I had just entered my senior year of high school when the 9/11 attacks took place. Thinking back to that morning, I remember every banal detail, even before the attacks. The whole day is etched into my mind. I remember brushing my teeth and thinking that I hate the shirt I was wearing. I remember being nervous about the football team we were to face that Saturday, I even remember what was discussed in my science class before the announcement was made that a plane had hit the World Trade Center: The reproductive life cycle of conifer trees. But what sticks out most in my mind was the weather. There were one or two wispy clouds in an otherwise clear sky, there was a light breeze, but the sun was still strong and the temperature hovered in the low 70s.
I grew up less than 30 miles outside of Manhattan in a town in which a good chunk of the residents work on Wall Street. So, when we were told what had happened, confusion, chaos and anxiety piled up. The emotions were raw and palpable. This was before a cell phone was standard issue for everyone from 10 to 90, so kids whose parents worked in the towers lined up in front of the nurses’ office to make futile calls to offices where secretaries had other priorities. I remember one girl saying “It is going to be fine, we went through this in third grade and everything worked out.” She was referring to the 1993 attack on the WTC. However, through all the emotion there was an uninstructed, organic manifestation of respect and support along with an eerie sense of order.
A few friends and I left school and walked outside. Trees swayed slightly in a tame breeze but that sky was placid. I recall wondering how anything destructive could have come out of something so docile. Once we got to our car I looked back at the school which now was brimming with the energy of a jail break. Frantic mothers sped through the parking lot looking for their children. Kids roamed aimlessly through the halls crying, not knowing completely what was going on. Teachers tried fruitlessly to comfort but they wanted to panic as well.
I was lucky enough to be able to be at Ground Zero on May 5 when Barack Obama arrived to lay a wreath and speak with victims families. It was an amazing experience to be able to have gone through the full orbit of this tragedy over the last 10 years of my life and be on that hallowed ground that day.
When we got off the train and onto the Ground Zero site that first thing that struck me was the weather. With the exception of one or two more clouds, this early spring day of closure and measured jubilance was identical to that early fall day of bloodshed and horror.
I meandered through the crowd and watched the trees dance in the gentle breeze wondering if they were doing that same dance in that same breeze 10 years ago. I stopped and spoke with a gentleman who was on his lunch break and had come down to the site because “It takes a tragedy to have people come together and we luckily don’t get to see it too often.” I told him what I was doing there and asked him if he had taken any extra precautions as far as being prepared for a tragedy in response to the attacks. He told me that after 9/11 he decided to look more closely at his own mortality, and in turn, at his current employer sponsored life insurance policy. He has since supplemented that plan.
An older gentleman who overheard us talking–and was more than happy to speak to a member of the media– shuffled up to us and said that “We are lucky enough to have multiple vehicles to plan for disasters at our fingertips but we don’t lift our heads up until it is too late.” The sentiment echoed the first gentleman’s about how it takes a disaster for us to “come together.”
Strangers on the streets of Manhattan were starting conversations with one another, people were pushing and squeezing by each other but not a dirty look was shot. Although jokes were being made and there was a general sense of relief and celebration, it was neither rowdy nor raucous. It was a crowd dynamic like I have never experienced. It was like a funeral for someone who had suffered a long, debilitating disease. Finally the rest of us could let go. Relief, happiness, and reverence all mingled together under temperate skies on lower Manhattan on a clear and sunny day.