Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A clear Tuesday Morning

Snippets flash forward, illuminate momentarily on a screen and fade back into the darkness from where it appeared.

A breakfast journey, trudging slowly down the stairs, unawares of the outside world other than the mild Wisconsin fall day, more worried about the wrinkles from wear on my cotton khakis.

A television screen normally on CNN, an image of the North World Trade Tower billowing smoke from its upper reaches. Pause. Surrealistic. Was it a preview from the newest Schwarzenegger film? The newest Hollywood CGI?

Sitting and munching mindlessly on lukewarm eggs and cold french toast, trying to decihper the events unfolding in New York City with a voiceless television. The scrolling text, illegible until eyes were squinted, informed the basement under a twelve story building that an airplane had crashed into the WTC.

A drunk pilot?

A mid-air malfunction, a day gone terribly wrong.

Aircraft, tall tower in New York...my mind drifted to the B-25 crash into the side of the Empire State Building on a foggy day in 1945.

Blue, clear skies, almost too perfect described that morning, now smeared with the ugly hues of angry fires burning 110 stories in the sky. Not a hint of murkiness to obscure any field of vision of the experienced pilots handling these giant aircraft with ease. What about electronic navigation? Air Traffic Controllers maintaining a chaos of flights heading inbound and outbound?

A deep sinking ugliness grew in the pit of my stomach. There was something seriously wrong. Yet, as the rest of the world, I did not know whether there was truly malice or mistake behind this tragedy.

The race back to my room and joining my roommates in rapt attention before the flickering television...only a weekend before we gathered cheering for the underdog Badgers against the highly ranked Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium, now a silent attention mingling with fear. My roommate and I sitting tentatively in our midshipman uniforms, unsure of the future, unsure of what would happen later during afternoon drill.

I don't remember whether or not I saw the second plane scream across the sky, slamming into the second tower; perhaps those moments passed as I glided up two flights of stairs to arrive breathlessly to the room. But I recall a short moment that never left my mind...

An errant camera was zooming in and out among the billowing smoke juxtaposed against the clear baby blue sky and the silver sides of the WTC reaching into the skies. A floating voice commented about debris falling from those heights and the camera zoomed in to catch a image of building parts, office supplies, chairs, aircraft parts falling from the ugly scar on the face of the tower.

But the debris falling, accelerating at 9.8 m/s/s, were humans, people with lives, personal stories, tragedies, triumphs, goals, family, children, loves, dislikes, allergies and memories.

The images were processed, realized and quickly we returned to another establishing shot of the towers burning in the clear morning.

A thought. Suppressed. Arose across the mind and the horrifying realization crossed silently through my lips.

There are people falling out of the tower.

A ugly thought arose and submerged just as soon as it reached daylight:

Did they jump?

As everyone filtered out on campus to their classes, my next class was after noon, I sat in rapt attention at the events unfolding before the eyes of millions of people held in position or seated by the magnetic force of the unbelievable images flickering across our collective screens. An event so huge...

The first tower collapsed as I spoke with my buddy a few floors up, as we spoke about the fires and whether or not the city was taking measures in case the towers fell. Shock. "One of the towers just fell man...one of the towers just fell..."

Eyes glued...and then the sister to the tower now a pile of rubble followed its twin into memory, the upper portion settling, almost resigned to its fate, and fell in atop itself. Clouds of thick smoke rose in place of the vanishing structure, rising high and seeping through the streets of Manhattan, covering everything in a blanket of finality.

The Twin Towers were no more. Sober voices reiterated the reality before our eyes.

I paused before going to class. I was in uniform. My next class was a lecture for Islamic History. I never made it past Randall Street.

In the aftermath, as the men who plotted and executed the attack became known to the United States and the world, I felt a slight impotent helplessness. Today, I recall the words of Heath Ledger's Joker in the latest Batman movie as he prods the infuriated Batman, "with all your strength, you have nothing, nothing you can do to me."

I felt that while we were powerful, we were powerless to act. There was no one opponent, a nation bold enough to strike the United States, that we could bring bring to bear the total sum of our military power to exact a blood revenge. No Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, or Imperial Japan existed to avenge the blood of innocent civilians who suffered unimaginable and unthinkable deaths in New York, Washington DC and in a lonely field in Pennsylvania.

The American giant was reduced to powerful clenched fists, enraged yet unable to lash out, binded by self imposed limits while fires smoldered on the East Coast, its citizens buried their dead or posted fliers praying against all hope that their loved one was still lost in the chaos that continued in this plane of existence.

It was an uncertain and restless sleep that Tuesday night.

We could only search through the rubble for the faint hope of survivors, bury the dead and remind ourselves to never forget.

On that day. That clear Tuesday morning.

Just one view, and obscured behind the fog of memory. My brother and I shared a cup of coffee at a local restaurant and he told me about that clear and brisk Tuesday in September. Another nondescript day for him, a first year student at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Long Island, New York.

Breakfast. Then a classmate burst in, and babbled about something happening in Manhattan and they have to come outside to see what is going on. A group follows the classmate outside, into the lush grassy open fields in the middle of the campus, a location that allows a direct view into downtown Manhattan. A clear and blue day, save for smoke rising from one of the Twin Towers.


The world changes forever as one classmate brings up his camera, the second jet slams into the South Tower.

Stories of USMMA students as EMTs in Manhattan; some traumatized by the discovery of the shattered remains of humans. Others the smell. My brother remembers that smell as it wafted across the river and into the campus of the future members of the US Merchant Marine. Unforgettable although many wished to bury it forever, to forget that smell that permeated through their uniforms, their lives.

A smell that I cannot describe nor understand as I never inhaled a fresh lungful of this air.

Years later, in a bar in uptown New York during Fleet Week 2005, sharing beers with two fire fighters, one a NYFD the other from Appleton, Wisconsin. The grizzled NYFD veteran slowly spoke about that clear Tuesday morning. Nothing different. Except the end of the day. Friends lost, other ladder companies that arrived on scene first and vanished in a cloud of rubble before lunchtime. Stories of the evidence of what were once people in the piles of shattered concrete and steel.

Stains on concrete that were once people.

Stories of what each block of demolished building uncovered.

He also mentioned that smell. The smell that permeated and embedded itself into their noses, clothes, skin and their minds.

They continued to sort through the carnage that man wrought on man, discovered new horrors, moved endless dusty chunks by hand. It appeared that they would never get through with this grim task, the impossibility of the task started to grow heavier and heavier on their weary shoulders. The city started to farm out those Ladder Companies and fire fighters at Ground Zero into other New York boroughs, to reacquaint them with a sense of the life now obscured behind the thick smoke of the towers collapsing on that September Tuesday.

Fighting fires and defeating fires.

Acting as EMTs for people they could save.

And a thank you for my service, although I had done nothing in comparison to those brave men who arose to only discover calamity that should never visit any civilian population. They wouldn't let me buy a beer at The Bravest Heart.

I still recall standing before the gaping holes, looking down into the open tombs of over 2000 souls and the structures that had housed them, that were solid superstructures of safety, all through the openings on tall chain linked fence lining the solemn perimeter. The crowds passing on their daily lives paid a fleeting moment of attention to the group of naval officers in summer whites, but I felt the glances lasted longer on the Pakistani sailors paying their respects to the dead. One glance freely told without obscuring the true thoughts, 'what the fuck are those guys doing here?'

I felt sorry for everyone. The New Yorkers who had either lost friends, lovers, wives, sons, sisters that morning and for those poor Pakistani sailors standing a few paces away from the group of Yankee sailors. Those upon the sea have the same fears and joys while on the ocean, a bond that no one person with their feet set firmly on the earth could understand.

It was impossible to process the whole scene; from the gaping wounds to the signs that covered the scars on the surviving adjacent towers and the unseen scars on the citizens of New York. Just a stupid sigh followed by dumber silence. Frustration boiled at my inability to understand and comprehend everything my eyes relayed to my brain.

It was only through chance that I stumbled upon these recollections, jogged by my sarcastic view towards the hysteria surrounding 2012, which lead to the ridiculous videos about a 9-11-01 conspiracy and now, a reflection of that day.

A brisk and a clear Tuesday.

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