We are now just past the fourteenth anniversary of 911. Until now, I’ve never really gotten to experience the trajectory of a major disaster before. In the last few years the reality of 911 has become a legend, one that has less impact every year that goes by. It was nothing I expected but I figure the victims of Pearl Harbor had no idea what the future would bring. Even disasters have as shelf life, as sad as that is.
How is it possible that the impact of the worst disaster in our history diminishes with time? It amazes me to think of the fact that, since that day, entire teenage lives have been lived. For them 911 is simply file footage, documentaries, and conspiracy theories. I certainly can’t blame them for that. Reality is what you’ve experienced, not what you’ve been told.
Still, for some of us, it’s an experience we can’t forget. That day I made the mistake of going downtown to my work after seeing the north tower burning from miles north of the World Trade Center. It all came down to another legendary crash in New York City. In the 1950’s a B-2 bomber crashed into the Empire state building. There was no terrorism there, just bad piloting.
Seeing the tower burning, I recalled that story and it seemed quite logical that every fifty years or so a plane would hit a skyscraper. As a result of my poor decision to go to work, I found myself in an immobile northbound subway a block and a half from the Twin Towers. I and my fellow New Yorkers spent half an hour in the subway as the dust from the towers drifted into our car, making seeing more and more difficult.
In the end they made history, backing the train to the station it had recently left. A failsafe mechanism stopped the train every twenty seconds or so, almost knocking us off our feet. Once the train powered up again we’d continue. It took perhaps ten tries before we saw the welcome light of Wall Street Station piercing the murk of the dust that had accumulated. Once on the street I thought I was in a garage, something that made no sense because there is no garage one level above the platform in Wall Street station. Then I looked up and saw a traffic light change from red to green; I was outside. I was in the false night of 911.
Each year since then, as I approach September 11, I get this feeling, one of depression and sadness. I know many people who have lost children or parents and the anniversary of their passing brings on feelings of anxiety and depression. In many ways I feel the same; 911 was a loss for me and continues to be. Oddly I feel that I’m lucky; I didn’t lose anyone when the towers went down. I didn’t see horrible things that haunt my dreams.
It starts with the occasional pre-fall tang in the air and the sudden parade of documentaries and, somewhere in my subconscious something sits up and takes notice. I suppose that, while it’s not obvious, there is some level of PTSD involved. It feels very strange to say that and know that it’s true. I can think of four people I know whose reaction to 911 is far worse. In one case I know of a man whose partner dodged the bullet that day and didn’t go to his job in one of the towers because of a dentist’s appointment. Despite the fact that he hadn’t lost his partner, this man left his business with his partner and planned to leave New York City immediately.
And then there is the friend who was across the street from the back side of the World Trade Center complex. He watched people jump. Enough said.
For me it’s almost like being back there, that pall of depression and anxiety living in me, making itself, not a memory, but my current state of being. There are odd moments when I feel that I should be back in New York and not be in Tennessee where I now live. Everyone wants to go home when the ground goes out from under you.
As I watch the documentaries, I’m both comforted by the scenes of New York and those awful accents and horrified by the context. Seeing New York is wonderful but it’s heartbreaking to see people who were once my neighbors covered in dust and running for their lives.
The symptoms will peak on September 11. Several times I have almost made it to memorial services here in Tennessee and each time I’ve bailed at the last minute. The 911 season makes it hard for me to relive what happened to me on that day.
In a sense, I am lost in time; it’s as if part of my life stopped that day, much in the way the loss of a loved one keep people tied to the past. I mourn my home town, a place that represented both the best and worst of America. I mourn my own innocence; once you experience something like 911 your view of the world is jaundiced forever. In a way I feel that I need to go back and make it right, as insane as that sounds. Of course I know that’s not possible.
I can only hope that next year I will have the courage to go to a memorial service. I once met a Viet Nam vet who told me it took him at least four times before he could walk up to the Viet Nam memorial, fearing he would see the names of some of his brothers in arms. What that tells me is that human beings are not constructed to handle horrors that defy understanding.