On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions. From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
On the Road will continue, but it will be forever Alain’s.
It’s hard to believe that a baby born on that horrible day would now be a legal adult, able to vote and otherwise self-determine. Like most of life, there’s more to the story we might tell such a youngster than a cowardly attack that united us all in some magic unity that we should pursue and recreate.
I went to sleep the night of September 10, 2001 looking forward to what I was hoping would be a transformational part-one special on ABC’s Nightline the following night about the Congo and the ongoing horrors and the promise it held. I had set my TiVO to record it, allocating extra time in case it ran late. I was sure it would. At the time (as now!) conflict was killing hundreds of thousands of people, but because of their color, location, and status in a resource-providing country, we paid them little mind. This was finally set to change, assured Ted Koppel.
My mother was American, raised from 5+ in Colombia, and my father was Swiss. He was stationed in Kinshasa for Gulf Oil and my mother was there until right before my birth. She un-assed to Johannesburg, and so I was born in South Africa. I spent the next few months in Kinshasa, then we moved on to Switzerland, Turkey, and finally the States.
Though white as pale rice, I’ve always felt a kinship with Africa and black Africans, in particular. As far as I can figure, I had infantile exposure that left me feeling comfortable and at peace. I’m not African, but I feel something that few other white Americans I’ve met, know. The two times I’ve been lucky enough to go to South and Eastern Africa, I’ve felt a certain “I’m home” feeling that is strange but genuine. I’m not black, not African, but I have some bond that is real for me.
I later learned the horrors of European occupation, especially in the Congo (though I’d not yet read King Leopold’s Ghost) and the murder and tribal genocide since independence. I knew in 2001 that there were was bloodshed, torture, rape, tribal genocide, etc. going on. In the DRC, the old stories were true. And current. Unspeakable things, to our fellow humans, in the shadow and the light. With impunity.
I was so optimistic – fulfilled – that this dark horror that was murdering thousands of our fellow humans every week in the most horrible and pointless ways was going to be in the spotlight, and we, the U-S-A would make things better. I just knew that the unprecedented focus of Nightline on Sept 11, 2001 and Sept 12, 2oo1 would be a major step to making these horrors disappear.
But reality is fickle and tragedy endures.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up hung over in my Manhattan hotel room, checked out, and happily walked the many, many blocks from my almost-Chinatown hotel to our midtown NYC office. I used to smoke, so it was a great way to wake up – good walk on a crisp September morning, lots of Dunhill reds, and people-watching galore.
I was from the DC office, in NYC for two days of media group training. While getting ready Monday morning, for the first time ever I’d had major, visceral misgivings about the trip and wanted to cancel. Responsibility took over and I made the early express train to Penn Station as planned. Day 1 of training was uneventful.
I spent the night of September 10 having far too many scotches in a well-known meeting spot with my former boss. His background was in publishing, and he had some choice insights and stories that night about Rupert Murdoch as well as his own college days in SDS. I was less interested in his thoughts about the newspaper industry and more about his to-me-heroic activist and rebellion years, but even then, we agreed that Murdoch was a cancer on society and was wreaking harm on what we called dear. Little did we know.
I arrived early for Day 2 of our training, having picked up a delicious bacon egg and cheese croissant from some breakfast and lunch deli along the walk. I marveled at the color of the blue sky overseeing us and the cool, dry air. After arrival, check in, and riding the correct elevator (not all go to every floor), I ate, visited, and otherwise prepped for a normal day of offsite training, networking, and team building in our NYC office.
The trainer began on-time and we reviewed the previous day before beginning the new day’s lesson. Someone was getting further clarification on our first task of the day when the door opened.
My unshakable, Staten-Island-born-and-raised group manager came in, ashen. She articulated – a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center – and left the door to close itself as she staggered off to inform others. Her Italian-American charm was replaced by grim, stunned shock.
I jumped up and excused myself from training and ran to the reception area to view the TV. I was watching the confusion and chaos on the TV coverage when the second plane hit; once the second hit was confirmed, I said out loud “shit, we’re under attack” and dashed for the elevators to go down and call my loved ones in DC to let them know I was far away from WTC and that I would make my way home to DC as soon as I safely could. I had to do this because the main cell towers at the time were on WTC so once they were down, most cell phones were useless (except for my NYC friends with the Nextel “push to talk” walkie-talkie function). I knew that there were old-fashioned phone booths outside the building, and so I scrambled to get down, out, back in, and upstairs before things got locked down.
Over the course of the morning, day, evening, and night, the world changed.
I will never forget going upstairs to the travel office to see out a big window, and asking “wait – what happened to the tower”, only to be informed that it had collapsed while I’d been running up the three flights of stairs, and that vertical rose-grey dust cloud was now “it”.
The incandescent glow from tower 2 burned into my retinas until that tower, too, collapsed into a rushing cloud. The glow from those fires was so much more than what comes across in filmed footage.
I won’t belabor all the details, but it was surreal – being from DC – being in Manhattan that day, hearing from friends in DC who were on the way to work and saw the plane streak overhead and disappear before a huge boom and cloud. Hearing about the Pentagon attack, the alleged State Department attack, the plane in Pennsylvania. Rumors, panic, while the airports, trains, buses, bridges, tunnels were closed. Manhattan is an island. I think I read a book about this….
In NYC, friends and colleagues walked across town then bridges, then home. Others walked across bridges to catch New Jersey trains to a far-enough-away airports to rent a car. Or to distant family. One pair got to Newark, rented a car -for $200 a day! – and drove to Los Angeles in like 8 days. I shit you not.
Walking to my dear college friend’s family apartment in Chelsea was memorable – we discussed what we might have to do to get out of Manhattan, walking through the tunnels, if that’s what it came to. I did read that book – Stephen King’s The Stand and the dark tunnel sequence haunted my thoughts until I finally slept the next morning.
Early in the evening, I found out that trains were going to be heading south to DC, so I rushed to the station and got on board the first train to DC with a few coworkers. It was weird to be running around Manhattan and seeing zero – ZERO – cars driving. It was people walking and the only moving vehicles were convoys of cops and other flashing-light vehicles. I’m 90% sure I saw AF-1 fly over because the paint job, but officially, that didn’t happen.
At Penn Station, I reassured one terrified coworker that I would make sure she got to her friend and so, to safety, and I did. Getting her to her best friend’s house in the MD suburbs outside DC was the good deed that helped me cope with the whole day and event. I drove home from there – less than two miles – giddy with relief that I’d helped someone in genuine distress and so could carry on with my and my loved ones’ distress.
On that train, I met and discussed the attack with a Palestinian immigrant who worked in IT on Wall Street and lived in Princeton. He asked me who I thought did it, and after I said “Bin Laden”, he asked me if I was sure. And I thought and began to wake up – it could have been Colombian drug lords because, for the first time, we’d extradited one the DAY BEFORE. And it could be China – in revenge for the Embassy we attacked mistakenly. Or Bosnians. Or radical anarchist types. Or, or, or. I managed to come up with quite a list before he said – no, I think you’re right, it was Bin Laden.
That thought exercise under such duress did change me, as did my conversation with the man who took his seat upon arriving at Princeton. He spoke limited English, was Egyptian, Muslim, and had no idea what was going on – at all.
He was a medical student going from Cairo to Wisconsin to study neonatal/obstetrics. He had spent the day in the bus station waiting for his bus to DC to visit cousins on the way to his school. He did not understand people around him and so knew people were upset and things were all fucked up, but he had no idea why or what. He had been guided to take the train as buses would not be running to DC for a while.
When I explained what had happened, and that it looked like Muslims had done this, I realized that he was at risk, mostly from law enforcement, but also anybody feeling the vigilante-cum-revenge demon. Doubly -triply- because of his limited English.
So, after explaining as much as I could with his limited English, I gave him my business card with a note on the back in case he got into trouble. I never heard from him again, but I do hope he managed to study and become the doctor he so wanted to be.
When we finally arrived at DC’s Union Station late that night, it was plainly unbelievable to come out of the building and see the Army – men, machine guns, helmets, APCs, etc – in our Nation’s Capital, just a few blocks from the literal Capitol. It was like a movie but far too real – that movie-reality had invaded our normal DC world.
Going to sleep around 6 the next morning, it was hard to believe that the world could ever become normal again. Having planes not flying over for many, many days (National was closed beyond the Sept 13 date for most other airports) was the tunnel into this weird new era for me, a remarkable sound and sight difference heralding change through absence.
Have a great day, everybody. Grieve those lost that day and because of that day, but truly grieve the future that was not to be. The first tragedy was the stolen 2000 election, then 9-11, then the 2016 election. Grievous wounds have been struck deep into our national soul and I’m still not sure we’ll survive them.
I do know that hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of our fellow humans have been murdered in the most horrible circumstances in the DRC since then. So for all the horrors in the US, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. that we normally chalk up to the Bush 9-11 failures, add the loss of these masses our attention and action would have saved, should things have turned out differently.
There shall be pictures tomorrow and Friday, so though today’s post is dour, we’ll have some joy the rest of the week! Such is life.