Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: Ten Years Later

It was literally a bolt from the blue. The skies over New York City were a crisp bright blue with nary a cloud in a sky. It was a morning full of promise.

New Yorkers were heading to the polls to vote on the next mayor of the city. People were talking baseball and the upcoming football season. All while the region was stirring for the day ahead, al Qaeda's terrorists were already on board four jets bound for New York and Washington DC and had already overpowered the crews.

I was on a NJ Transit train with my dad when I first noticed something wrong at the WTC out of the corner of my eye; it was smoke coming from the upper reaches of the tower.

It was just around 8:45.

The world changed, and I didn't quite realize it.

People watching the morning news didn't know it either at first. But they would soon be glued to broadcasts that showed the horrors of the worst terror attacks ever perpetrated.

The damage done on that morning was nearly impossible to comprehend. In the mere blink of the eye, nearly 3,000 people were condemned to death and the World Trade Center would soon be reduced to a pile of rubble that burned for weeks on end. But the death rattle of the Twin Towers would continue for nearly two hours and victims trapped above the fires had to make the choice to stay and choke on the heat and smoke or jump to a certain death. All too many make that decision to jump. Firefighters on the ground also succumbed before the towers fell - falling debris hitting firefighters and fleeing people alike.

Victim Number One would be there to comfort those who fell. Rev. Mychal Judge of the FDNY was comforting fallen firefighters and office workers alike when he was struck and killed by debris. So many people inside the Department and around the City thought so highly of him that he was honored as the first victim of the attacks - so that he could comfort and aid all those many others who were murdered on that day - to guide them to Heaven.

All too many would unfortunately follow him - and not by their own choice.

Lower Manhattan was engulfed in smoke and debris as the towers fell. Emergency personnel, still choking on the dust that would swirl through Lower Manhattan for days and weeks to come, quickly moved to seek to help those who may have been trapped beneath all the rubble. They formed bucket brigades, moving debris a handful at a time. Occasionally, the remains of a victim would be discovered and crews would solemnly remove the remains.

There were moments of heroism all around, and not just from emergency personnel. MTA subway workers made important decisions independent of their superiors to evacuate passengers from areas around the World Trade Center saving countless lives in the process.

Emergency personnel would be at Ground Zero around the clock for weeks on end before officials would claim that the site had officially been cleared of remains. Many of them would later become ill from the effects of breathing in all the dust and debris that was pulverized by the collapsing towers, and it is one of the sadder chapters from 9/11 that we are still burying victims of the attacks to this day, including James Zadroga (even as some medical experts dispute that Zadroga died of exposure at Ground Zero.

People who risked their lives to save others and to help families who lost loved ones find remains of the victims are themselves victims of the attacks. The Zadroga Act isn't perfect by any means and it has come too late for some, but it's a start to compensate and aid families of responders who are suffering from all manner of ailments (but not cancer to this point) attributed to Ground Zero exposure.

We cannot allow petty political differences prevent the delivery of critical aid to these emergency personnel and those who selflessly strode into the unknown to help provide rescue and recovery from the debris of Ground Zero all while environmental agencies proclaimed the air was safe to breathe - it wasn't.

Even after the fires were being put out and officials claimed that the site had been cleared of remains, it turns out that victims' remains would be discovered months and even years thereafter on buildings surrounding Ground Zero including the rooftop of the former Deutsche Bank building. The death toll, which was once feared to be more than we could bear - in the tens of thousands, would eventually drop to around 2,742 at the World Trade Center. That count may rise once again as more and more emergency personnel working at Ground Zero succumb to ailments attributed to exposures at Ground Zero.

Efforts to quench the pile and enable crews to begin searching for remains was an all but impossible task in the immediate aftermath of the attacks since most of the water mains in the area were destroyed by the collapsing towers. That meant that the heavy lifting had to be carried out by FDNY fireboats supported by the John J. Harvey, a retired fireboat with a civilian crew. The Harvey, alongside the city's two active fireboats pumped water nearly continuously over the next several days as crews raced to repair fire hydrants to get more water on the fires. Just a few years earlier, the Harvey was set to be scrapped but for the new owners who restored the boat.

Since then, the City has received funds to buy new fireboats, and there are reports of teething problems since the two fireboats (The 343 - in honor of the 343 firefighters killed on 9/11 and the Firefighter II) were christened on September 10, 2010.

Thomas Franklin, the Record's photographer who caught perhaps the most famous photo after the collapse (the firefighters raising an American flag that harkened back to the famous Iwo Jima flag raising) has put together a series of photos and recollections of his own along with other photographers who were witnesses to history.

Video footage has encompassed nearly every aspect of the attacks, but every now and then new footage shows up that presents a different vantage of the attacks.

Even nearly 10 years after the attacks, new footage has come to light as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request for NYPD footage taken from a helicopter circling the World Trade Center in the critical moments before the towers collapsed. That video mirrors photos taken by NYPD Aviation Unit Detective Greg Semendinger, who took more than 300 photos (film and digital) during the course of the day. NIST released those photos in 2010 as part of another FOIA request.

More recently, FEMA released video taken on 9/11 and the rescue efforts beneath the fallen World Trade Center, including investigating tunnels, the PATH station, the shopping mall, and other areas for survivors or victims.

And then, just in the past week, new video has surfaced from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, showing the smoke plume from when Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers rose to fight off the hijackers and crashed the plane into the countryside rather than allow the terrorists to fly into their presumed target, which was either the Capitol building or the White House.

The National Flight 93 Memorial is being dedicated on Saturday and opening to the public on Sunday, after temporary memorials marked the spot where Flight 93 crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers learned the fate of the other hijacked airliners and chose to fight than see another national landmark attacked.

Coming full circle, just this past May 1, 2011, the world learned that the United States finally caught up with Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. In a daring raid on a compound near Pakistan's military academy, US special forces killed bin Laden and captured a treasure trove of intel that will help the intelligence community and military plan further campaigns against the terrorists who did so much damage. 

Yet, all those events of this past May and the celebration and reflection pale in comparison to what happened on that fateful day and the nearly 3,000 people murdered across New York, Washington DC at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Here are remembrances of a few of those killed on 9/11, as written by my friend legalbgl for Project 2,996:
Captain Patrick J. Brown (2010).
Hagay Shefi (2009).
Alison Marie Wildman (2008).
Daniel Thomas Afflito (2007).

In addition to all the people who will be sorely missed, we also lost a cultural touchstone when the Twin Towers came down. From the moment they poked out over the surrounding skyscrapers and raced towards the sky, Hollywood used them as a backdrop on everything from a remake of King Kong to a montage/cut scene for the television show Friends. The following video shows a bunch of movies that included the towers in the fore- or background:

Twin Tower Cameos from Dan Meth on Vimeo.

(Special thanks to Donna Grunewald for her extensive list)

Here's another video, from the movie Godspell, which concludes atop the still under construction WTC:

The band Depeche Mode even did a video Enjoy the Silence atop the outdoor observation deck at the WTC.

Even today, there are movies being released that reference the Twin Towers or use footage relating to the Towers.

Like all those killed on 9/11, the towers will be missed even if they were not the architectural gems that critics wished for. They were meant to be impressive and to impress upon the sky a sense of grandeur and permanence. What we had for 10 years was a profound sense of absence, and its successor with 1WTC will recapture only part of that.

We will have a new memorial and we will have new skyscrapers and architectural and engineering wonders at Ground Zero.

And yet, the site will always be tinged with sadness.

The skyline will never be the same.

Neither will our hearts, which are heavy with the loss and supreme sacrifices made on 9/11 by the rescue personnel who bravely rushed up the towers even as people were racing to get out of the towers or gasping as people were forced to jump to their deaths to avoid being burned alive in the fires that racked the towers.

For my prior year recollections and postings, see September 11, 2010, September 11, 2009September 11, 2008, September 11, 2007, September 11, 2006, and September 11, 2005.

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