Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11th, Eleven Years On

In New York, the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2012 was remarkably similar to the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. A beautiful, sunny, unseasonably warm morning.

I had not noticed the parallel, and in fact had not been conscious of today's date, until I took my dog out for her morning walk. We came across an elderly man who wanted to say hello to her, and in chatting he mentioned the date. A short time later it emerged that his step-son had been working at Cantor Fitzgerald, and had never come home after leaving for work that morning. That's when it dawned on me that this was such a comparably lovely morning.

The man said his now-former wife had received a mid-seven figure settlement. We both shrugged. So what?

Eleven years ago I left my office to get something for breakfast, and remarked on what a gorgeous morning it was. I remember seeing someone riding a Vespa through midtown, the first one I'd seen since hearing that Piaggio was re-entering the U.S. market, and thought it looked like fun to be buzzing around on it on such a nice day.

Returning to the office I bumped into a couple colleagues who had come outside for a smoke, and they mentioned that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. They didn't have any details and like most people I assumed the culprit was some novice pilot in a Cessna.

When I got back upstairs, the televisions were showing live footage of the smoke billowing out of the building, which seemed awfully heavy for a Cessna. Shortly thereafter we saw the explosion from the second tower, and it was clear that this was no accident.

A number of colleagues had previously worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, and a couple were able to get through on the phone to their former colleagues. Just watching that was surreal. A sample exchange, from memory, following one such call:

"What did he say is going on down there?"

"He said he doesn't know if they can get out, and he needed to hang up so he could try to get a call through to his family."

One of my colleagues had a son in his twenties working in one of the towers, and he spent the morning trying unsuccessfully, and increasingly frantically, to call his son. Blackberrys were functioning perfectly but were far from ubiquitous and his son didn't have one. There was nothing any of us could do or say to help. Relief only came several hours later when his son, having hoofed it the few miles from the Trade Center to midtown, walked in the door.
Two colleagues had actually had a meeting at the Trade Center scheduled for that morning. Thankfully they had been running a bit late, and they were still on the subway when the first plane struck.

By early afternoon, there was nothing to do but walk home, up the empty and silent avenues. Medical professionals went to hospitals, in anticipation of a surge of injured people needing treatment, but they needn't have. The surge never came; people were either below the point of impact and got out fine, or they were above it and didn't get out at all.  

So I was lucky. Neither I, nor any friends or relatives, were ever in danger, though a number of people I knew professionally were lost.

One thing I find interesting in the public reaction was the active solicitation of donations of supplies for search and rescue. You could bring items they were asking for to the Javits Center. My wife and I had brought down some supplies, specifically what I can't recall except booties for the rescue dogs. I'm sure the supplies were all put to good use, but it got me wondering: with the full wherewithal of the U.S. government at their disposal, why did authorities need small, irregular donations? They didn't. But the city was full of people who did need to feel like there was something they could do to help. The request for donations was, I think, as much as anything, an effort to aid the donors.

I guess the thing that I find most striking today is the widely varying ways people grieve. Some privately, some very publicly, some focused more on individual victims and heroes, some in broader terms. Some perhaps in ways the surprise even themselves; I hadn't planned on writing anything about the topic, yet here I sit, typing.

Eleven years on, I don't derive any great or unique wisdom from what happened that day. Treasure the loved ones in your life while you can. But one shouldn't need to be reminded of that. The worst tragedies bring out the best in people. Also not news, particularly - at the risk of sounding like what Californian friends deride as New York provincial - in New York City, where the six-sigma extremes of humanity seem to cross paths regularly.

My prayers are with the people whose lives were cut short, and the people who lost loved ones, particularly the children who have grown up without a parent over the past eleven years. And that's about all I have to say.

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