Posts Tagged ‘9/11’

When you’re a New Yorker, you get used to subway disruptions. There’s always track work, or signal work, or a police investigation, or station renovations that lead to the express running local, or the local running express, or lines being rerouted. It can be frustrating, but we accept these disruptions as a way of life in a city with one of the largest, and one of the oldest, subway systems in the world, especially since they usually don’t occur during rush hour.

On this day, there were a level of disruptions unlike any I’d ever witnessed. Walking into the Rockefeller Center subway station, one of the busiest in the city, I was greeted by a constant stream of announcements over the public address system that were never ending. Not only were the World Trade Center, & the surrounding area, a financial hub, but it was also a subway hub; several lines ran in or near the area. And, the Twin Towers attacked & reduced to rubble, mass chaos ensued on the subway, just like it did elsewhere.

I was in my third month working for the New York City bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. I was their sports reporter, which meant I mostly did research & arranged for interviews & accommodations for my direct supervisor, a sportswriter for the paper who, unlike me, was fluent in Japanese. I also got to cover a handful of events myself. Of course, it didn’t matter what subject you reported on today; everyone in media were focused on the World Trade Center. That morning, arriving minutes after the first plane hit, & minutes before the second plane hit, I did everything from converting the heights of the world’s tallest buildings from feet to meters to making phone calls to airports & hospitals (I was greeted by a busy signal every single time). Both my mom & dad called to check on me; I told them I was okay, & I didn’t know when I’d be leaving work.

I think it was early in the afternoon when I was told to take a call from David who, like me, was an American reporter for the paper not too far removed from college. We had different direct supervisors, but similar responsibilities. David lived near the World Trade Center &, on his way to work, realized something was happening. Being the smart reporter he is, David decided to remain on the scene rather than go to the office, calling in with live updates, taking pictures with his 35-millimeter camera & interviewing people on the scene. He had a roll of film he wanted to get to the office; but with the authorities closing off most of Lower Manhattan, he didn’t want to make his way north & risk losing his spot embedded in one of the most significant stories in history. Which is why I was told to take his call. There was a teenage boy David was going to use as his film messenger. I was to go as far south as I could, call David with my location, & this impromptu messenger would bring the film to me. Hopefully. David said he was going to give him $40.

After navigating the subway dysfunction, I got off at West 4th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, one of my favorite neighborhoods. My mom started taking me to The Village as a child. I had plenty of meals at the Pizzeria Uno across the street from the subway entrance. I did a lot of homework at the library a few blocks north which, at one time, had a bookstore across the street, where my mom once took me so she could meet author Terry McMillan, who had just come out with a book called Waiting to Exhale. When I emerged aboveground, I was expecting to see the usual bustle of pedestrians shuffling along the sidewalks & cars speeding along Avenue of the Americas. However, I was greeted by silence. Only emergency vehicles were allowed south of 14th Street, so there were no cars on the street, which was filled with people. Few were walking briskly to their destination; instead, almost everyone was looking south, where two plumes of smoke were plainly visible on this clear & sunny day. It was as quiet as I’ve ever heard The Village. There were looks of shock, & occasional sounds of sniffling. It was my first look at the destruction on something other than a television screen, so I stood there too, mesmerized not just by the smoke, but also by the unusual silence. This isn’t a bad dream, I thought. This is really happening.

I made my way through the crowd & resumed my voyage south, which I realized was fruitless; there were barricades everywhere &, unless you could prove you were a resident of the blocked off area, no one was allowed through. David had given me few details about his location, but I knew he was west, so I headed in that direction until I got to the appropriately named West Street, the last street before the Hudson River. I noticed a shuttered strip club at one corner, so I stood there, since I figured it would be an easily identifiable landmark. I called David. The kid bringing me the film was named Peter, or Michael, or something else just as common, David told me. He described the kid’s appearance, & what he was wearing. David said he was on his way. Hopefully.

I stood there for about an hour before someone matching the description David passed along spotted me. He handed me the film. I shook his hand, & thanked him. I asked him if he needed anything, not sure what I could help him with. He was fine, he said. On my walk back to the subway station, I called David, & told him that his messenger had showed. I never did see the pictures, which was fine by me.


Read Full Post »

A few years ago, I was on a chartered bus with the Binghamton University women’s basketball team, which had just finished playing a road game that I called on the radio. It was already well into the evening and we had a long bus ride home, meaning the bus’s DVD player would get plenty of action. Movies for the bus rides were usually picked by the head coach, with input from the players. I don’t remember exactly how United 93 was chosen for our ride home on this night, but I was excited about the choice initially. I’d heard good things about the film, which was about one of the commercial airliners hijacked on 9/11, the one the passengers were able to disrupt enough so that it didn’t hit its intended target. Instead, it crashed on a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard, but potentially saving thousands of lives.

The lights dimmed as we began our trip. One of the assistant coaches fast forwarded through the previews until she got to the main menu. The opening credits to United 93 started rolling. And, I began to feel uneasy. The uneasiness reminded me of the feeling I used to get as a kid, when I was on a roller coaster as it began its ascent. Do I really want to do this? I thought. However, I wasn’t buckled into a roller coaster, so I quickly pulled out my iPod and put the headphones in my ear. I closed my eyes right as my music started playing and before the opening credits had ended, forcing myself to fall asleep. I never did watch United 93.

*          *          *

There has been a lot said and written about the 9/11 terrorist attacks but, with this being the tenth anniversary, even more has been said and written. Whenever I’ve scrolled through the channel guide on my television over the last couple of weeks, I inevitably see a listing for some 9/11 retrospective. Through Twitter and Facebook, I’ve stumbled upon more than a few newspaper articles, blog posts and podcasts devoted to 9/11. I’m sure many of them tell a good story. Some of them probably have a unique perspective. All of their viewpoints are valid. And, I don’t think this is an instance of media overkill; 9/11 is one of the most important events in US history and should get an inordinate amount of attention.

However, I haven’t read, listened to or watched a single thing commemorating 9/11’s tenth anniversary. I don’t have to. I was there.

Well, I wasn’t there in the sense that I wasn’t at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on a field near Shanksville. But, I was in New York City on 9/11, about four miles from the World Trade Center. I was working for the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, as a sports reporter in their New York bureau, which was located in Rockefeller Center. I was the first one to arrive at work that day, minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower. The television was already on, showing the World Trade Center, a graphic at the bottom of the screen explaining that a plane hit one of the towers. But, there was no reason for alarm. I went into the back office to check the wire stories on the crash. It was being treated as an accident; all of the initial stories mentioned a plane that had mistakenly crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. After a few minutes, I went back into the main office, to see what was happening on television. A plane had just hit the South Tower, they said. Once I heard that, I knew something was up. My hometown was under attack.

It wasn’t long after the second plane hit that all of my co-workers seemed to arrive at once, immediately springing to action. It wound up being a long day, involving lots of phone calls, lots of speculation and few answers. The entire day, I felt like I was in a movie. On several occasions, I found myself pausing for a second and asking myself, Is this really happening? It was, without a doubt, the most surreal day I have ever experienced. When I finally got home late that night, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t fall asleep.

9/11 was an eventful day for me and, since I was closer to Ground Zero than most, my experience tends to pique people’s interest. I don’t shy away from discussing what I witnessed when asked, but I’m not exactly looking to regale everyone I know with my tales from that day, either. And, most of all, I have absolutely no desire to re-live 9/11 by watching or reading about it; it was tough enough scanning a few online articles about 9/11 to verify some things for this post. Even though what I experienced on 9/11 was nothing like war, I feel like a military veteran who’s loath to talk about his combat experiences. My 80-year-old grandfather served in the Korean War, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever heard him discuss it. And every single one of those instances occurred because someone asked him about it.

Part of the reason I rarely choose to re-live 9/11 has little to do with that day and more to do with the aftermath. I’m not from a family of police officers or firefighters and knew very few people with any sort of connection to the World Trade Center, so I didn’t lose any friends or family that day, nor was I close to anyone who was profoundly affected by the attacks. But, I remember walking through Times Square and Midtown Manhattan the days and weeks after 9/11 and seeing walls covered with pictures. They were pictures of people who hadn’t been seen since 9/11. Most of the pictures were on flyers that included the  name and contact information of the person’s loved ones. Sometimes, they included details of where they worked or what they might have been doing in or around the World Trade Center on 9/11. Like a typical New Yorker, I tried to briskly walk by those pictures and pay little attention. But, more often than not, I’d find myself slowing down and reading at least two or three of the flyers. I couldn’t get those faces out of my mind. You could tell most of the pictures were taken during happy and festive occasions; usually the person was smiling, often he or she was wearing formal wear or a bathing suit. Sometimes, I’d walk by while someone was putting up a flyer with a picture of their loved one. Sometimes, that person would be sobbing as he or she posted their loved one’s picture. Sometimes, they would see me staring and would voluntarily tell me about their missing loved one. He was a big baseball fan. She really liked to ride her bike. He’d be loving this weather we’re having right now.

I can’t even put into words the amount of pain I felt for the people who posted these flyers. They knew they would probably never see their loved ones again. They knew it was a million-to-one shot that their loved one was alive and that someone would find them from these flyers. Yet, they were determined to do what they could to keep hope alive, no matter how slim those hopes were. It’s possible they would never truly get closure. I’m sure many were still in denial.

We should never forget what happened on 9/11 and we should make sure future generations understand the importance of that day; someday, I plan on telling my 15-month-old daughter about what 9/11 means to me and what I experienced, just like my parents told me where they were when they learned President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot. Millions of lives were affected, and continue to be affected, by 9/11 and everyone’s stories need to be told.

Whenever I think of 9/11, I think of those flyers. Those faces. They’re more powerful reminders of 9/11 for me than any vigil, ceremony, television program, film, newspaper article or magazine feature story ever will be. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who chose to take part – whether it be actively or passively – in any of the public commemorations of 9/11. I just prefer not to. Whenever I do think about taking part, I get that feeling of going up in a roller coaster again. Maybe one day, I’ll feel strong enough to come along for the ride. But, for now, I’d rather keep my feet on the ground.

Read Full Post »