9/11 Lights in Remembrance
This is one “where-were-you-when-it-happened” moment that I cringe to remember, every year on this day, September the Eleventh. Eleven years ago, on this day, at around 9.30 am I was sitting in a subway train having boarded it as usual from the starting point at Flushing Main Street Station in Queens to go to the final destination at Times Square. My office was on West 40 St and 8th Avenue.
It was just after rush hour, so the compartment was not crowded. At the point where the train sharply turns to leave Queens Borough and enter Manhattan, one got a clear view of the Manhattan skyline, a sight I could never get enough of even though I watched it every day. The majestically rising Twin Towers of the World Trade Center occupied the pride of place among the thousands of Manhattan high rises, some of which like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Tower craned their elegant necks to declare that they held their own too.
They say you don’t see what you don’t expect to see. And so as I absently watched the skyline view pass by, I didn’t realize what I was actually seeing until someone in the compartment said: “Look, fire in the WTC!”
Indeed, leaping into the bright Fall morning sky were ominous flames which ironically made the towers look like massive twin torches. As everyone in the compartment lined up on that side of the compartment to watch the massive fire in awe, there were already voices of speculation rising. But none of those voices included a guess of what really happened.
Thinking it might at best be a story for the mainstream newspapers (since the publication I worked for is an ethnic weekly community paper), I reached my office not expecting to have to follow-up on the fire.
Little did I realize that the news I would hear upon entering the office, would be a foreboding on life not just way I lived it, but the way the world knew it.
It was 9.58 am when I entered the office, and even as a colleague watching television in her cabin called out to me and began telling me what really was happening, she screamed, “The South Tower has collapsed!” It was 9.59 am.
The horrifying news that sank into my numbed brain is now part of history, which contemporary world will never forget.
Just to restate the sequence of the day’s events: At 8:46 am, five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower (1 WTC), and at 9:03 am; another five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 in the South Tower (2 WTC); five hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37 am; and a fourth flight, United Airlines Flight 93, taken over by four hijackers, crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 am after the passengers fought the hijackers. Flight 93’s target is believed to have been either the Capitol or the White House.
More than 3,000 people died in those attacks. Of them more than 200 were Indians.
That day, although my reporter’s instincts told me to rush to the site, I could not because my editor forbade me from doing so. I was still new in the City and not accredited by the NYPD yet. But yes, there was no escaping the follow up stories.
The first time something personally unrelated to me that changed the way I lived my life then was the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots and the subsequent serial bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1992-93.
And then, it was post-September 11, 2001.
It was the first time I experienced what was till then an alien concept to me: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Yes, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, I suffered them all. Days after the attacks, when the billowing smoke from Ground Zero subsided, the gap in the skyline uncannily reminded me of a 6-year old whose two front teeth had fallen.
It’s 11 years since that day. Though used to ‘idea’ of increased security, I am yet to get used to the drag of having to take off my belt and shoes and standing with my legs apart in the body scanner at airport checking. I still feel jittery if I see one too many of the K-9 squad at New York’s Penn Station. My voice drops to a whisper when mentioning certain ‘keywords’ while talking with friends on the phone. I think twice before accessing random websites on the Internet. And feel rather uncomfortable when any religion-based organization without warrant picks up my stories to paste them on their websites.
In Downtown Manhattan today, a brand new World Trade Center building is nearing completion; a part of the memorial is already open to the public, and families of victims who died in the attacks that day are increasingly becoming stoic when they turn up with the token mementoes to Ground Zero for the memorial service on the morning of 9/11 every year.
And oh yes, of course, Osama Bin Laden is dead.
Still, to date, every single time I see images of those Twin Towers burning, my heart skips several beats. My biggest regret – I never did go up to the viewing deck on top of the towers. As a New Yorker, I took the Towers for granted.
A friend had once told me he felt like Superman when he went up there. I will never know what that feels like.