Tomorrow we remember the fateful events of September 11, 2001 and as in the previous years, the feelings and flashbacks of that day return. This year is a little different, though, because for the first time in a decade, there is an actual working or finished structure on what had been a construction site all these years. Another first was that for the first time, Angelo is seeing and is asking questions about what happened then. Having been on the water side of Wall Street on the opposite end of where the Twin Towers were on that tip of downtown Manhattan, I told him about what had happened as I experienced it back then.
One of the many documentaries featuring clips from shows done right after the event to some which were created recently to mark this year’s anniversary was showing on TV and he watched it with me. He asked me who did it, why they did it, and most profound of all, why do we remember? It was a seven-year-old asking why we care to commemorate such a tragic event in our history.
I watched him as he saw the destruction that took place and how in the midst of what was later left behind, how he absorbed how many thousands had died. I felt like I was giving my son a history lesson that he can now appreciate as a growing boy beyond the images on TV.
Why do we remember? For me, it’s reliving the heart wrenching events that found me that morning emerging from the Wall Street stop of the 2 Train with paper flying from some high place. I did not yet know that something had happened, except what I caught from a man talking frantically on his cellphone about the Twin Towers and a fire. I walked to my building and went to my desk, and I started getting text messages. Then I heard a loud boom. Much like a huge firecracker exploding, and my boss’s mom was calling. I had to go to the conference room where I found him with the other executives watching the TV and there I saw the Twin Towers burning.
The next hours were filled with fear and dread. Alan’s bus had been turned away from entering the tunnel into the city after they saw the second plane ram into the South Tower. He called me and said he was heading home. By then, relatives from California and Manila had called. My family in San Juan was most specially worried because my sister was also in New York at the time, visiting. Fortunately, it wasn’t a day she had picked to go into the city. She was home in our apartment in Bayside. So I was the only one stuck in the lockdown that ensued.
I would’ve wanted to leave as soon as it was apparent something was terribly wrong, but the collapse of the towers left the atmosphere thick with soot and smoke which was anathema to an asthmatic like me. So I waited along with my officemates and ventured out many hours later, joining the throng of people walking out of downtown, trying to find the nearest working subway or bus line. It was mid afternoon by the time I made it to Alan in Queens. I had to walk from Water Street to 28th street were there was working public transportation. From there, he picked me up where the subway line to Flushing ended.
I was exhausted but relieved. But it didn’t quite end there. For the next week, the area was shut off to the public. When we were finally allowed to return, the air was thick with the scent of burning rubber and plastic. I felt like I wanted to push the bus out of the tunnel as it entered, or wish that the subway ride would be over in the blink of an eye. There was raw fear, there was a sense of gloom. But the grief was more pervasive. Yet in the midst of the grief came a feeling of community. New York was suddenly a kinder place. Not that it was devoid of compassion or neighborliness — I have always argued against the misconception that we here in New York are rude and brusque. It was just that the sense of brotherhood and community was stronger and made us feel one.
We looked to each other for reassurance as the lights in the subway would flicker as they usually did. We did not push even as the exits out of the subway got congested. Everyone was calm and patient, as if the tragic day that touched us in some form or other had provided us the best dress rehearsal ever for a tragedy. We counted on each other to see us through another such event if ever it did happen again.
9/11 evokes different emotions in different people. It’s like that learning experience that you do not want to relive again but which you just cannot rid yourself of. It is forever a part of you.