I remember 9/11

An excerpt from The Ballad of New York, an upcoming novel by Derek Flynn

Smoke spews from a tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 after two hijacked airplanes hit the twin towers in a terrorist attack on New York City. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Smoke spews from a tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 after two hijacked airplanes hit the twin towers in a terrorist attack on New York City. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

 

“The unmentionable odour of death offends the September night.”
WH Auden - September 1, 1939

I get up early this morning, make some coffee, and turn on the local news. There’s a live shot of the World Trade Center with smoke billowing out of it. No sound, no commentary, just what looks like a still shot of the Trade Center. At first, I’m thinking this is a movie or something, until a reporter comes on and announces that a plane has crashed into it. I call Cass and we sit down to watch what we think is an accidental plane crash.

“How does a passenger plane hit the World Trade Center?” Cass says.

And, of course, they don’t: it’s the World Trade Center. The whole thing looks unreal, and if not for the LIVE caption in the corner of the screen, it could be a scene from a movie. Until, about fifteen minutes later, when another plane is caught on camera heading straight for the other tower.

And we realise: it’s not an accident.

Within minutes, reports come in of another plane being crashed into the Pentagon, and reports of a fourth crashing (or being shot down) in a field in Pennsylvania. My phone is ringing off the hook by now and I’m almost afraid to answer, afraid to take my eyes off the screen. As much as people in Ireland are calling me to check if I’m okay, I’m starting to call people I know to check if they’re okay. Because - although most of us are living in Brooklyn - you never know where someone might be on a given day. I find out later that Neal was up in court in downtown Manhattan and had to join the mass exodus of people who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge after the City closed the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel.

I call Kim to check if she’s okay. She’s in her studio in DUMBO, right across the water from the World Trade Center.

“I saw the second plane go in,” she says. “Those people...”

She sounds like she doesn’t even realise she’s on the phone to me, like she’s talking to herself.

When I hang up, Cass looks at me. “They’re talking about eight or nine planes that are unaccounted for,” she says. “The guy on the news ... he said they could target the Brooklyn Bridge …” She pauses. “Or the Verazzanno.” The Verazzanno Bridge, five minutes down the road from where we’re sitting.

Within an hour of the original plane crash, the first of the two towers collapse in appalling silence. I’m looking at the screen waiting for the noise that a staple diet of disaster movies has trained me to expect, but the only noises are the screams of the people running away.

I’m on the phone with my parents. “It’s okay,” I tell my mother. “We’re miles away from it. There’s nothing to be worried about.” As I say it, the second tower falls.

For hours, we just sit and watch the enormous cloud of smoke hanging over Manhattan. Every TV station is filled, first with the pictures of thousands of people trying to outrun giant clouds of smoke and debris as the buildings fall behind them, and then later, with pictures of streets covered in a foot of dust and debris, the cloud blocking out the sunlight.

Dazed and injured people wander around, crying and gasping for breath. The streets are unrecognisable, and the newscaster’s comparisons to the aftermath of a nuclear explosion are chillingly apt.

We eventually decide that we have to get out for a while. Outside, all the cars on our street are coated with a layer of dust. It’s unbelievable - we’re ten miles from Manhattan. Then, I remember that it’s not just the dust of a collapsed building, it’s the dust of a thousand bodies.

We get in the car and drive the Belt Parkway towards Manhattan. Neither of us is sure why, but it’s like we need to see it for ourselves. We park the car at one of the exits and stare into the distance at the cloud that hangs over the island. It’s even more grim in reality.

The next day, we wake to a different world. We have entered a new era - for better or worse – and nothing will be the same again. It is hard to know where the American government will take this new era, but it will certainly be unlike anything that came before.

On an immediate level, the horrors of the last 24 hours are starting to sink in. The newscasts show pictures of downtown Manhattan that – in the light of day – look even more eerie than they did yesterday, the monstrous cloud still hanging over the city. The newspapers carry photographs of people jumping from the twin towers to escape the fires and falling a hundred floors to their deaths.

Some of them held hands as they jumped.

Manhattan is basically a ghost town with tunnels and bridges closed and people being told to stay at home. The only people in the city are the rescue teams and volunteers who have come in to help out. The reaction has been amazing, with restaurants all over downtown setting up makeshift soup kitchens to feed the thousands of rescue workers.

At the political level, the signs are troubling. Old, white men are co-opting the disaster to call for more defence spending and the building of missile shields. One of them is on CNN saying, “We don’t need more money for the likes of education, we need more money spent on defence.” An op-ed column in the New York Post talks about how it shouldn’t be too hard for the intelligence services to keep tabs on Arabs in this country, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

After the enormous scale of the disaster that we saw yesterday, today we see the minute details. People on the streets and in the news studios, holding up photographs of the missing; on the phone to the radio stations asking for information; lining up outside the hospitals checking the lists of the dead.

There is a continuous static of reports as we make our way around the neighbourhood. The people are silent and subdued but the reports follow us everywhere, like a wall of sound, from the TV in our apartment to the radio in the car and in the stores, and even down on the waterfront, where silent figures sit listening to the news on portable radios.

They all join together in a symphony, a seamless catalogue of disaster.

Reading the New York Times today, it’s almost too much to process at one time. One story on the front page tells of a man on the fourth hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, calling his wife on his cell phone to tell her that the plane had been hijacked. Upon hearing about the plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center, he called her back a few minutes later and told her that he and several other passengers had decided to try to subdue the hijackers. That was the last she heard from him. It’s presumed they succeeded, but the pilots were probably already dead, and the plane crashed.

A photograph shows a soldier with a mounted machine gun, positioned at Broadway and Walker Street to discourage looters. Gunshots are being fired into mosques, and cars are driving by shouting “murderers”. Even non-Muslims, such as Indians and Sikhs, are being looked at suspiciously. We go to the garage next door to get some gas, and the Indian guy working there offers to pay for it. We’re almost too embarrassed to answer him, but we demur. We say how it’s terrible what’s happened, and he nods his head vigorously, saying, “I love America.”

Eev. Michael Judge, NYFD chaplain, was one of the first to die in the attack. A colleague quoted his favourite saying: “If you want to give God a laugh, tell him what you’ll be doing tomorrow.”
This is an excerpt from the upcoming novel, The Ballad of New York, by Derek Flynn. The narrator is an Irish musician and writer living in New York.

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