at a time when one imagined he might instead be rushing back to Washington; evidently the President did not know what millions of others in his country did, and like Howard, when his advisors heard the news of the first crash several of them, including his Chief of Staff Andrew Card, presumed it was simply an accident: Card is quoted, “It was first reported to me… that it looked like it was a twin-engine prop plane, and so the natural reaction was—‘What a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack.” After being taken aside in the school corridor by Karl Rove, where Bush was told of the crash, Bush himself reportedly replied: “What a horrible accident!”

While Bush was on route to the school photo opportunity, Condoleeza Rice made a urgent call to the President, but even upon hearing of that call, he took time out to talk with Florida Congressmen and the Teacher of the Year before returning Rice’s call, and once he had heard from her, he continued to the classroom, remaining there to hear the story of a pet goat even after the second jet had completed its mission, despite the fact that the newest information was relayed to the President in front of the classroom students and millions of watching Americans.

For a number of reasons, including arguments between Bush and Cheney and indecision of his staff concerning where Air Force one should travel, Bush’s flight was diverted to the Louisiana Air Force Base before flying on to the Strategic Air Command at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. As the press attempted to follow the various maneuvers of Air Force One and the President, rumors grew, at one point some reporters even suggesting that his plane had crashed near Camp David. It was clear to nearly anyone who could read the signs that neither Bush nor his administration knew how to proceed.

Moreover, as the details of deaths and destruction became more and more apparent over that horrific day, there was a continued feeling, registered even the faces and voices of news commentators like Jennings of being caught up in a nightmare from which one couldn’t awaken.

In the weeks following, it was gradually revealed that not only were the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center destroyed, but 7 World Trade Center, 6 World Trade Center, 5 World Trade Center, 4 World Trade Center, the Marriott World Trade Center and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were also destroyed or severely damaged. The Deutsche Bank Building and Fiterman Hall of the Borough of Manhattan Community College were con-demned and torn down.

In short, a whole section of the U.S.’s most populous city was devastated; and one only can wonder what might have happened in the Washington, D.C. had Flight 93 been successful in its attack. It still today seems nearly impossible to imagine that four American Airplanes could have been utilized to bring about such widespread destruction, resulting in so many deaths.

Los Angeles, September 11, 2008

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