A pretty wild night out at a New York night club on Friday night left me in a very fragile condition the following morning. I awoke to be greeted by a pounding headache, blurred memory and a reflection in the mirror that made me glad that my recollection of the previous night was so impaired. Would there even be a New York left when I looked out the window or had I drunk that too? Anyway, you get the picture, I was down in the dumps feeling pretty sorry for myself, not ready to face the day ahead.
That day I was going to Ground Zero, where I’d be looking round the 9/11 Tribute Centre and receiving a tour across the site. This tour was to be given by volunteers, who were actually present the day the tragedy struck and would pass on the story of their experiences.
It wasn’t until I heard these accounts that my whole day got turned upside down and the self-pity consuming me was put entirely in its place.
Now before I relay an account of one of the women who spoke, I need to tell you something that’s key to remember when I get to the end of this post – as we sat and listened to this most moving story, I noticed a tall, lanky man staring at me intently. He was quite gaunt and had a look of illness about him, a greyish tinge to his skin. But it was his eyes that resonated the most with me, probably because they were looking directly into mine. These were the saddest pair of eyes I’ve ever seen, as if they were carrying every burden of every human being on the planet. It was like they were mourning but no tears were coming out. As the woman continued with her story he got his phone out and looked as if he were taking pictures of me, continuing all this time to just persistently stare. I, of course, outraged in my head did my best to ignore it. Quite frankly, it took only a moment of reliving her experience before I was so engrossed that this outrage dissipated into a united feeling I shared with the entire audience. Grief, empathy and compassion all rolled into one as my ears heard a tale they would never let my mind forget. *Remember the man, he’s kind of important*
This was her story…
Working as first responders, S (a woman of medicine) and her husband, J (a man in the force) were on call when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre at 8:46am on 11th September 2001. Although her husband advised her against joining him at the scene, S was determined to be amongst her colleagues and aid victims of the attack. Due to New York being in a state of panic, confusion and terror, she was delayed and unable to reach the Twin Towers. Eventually, S returned home where her 16 year old daughter was waiting, white as a sheet, staring at the door. Of course when her parents who worked as first responders hadn’t returned home, the teenager had put 2 and 2 together, assuming they had been killed. She was in a state of shock and was severely traumatised. Deeply anguished by the pain S felt she had caused her daughter, the television was switched off and they heard from J later on over the telephone. He updated them and told them he had been sent to the North tower with his team. Soon after this call, the North tower collapsed. J did not call them again. We cannot possibly begin to understand the emotions felt within their family as S did not have confirmation of her husband’s death nor did she have any indication that he could still be alive. To mourn or to hope? She remembered her daughter asking “Was that phone call dad saying goodbye?”
Much later on that day, a familiar sound of the jangling keys that J kept on him at all times, which usually irritated S beyond belief, was like a heavenly chime ringing throughout the house. He was home and he was safe but…he was not the same. J’s entire team, bar him and another had been killed. The guilt of being a survivor was overwhelming and he refused to speak about his experience to anyone. As the city began to piece itself back together, searching in the rubble, attempting to reunite family members with the injured and desperately looking for hope at a time when grief had devastated the entire world, S and J joined hundreds of others to help in any way they could at the smoking pile of debris, where the World Trade Centre had once magnificently stood. They survived the initial attack but a few years ago J was diagnosed with cancer along with several other illnesses. S herself suffers from seven different problems now, all as a consequence to her days spent breathing in the toxic fumes that were left behind from this poisonous, hateful crime against humanity. The number of those who have become sick after 9/11 as a result of the polluted air has now overtaken the amount of people who were murdered on the actual day. The message here resonated for me so ferociously that I could not stop the streams of tears pouring down my face. The devastation caused for just one family means that not only are two parents terminally ill but that a husband and father figure has been mentally altered due to the horror he encountered. It was at the end of her monologue that S revealed her husband was standing amongst us in the crowd and that the volunteer programme acted as a kind of therapy for them after they had seen such horrors. Watching events on a television screen and being shown pictures is nothing compared to witnessing such devastation with one’s own eyes. “The eyes never forget that” she had said. Her husband, J emerged from behind and it was none other than the man who’d been staring before. He was still looking directly at me.
After the tour was over, I thanked the woman for sharing her story and approached J with a few people I was with. We felt we ought to shake his hand out of respect for the heroism he demonstrated on 11th September 2001. This guy literally saw people jumping from a building before him, watched as victims were hit with falling rubble and lost almost all of his colleagues in one day. How could he possibly ever be the same man that S married years ago? It was then that he spoke directly to me.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“20,” I replied. He smiled and began fumbling in his pockets before pulling out his wallet.
“The 16 year old daughter my wife mentioned, how she was sat at home waiting for us…you look exactly like her. She’s in her thirties now but you look exactly like she did at 16.” I got that feeling in my stomach that you get on one of those theme park rides when it suddenly falls from a great height. The hairs on my arm stood on edge as I got chills from head to foot. J then brought forth from his wallet a few passport size pictures of his daughter who I could not deny was my doppelgänger. “I was looking at you before as my wife was talking and you look just like she did on that day.” His eyes were still sad but the corners of his mouth were slightly turned up, he was sort of smiling. As other people came over (I presume to do just as we had done and acknowledge the man out of respect), he shared the likeness with them too, showing everyone the picture and then pointing out myself….I came away feeling totally stunned and also ashamed of feeling so irritated to begin with when he’d been staring. I don’t know what kind of emotion the similarities between myself and his daughter brought to J; I cannot possibly imagine.
I don’t think stories such as this should ever be forgotten or lost because they are precious to humanity. They inspire action, compassion and love in those who listen. We were all individuals hearing what S had to say, but as we relived the experience with her, our hearts beat as one. I have never felt so connected to a group of people I didn’t even know. That day will never leave me.
I won’t remember the headache or the hangover because they were irrelevant. I won’t remember the ache in my limbs or the heaviness of my eyes because they didn’t matter.
I will remember S, J and their daughter for as long as I live.