Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Memorial

It was an incredible, beautiful day. We had had a lovely weekend, celebrating my niece's upcoming wedding. The weather had been OK for the start of the week, but this was spectacular. There were crystal clear skies, deep blue, perfect, and mild temperatures announcing Fall just around the corner - a time when I felt alive.

I knew where my family and friends were: Claude would be working from her office not far from the Trade Center, my nephew was suppose to be heading into NYC. Everyone else was working in New Jersey. I was at work in Piscataway: my day started at 7:30am. I was at my desk when someone said they heard a plane had hit Tower 1. All I could think was “What kind of civilian idiot went off course now?” Shortly thereafter, I was told another plane hit Tower 2. That's when we all realized: this was no accident.

We emptied into the foyer, huddling near the company's large TV screen. The images were surreal. The smoke and fire, the people jumping to their death. One of my co-workers whispered to me “Oh, God! Adam works in the South Tower!” (Adam was a former employee who married one of our long time office friends.) I turned to another co-worker who was a volunteer fire fighter. “Any chance they can put those fires out?” He merely shook his head no.

We scrambled back to our desks for cell phones, then returned to the TV. My best friend worked blocks away from the Towers – no answer. My nephew was suppose to be in town – no answer. Our friend had heard from her husband. He was on the way down and would call when he reached street level. He never did.

In horror, we saw Tower 1 disappear. Then, Tower 2 was gone. I thought of Claude, out in the streets, breathing in those toxins with her asthma. I thought of my nephew potentially on the trains beneath. Another friend's husband worked in the area..we all had colleagues in those buildings (it housed many insurance offices).

Rumors ran rampant: more planes were missing, the White House was hit, no – the Pentagon – all planes were grounded, and all bridges were being closed. We were told to go home. I left, still not having heard from anyone.

I had just about gotten to my street when an explosive sound erupted overhead. It was a military squadron, flying so low I could see their markings. A neighbor appeared on his lawn and started to film as they flew by. There was no doubt they were heading towards the City (we're only 45 minutes away by bus). In a sky usually full of Newark International flights, they were the only aerial presence.

I hurried home to my phone.

By day's end, I located almost everyone. My nephew got up that morning and decided he was going to work from his NJ office. He was safe. Claude had survived as well, although barely. After the first plane hit, she ran to the window in her boss's office where she had a view of the Towers. A shadow passed overhead, then a wing. The second hijacked plane had to dip to avoid her building on the way to its doom. She witnessed the second strike.

With that, she abandoned the building. She just made the subway as the first Tower fell. A co-worker with asthma, who got caught in the cloud of dust, died from the exposure. She somehow made her way to the New Jersey side of the river, where people were being hosed off before boarding trains. Finally, she made it home.

We did not hear anything about Adam.

The next afternoon, our friend called and said if we wanted to visit, we had better do it now. She was sitting calmly on her sofa when we arrived. The kids had been sent somewhere to play. She told us there was no sign of Adam in hospitals, on any lists – and yet the majority of the folks with whom he left had made it out. Eventually we heard the story: Adam and others got to the sky lobby when the office secretary wanted to get off. She had gone through the 1993 attack and was afraid to take the elevator any farther. Adam volunteered to walk down the stairs with her. That's where they were when the building fell.

The memorial service was almost unbearable. I don't know how our friend stayed as centered as she was. We tried to follow her example and be brave, until her 9 year old daughter read a piece she had written about her Dad. Her voice didn't waiver, or hold a trace of a tear. She was magnificent; it was we who broke down.

More and more stories came out about folks like Adam. There was a man in one office who could have left but refused to abandon his invalid friend. There was a security guard who volunteered to stay with a badly wounded man, waiting for help that never reached them. Amid the destruction of humanity arose the beauty of its spirit, over and over.

In the following days, the tragedy was unavoidable. All our communities had lost members, and our local fire fighters went to the aid of their brothers in NYC. They maned a fire house, allowing that company to go search for their missing. In gratitude, we were given part of a Tower support beam which forms the center of our 911 memorial.

The Raritan Valley is in a unique position: smells from the City have a way of drifting towards, and lingering, along the river. We couldn't escape the smell of fuel, concrete dust, burnt was everywhere.

Finally, after the rains that night, the shift of winds, the flow of time, the air cleared. Trees were planted, names engraved in stone, on plaques, in bricks – but we weren't likely to forget. And the thing I remember most is Adam willing to help a co-worker, people going back it to search for others, folks staying behind to comfort the fearful.

My x-husband once turned to me and said “ They call them 'heroes.' WHAT heroes? They all just went to work, or hopped on a plane, and got killed. They didn't do anything heroic, they just died.”

Oh, really?

The Gods of the Universe bless every single one of them.

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