This was written two years ago—and as another year has gone by I continue to think about my experience at Ground Zero. I offer here some personal thoughts from shortly after the horrific events.
I normally lead my posts with a photograph. I don’t have a photograph to show you. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
I don’t own this story; I was just passing through. We all were. We continue down a path that others have laid out. We can shape our destiny in the choices we make for ourselves—we can make our path our own. But it is all about the choices we make along the way, and the leaders we elect to make those choices for us.
As with most Americans, indeed as it was with most people across the world, we were united for a time in grief and solidarity.
Nous sommes tous des Américains, indeed.
* * *
My wife and I were scheduled to go to Buenos Aires in the fall of 2001 for one of her business meetings. She was on the board of directors of ASAE, a national association based in Washington, D.C. that serves the needs of association executives.
We were excited. Though we’ve traveled extensively, this would be the first time either of us ventured southward from Central America. We even upgraded to Business Class using some of her million mile travel award points, since the eleven hours on the plane wears hard on the sturdiest of lumbar structures. It was going to be great—and at the time we had a tremendous advantage in the currency exchange with Argentina.
* * *
I was in my kids’ school on September 11. I volunteered a lot. I heard a commotion from the library and went to investigate.
The TV was on. I saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. The world crashed. I really had a hard time processing what I was seeing. I don’t remember now what my thoughts were then, but I remember feeling drained and hollow.
* * *
It wasn’t more than a few weeks later that the board of directors meeting scheduled for Buenos Aires in October was rescheduled to take place in NYC. We flew into La Guardia and checked into our hotel—one of the nicest I’ve been in—the Waldorf-Astoria. My bride’s time was filled with board meetings, but I was free during the day. I only had to dress up and stand next to her in the evenings at the scheduled soirees—including a dinner at Gracie Mansion where we listened to Mayor Guiliani thank the ASAE for supporting the city. He gave us NYFD ball caps with FD pins attached. I count it as an honor to have that cap.
I had mixed feelings about taking the subway down to Wall Street. I had to check my own heart and soul—my own motives for visiting the site. I did not want to make it a personal hajj to an American Mecca—nor to make it about me and what I was feeling. I think I did get to that respectful place by vowing to honor those lost and to honor the bravery of the police and firefighters who gave their lives trying to save those in peril.
* * *
The Blue and Red lines went only as far as Canal Street Station, which was about three stops before Wall Street. Even before arriving at Canal Street, the odor seeped into the subway car. You couldn’t escape it. It became pervasive, nearly overpowering. Everything smelled burnt. It was the first indication of horror, and not the last.
I got up to the street and started walking south. As you might imagine, I was overcome with emotions. I never before felt such a connection to the police and firefighters and found myself touching my forehead in an imitation of a salute—a silent thank you to some stranger in uniform—an acknowledgment of their service, bravery, and loss.
St. Paul’s Chapel is a tiny 240-year-old church at Broadway and Fulton and hard up against Ground Zero. From just after the tragedy, it became and remains a destination for pilgrims coming to honor the dead. For eight months after the World Trade Center towers fell, it was also where hundreds of volunteers labored in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, tending to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the rescue, construction, and security workers on the site.
I was stunned by what I saw. The entire wrought-iron fence surrounding the church grounds was covered with stuffed toys and handmade posters. I broke down and wept. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t nearly ready to see this outpouring of love and affection.
I made my way down Broadway to Albany or Carlisle Street, then west to the site. It was on one of these narrow streets that I put away my camera. There were workers in the streets, just below the surface, repairing the infrastructure and utilities. The workers had made and displayed a series of signs, mostly written on cardboard. They were all a variation on a theme: “Please don’t take photos.” I’m convinced that what they were saying was that we needed to honor the dead in a way that did not turn the site into a tourist destination. My mixed emotions about visiting returned. I vowed to honor the requests.
Immediately after reaffirming that decision, I turned the corner to Washington Street and started walking to the site. I didn’t get far. I could see the smoking hazy scene from two blocks away, the torn jagged aluminum siding from the World Trade Center angling skyward.
In front of this scene was a man with a camera. His wife and two daughters were standing in front of that horrific carnage—and smiling for the camera. My first reaction was to get in the face of this guy and ask him if he’d seen the signs. I quickly stopped myself. It was not my place to confront or judge anyone else there. I could only decide for myself how I would handle things.
I turned around and retraced my steps back to St. Paul’s, where I lingered and watched the people. I must have stayed for a couple of hours, but had to get back to the hotel.
Along the way, I passed myriad vendors selling 9/11 souvenirs. I’m not one to be overly talkative, but the day’s journey to the site of terror served to make me even less communicative. It was a weight that in some ways still remains.
I know my thoughts and feelings can’t compare to those directly affected. And I will not go on to now to preach about the solidarity so soon lost. The last ten years are what they are. We can all only continue to go on, but hold fast some simple ideas that helps shape our personal and collective choices: love, honor, duty, sacrifice, coming together as a nation, and remembering the fallen. People still struggle to deal with the tragedy, personally and collectively. There is now a decade-long history of individuals who have used 9-11 for their own purposes, whether to bolster their own political standing or otherwise to draw attention to themselves. There are also many examples of translating personal experience into something that brings out our better selves. It’s up to each of us to choose not only how we remember, but also how we respond.