It is hard to grasp the enormity today, but America was changed forever on September 11, 2001. We lost our innocence that day. In the days and weeks following the 9-11 World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, I cannot help but think of the many things we have to treasure and be grateful for.
“Generation X” has evolved into “Generation Why?’ The defining question is no longer “Where were you when JFK was assassinated (for those of you old enough to remember), but “Where were you for 9/11?” I was the new chief stew onboard Mystique at Chelsea Piers, about 20 blocks away from Ground Zero.
Alene on the Deck of Mystique in New York Harbor, September 2001
Moments after the first plane struck at 8:45 a.m. we went out on deck. At first we were confused, but when the second plane hit at 9:03, the gravity of the situation was clear. There was no question in any of our minds that this was not an accident. I have never been so afraid in my life. I expected more planes to fall from the sky, and probably bombs, too.
We had a perfect view of the towers looking south that day, and we witnessed the events. We could see the towers through the golf range fence at Chelsea Piers. It wasn’t until much later that we saw photos of other views. We heard that the Pentagon had been hit and evacuated at around 9:45 and learned of the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Somerset, Virginia, also headed toward Washington, D.C.
The first tower fell at 9:59 and the second fell at 10:28. We could not move the boat, so there we sat, at what was rapidly becoming Command Central. Chelsea Piers was convenient, as the permanent ice rink could serve as a temporary morgue. The convention and sports areas were being set up for medical triage, with hundreds of doctors and nurses waiting to receive any survivors who could not be treated at St. Vincent, Belleview and other hospitals.
Along the Westside Highway came a flood of people heading north. There was a hush to them, hardly anyone speaking, and here and there were people caked in fine beige powder. I imagined that Ground Zero was like a war zone, and remembered reading somewhere that the fabric of society frays in direct proportion to one’s nearness to the battlefield. In New York on September 11th, it was happening over the course of a few blocks.
By 11am, a security perimeter was established at Canal Street, a demarcation line between civilization and chaos that civilians would not be allowed to go into. I imagined that in many ways, the police detailed to this task must have felt just as lost and stunned as the rest of us. In a situation like this, power often has little to do with rank or uniforms. There is a peculiar kind of meritocracy that takes over in a disaster situation, and leadership falls to anyone with the confidence or charisma to seize it.
Our crew left the boat and volunteered as quickly as we could. We were met by 2 aides who instructed us that we were to accompany stretchers from ambulances and gather identification information and tag victims. We were told to expect up to 20,000 casualties. Groups assigned by color divided the area, and we were warned that it would be hard to witness. Green and yellow tags were for the ambulatory and moderately injured; red and black for seriously injured or deceased. My knees buckled a little when I heard this.
Triage was a well-oiled machine awaiting victims. Authority stemmed from remaining calm and focused while giving out instructions, and in our collective impotence, we were all desperate for someone to tell us what to do. It was organization for organization’s sake, coming up with a plan of action in the absence of either plan or action.
People were taking the very first steps toward rebuilding an ordered society in a corner of Manhattan where order had suddenly vanished. It was being done by volunteers taking direction from the natural leaders among us, wearing paper respirators around our necks making armbands printed on duct tape with black magic markers.
We waited and waited for the wounded to arrive, but they didn’t come. No one was coming out of that awful cloud a few blocks away. We were all just there—doctors, nurses, and volunteers like us, stacking boxes and erecting eye wash stations, making neat little trays of gauze bandages and syringes and antiseptic wash. It was only by staying busy that our minds could detach from the enormity of what had happened and let us believe we were doing something to help.
Injured people were walking in off the streets, but barely any ambulances had arrived. So many volunteers had gathered that we were asked to go outside. It was a sudden shock to be out in the sunshine, and unbelievable to think of the carnage just a few short blocks away. By this time the sun was setting over the Hudson River and for a while, maybe a half hour, there was a stunning gold tinge to the sky and the buildings around us.
All around the island ferry service had been organized and great numbers of people were being taken to safety. In the true spirit of that wonderful city, even in the midst of their own anguish, those waiting for ferries to shuttle them home greeted us with a round of applause as we poured out into the afternoon light. It was amazing to see how people treated each other. There was so much kindness, care and concern, everyone trying to do or say anything to ease someone else’s suffering. The grief and fear were palpable, though. Some peoples’ eyes were desperate, or terribly sad and vacant—as if the mind was trying to erase what the eyes had seen.
Up and down the highway stretched a line of emergency vehicles and knots of waiting firemen and medics and policemen as far as the eye could see. As hard as it was to accept, it was becoming clear that no one would be coming out of the ruins and flames anymore. Those of us who had been on the site all day were sent home. I sat up on the fly bridge all evening, watching the smoke rising from the charred remains of the Twin Towers, thinking of all the souls who had been lost that day.
By the second day people were slowly emerging from their initial shock, emotions settling into anger and sadness. We still had no idea of the number of casualties. Throughout the city that day impromptu memorials had been set up, little altars of flowers and candles. What had also blossomed were a million small posters, photos of those still missing, appeals from their families for any information of their whereabouts. It was heartbreaking
Like so many posters in terror stricken, war-ravaged areas throughout the world, like Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda, families and friends were holding on to memories of those who had vanished, refusing to give up hope that they might miraculously return.
It took me a few days for reality to sink in. I felt like an imposter, a voyeur, witnessing the grief of so many and emerging untouched. I was amazed at the strength and resiliency of the people of New York.
Like every other stew who has completed STCW Basic Fire class, I was in awe of the firemen who taught us. Now, I could not stop the image I had in my mind of all of the policemen, rescue workers and especially of the firemen wearing that heavy gear that day, so many brave men and women climbing the hundreds of steps never to return.
At Chelsea Piers there was something to do 24 hours a day. We could step off the boat and help any time of day or night, even if it meant just loading the boats carrying supplies down to Ground Zero. I was constantly thinking about all that we have and take for granted every day of our lives.
In the September 24, 2001 issue of New Yorker magazine, Anthony Lane writes, in an article entitled, This is Not a Movie,
“The shock [of the events] springs not only from the intolerable loss of life but from a growing realization that America had so much else to lose. For every sad skeptic who mocked or resented the United States for the lack of such tragedies in our history, there were a thousand hopefuls who thought it a compelling reason to come here–away from the after burn of combat and later on, from the daily management of risk.”
He continues, “Thousands died on September 11and they died for real; but thousands died together and therefore something lived. The most important, if distressing, images to emerge from those hours are not of the raging towers, or of the vacuum where they once stood; it is the shots of people falling from the ledges, and in particular, of two people jumping in tandem.
It is impossible to tell, from the blur, what age or sex these two are, nor does it matter. What matters is the one thing we can see for sure:
They are falling hand in hand.
Think of Philip Larkin’s poem about the stone figures carved on an English tomb, and the “sharp, tender shock” of noticing that they are holding hands. The final line has become a celebrated condolence.
On September 11, 2001, in uncounted ways, in final phone calls, in circumstances that Hollywood should no longer try to match – it was proved true all over again: “What will survive of us is love.”
We have so much to appreciate. We, as a society, are so fortunate to have such a wonderful way of life. Let us carry on the hope for peace.