Nine years ago today I was living and working in New York City. It was a beautiful morning and it was primary day in New York's election cycle. I had gone to the local high school in Chelsea, on 18th Street, to vote early and then headed down to the office, arriving around 7:45. My office was two and a half blocks from the World Trade Center. My office faced Pine Street and I remember sitting at my desk, working on some document on the computer when I noticed out my window paper floating by, and I remember thinking, gee, what's that? It's too early for a ticker tape parade. Looking a little closer at what was floating by the window I noticed that the papers were either on fire or badly charred.
I got up, left my office and went into the area where my employees had their cubicles, where a half dozen windows looked down on the intersection of Pine and Broad/Nassau Streets. I looked up and could see dark billowing clouds of smoke coming from the direction of the WTC. I went back into my office and logged onto CNN to see what if anything was being reported. The news at that early hour held general news of the day, and a Breaking News banner at the top of the screen saying "Small plane believed to have crashed into the north building of WTC". I went back out to chat with my employees. Shortly thereafter we heard a loud roar and a huge crashing noise. The windows of our office which actually shook. Looking out those windows, in the sky over the buildings across from us, I could see a very large plume of smoke. And in the street below, enormous crowds of people were running down the middle of the street away from the sound of the crash.
Shortly after, building security came on the system wide PA and said the building was in lock down, that no one was going to be allowed out of the building as city officials did not deem it safe. We stayed, not getting any work done, everyone frantically checking the internet for information and calling family and friends to find out what was going on.
The smell of smoke permeated the ventilation system making many feel unwell. We learned that both buildings of the WTC had been struck by large aircraft. Approximately two hours later there was a rumble like an earthquake and a cloud enveloped our building, making it dark as night outside. (We were on the 10th floor of this building.) The windows rattled even more than earlier at the force of the cloud of debris. Later, what felt like hours but was only 45 minutes or so, that blackness outside the windows had turned to a grayish, whitish cloud, something akin to thick fog, but darker gray than normal fog. Then a second rumble happened, if possible a quake-like experience more terrible than the first, turning outside to night once again.
The panic and upset that permeated the office was palpable. We did not know at that time how the buildings had collapsed, although it was obvious that both had come down. We all thought that they had fallen over, not pancaked as they did. Cell phone and internet service had stopped working at the collapse of the first building, so we were cut off from any useful information. The landline phone service was intermittent. In the midst of trying to keep my staff calm, and appear as if things would be alright, my cell phone rang. How the signal got through is still a mystery, but it was my friend Rocco calling to see if I was: alive, unhurt, and to find out where I was. It was the first moment that I thought I was going to lose control of my emotions: hearing my friends voice of concern brought tears to my eyes and face.
Perhaps 45 minutes later another announcement was made by the building PA that the building was being evacuated, the elevators were shut off and we needed to "calmly" leave the building through the interior fire stairs.
Walking out of the building, through the rear entrance on Pine Street, was like walking into a surreal dreamscape. The ash floating in the air was thick, making it nearly impossible to see beyond one or two blocks. The ground was covered with a fine, gray powder that when you stepped into it, your feet were covered as well as your ankle. Most of us had taken a paper towel, moistened it and held that over our nose and mouth to try and protect us from what was in the air.
A small group from my office started walking north up Nassau Street towards the Brooklyn Bridge. As we crossed William Street I looked to the left and saw through the deep, gray ash, the silhouette of the remains of one of the towers. The eerie large pieces of facade with steel beams, all at odd and wrong angles, surrounded a deep blackness which in turn surrounded a fire the color of which I had never seen before. Inside of the black ring was a reddish-orange color and inside that was a white, that wasn't a white. And I thought, I don't believe in hell, but that certainly is it.
We continued up Nassau until it dead-ends at Broadway. The folks with whom I was walking turned right and went over the Brooklyn Bridge, while I continued straight on Broadway to head north to my home in Chelsea. A remarkable thing happened as I crossed Chambers Street, which is right behind City Hall. It was like I had walked through a curtain. Because of how the wind was blowing in from the west, all that smoke and debris in the air was being pushed east over Brooklyn. It was like someone had painted a picture with a sharp line of demarcation, or dropped a curtain: on the south side of Chambers Street there was a thick gray cloud, and on the north side on which I was now walking, the sky was back to the crystal clear blue it had been before those few individuals had caused such havoc, ruining so many people's lives and changing the course of our history so dramatically.
I walked west on Chambers and then north on Church, eventually making my way to Hudson Street and trekked north. My brown shoes and the lower part of my khaki colored pants were caked with gray dust. I can clearly see the hundreds, if not thousands, of people I passed as I headed north, all looking south: some crying, most in shock with their mouths hanging open. Some holding on to the people they were standing with, perhaps friends, perhaps lovers, perhaps a stranger. I couldn't look back. I just wanted to get home.
As I was walking my dog, Allie, this morning, on a very similar weather day as the one nine years ago, I started thinking about these memories I have just shared. I can remember so much more. I can smell, taste, hear, feel all of that so clearly, still, nine years later and I thought I would share some of the experiences of that day. There are many more moments, and I am sure I will be thinking about those today as well. What this has to do with our Daily Office readings, all I can say is.....not much. Any connection I could draw would be tenuous at best.
But I am also thinking about the question people often ask me: Why would God let this happen? I don't think God had anything to do with the occurrences of nine years ago. They are the actions of "not-God". A mindset of brutal oppression and arrogance and hubris that has plagued humanity since we started walking the earth.
The underlying causes of that terrible day nine years ago are far more complicated than I just summarized in two sentences, but that is not what I am interested in writing about today. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and remembrances and remind us that God made us human. We can chose to act with hubris and arrogance or we can listen to what Jesus says throughout his ministry and do our best to be his Body in the world today. There will always be evil among us. How we counteract that influence is a lifetime's work.
I remember in my thoughts and prayers today: all those thousands of lives brutally lost; the families and friends of those people; the injured; the workers who tirelessly tried to find survivors; those whose health has been substantively impacted by working at or near that site, which smoldered and smelled awful for months; and I pray for those thousands of people, who like me, have these memories of that day that will not fade.
Copyright 2010, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.