Remembering 911 – Circles of Flame

9-11, Photo: Troi Santos

I

It is a sunny autumn day in New York City. I moved here a year ago from Nashville with my husband and children. I am out for a morning walk today in Washington Square Park with our brown and white springer spaniel. Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The white stone Washington Arch rises against a blue sky and frames the tall, glittering, twin towers of the World Trade Center, a mile south.

Photo: Troi Santos

Fall is one of the most beautiful times of year here. I am not a native New Yorker, but I have come to love how the city swells with nationalities, a grand diversity. This morning, old and young people sit on benches or stroll through the park; children run in the playground; and men play chess, as if the whole world is contained within the boundaries of this place. Our dog relieves herself on a grassy triangle, and I decide to leave her offering rather than scoop it up, feeling slightly guilty, hoping no one will notice this infraction. She pulls me along eagerly, and we walk along the northern perimeter in bright sunshine, past the Arch and traffic barreling noisily down Fifth Avenue.

I am heading toward the mailbox across the street to deposit letters, a large manila envelope—a gift from my daughter to her friend—and assorted bills. The air is breezy, the day so perfect I decide to walk longer than I’d planned. As I step into the street, I inhale the sweet autumn wind. Then I hear the roar of an airplane, a sound so loud I know instinctively the plane is flying low, perhaps in trouble. I have never heard a sound like this in the city and worry that the plane might crash in the park. Foolish, I tell myself, part of the adjustment of moving from a small city to this giant metropolis. Across the street, a man stares at the sky. His mouth opens in a crooked, startled O and he points. I turn, and, then, I see it. A plane, swooping, plows into a tower of the World Trade Center, a little over halfway up. The impact blasts like thousands of guns. Circles of bright orange flame burst from the building and fan into the sky.

At that moment—before I have heard the TV commentators and seen the replay—what I have witnessed seems shocking, impossible, unimaginable. I rush across the street, pulling the dog, the mail still in my hands, and stop to exchange quick words of horror with a doorman who’s outside. Then I run, like I haven’t since I was a child, until I reach our small brick house on a quiet, cobbled street. I jam the key in the lock, kick open the door, fling the leash, mail and my fanny pack on the kitchen table, and telephone my husband.

The entrance to Bellevue Hospital after 9-11, Photo: Troi Santos

My hands are shaking, my heart beating wildly. “You won’t believe what I saw.” I describe it.

“That’s too bad,” he says. I can tell he’s preoccupied, maybe with a patient. 

“You don’t understand,” I say, out of breath.

“It may be historic,” he says. “Maybe you should take another look.”

What time is it now? Minutes later, but I’ve lost track. I leave the dog in the basement, grab the camera and go outside to join the crowd that has gathered on Fifth Avenue. Strangers, we are all looking up at an enormous black hole ripped in a glittering tower. Smoke billows in the sunny air. Flames dance inside the hole, which is alternately orange and black. I snap photos. Everyone says this is like a movie.

“Pilot error,” says an onlooker.

“That was no accident,” says another. “It was a jet. A pilot could have missed the buildings.”

“Maybe terrorists,” insists a third.

“No,” says yet another. “It was a small, silver, triangular airplane. I saw it wobble. I’ll remember that shape all my life.”

As we talk and stare, a second plane swoops near the towers, a triumphant bird of prey. We watch helplessly as it crashes into the second tower. Another explosion, like dynamite. Dark smoke—a shroud—spreads across the sky. Do people say, “My God?” Do they run? I don’t remember. I remember only the feeling of frightened kinship with these strangers as we share the shock of the second crash and then disperse like ants.

A scene on First Avenue by the hospitals after 9-11, Photo:Troi Santos

Doormen outside a building watch, just as they watched the Gay Pride Parade months ago, but now they are ashen-faced. Again, I run to our house. My hands are trembling uncontrollably. I remember the tornado in Nashville. What does one do in an emergency? 

Our house has an upstairs, main floor and basement. The basement is underground and seems the safest place. The television and computer are there. I hurry down and switch on the television. The news has been transmitted instantaneously. I see on the screen what I have witnessed in person. Each announcement from the commentators is worse: a third plane has crashed into the Pentagon. Four, maybe eight, planes have been hijacked.

I phone my husband and 16-year-old daughter’s school. Neither the house phone nor my cell phone works. Surprisingly, the miracle of DSL provides a lifeline to the world. The computer screen lights up. My college son in St. Louis sends an instant message. Are you okay? Then the Brazilian woman who helps in our house arrives. On her way, she saw the second plane hit, and her face is pale as snow. She wants to go home immediately, to Queens, to find her young sons. First, we watch the news to see what is happening in the city. Subways have closed. She will have to walk across the city and the bridge. 

“Be safe,” I tell her as we embrace. 

The small basement has only one tiny, below-ground window that opens into a dirt well. The room is hot and stuffy, a tomb. Airplanes roar overhead. Fighter jets. I learn this from television commentators. The telephone works sporadically, the cellular not at all. I talk once to my daughter who is crying and asks Did you hear what happened at the World Trade Center? The school has been locked, she says; children must leave with a parent. I reach a friend, then the phones go dead again. Twice, the electricity flickers off and the television becomes dark and silent, but not before I learn that one of the towers has collapsed, as if it were made of sand. I do not know what will happen next. A bomb? A bridge exploding? More buildings collapsing? I find our battery-operated radio. Where is the best place to be in a situation like this? Exactly what is this situation? I wish I were a doctor and could help heal the injured. Is it safe to drive and pick up my daughter uptown? Or is it best to stay put?

The facade of the old Administration Building, after 9-11, Photo: Troi Santos

Messages on the computer arrive from my husband, our children in college, friends and family in other parts of the country, the world. Are you okay? they ask. Yes, I reassure them. From time to time, I venture upstairs to open the front door, not sure that the outside world exists anymore. I can see Fifth Avenue. No cars travel there. Instead, crowds of people are on the march. They are walking north, away from lower Manhattan, 10 and 20 abreast, most covered with chalky soot, an exodus of the stunned, wiping their eyes, lifting their weary feet. Hundreds come. Refugees. Silence blankets the city, except for the occasional roar of fighter jets and the sirens’ relentless screech. 

Before our phone stops working again, I arrange for our daughter to stay with a friend who lives uptown. I wonder if I should join the people trudging up Fifth Avenue. But this doesn’t feel safe. Where would I go? To retrieve our daughter? To a hospital or the site of the explosion to help? Flee the city?  *

The basement feels like a bomb shelter. There, underground, I understand the difference between media images and what is real. Noises startle me; I worry that the rumble of an airplane’s engine means more explosions. On the television screen, I see the images of what I witnessed; even I am mesmerized, as the explosions occur again and again. But these TV images are cardboard cutouts, flat and lifeless, compared to the three-dimensional city and its dangers. In the basement I cannot smell the smells or hear the booming blast in the open air, the roar of a plane flying too low and rockily overhead.

Late Tuesday night, my husband returns home from Bellevue Hospital, where he works. Morale is low there, he says. They have set up emergency triage units, but too few injured are coming in. There are five doctors for every patient. Maybe there will be more patients tomorrow. 

We drive uptown to bring our daughter home. The city has become a war zone. No traffic is allowed below 14th Street or near 8th Street, where we live. Police barricades prevent us from traveling on many roads. Two large trucks filled with sand block the entry to a street that opens onto the United Nations. Police patrol most intersections. At one, we see an armored truck. At another is an abandoned car, and anxious police have cordoned off the street. Perhaps the car contains a bomb, I say, and we back up quickly and travel a different route. Coming home with our daughter huddled in the back seat, we are not sure if we will be allowed to drive south of 14th Street to where we live. But we are lucky. Tacked onto the back of the car is my husband’s license plate which reads “M.D.”

“Doctor,” says one of the policemen hopefully. Then he waves us past.

            II

Traumatic. Trauma. Emotional shock; morbid condition of body caused by wound or external violence.

On Wednesday morning, the scope of the disaster begins to sink in. It is another beautiful day, sunny and breezy. I find I am afraid to contemplate leaving the house at 8:48 in the morning, approximately 24 hours after the event, as if this day’s anniversary will bring more terror. This is trauma, I decide. I know we are lucky. We are grateful to be alive. We have not lost anyone in this tragedy. We were not in the World Trade Center towers yesterday. I did not see people trying to save themselves, leaping from the windows of the towers. But it is trauma all the same. At 10:00 a.m., I go to the grocery to stock up on food and bottled water. Already, the lines at the checkout snake long; the shelves are emptying. Only one person is at the cash register, and he grumbles, “I shouldn’t have come in.”

Bank Closed Because of Emergency reads the sign on the locked door, though one can join the group of people waiting to withdraw money from the ATM. Near our house the streets are empty. Dead. No cars move about. People walk, bicycle, or skateboard. The expressions are somber, startled. In the clear morning air, I feel vulnerable and sense collective dread. 

Photos on a truck,Photo: Troi Santos

“To help is to heal,” says a neighbor. She stops at our house and tells my daughter and me that rescue workers need food. Stations have been set up at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. One can bring food for volunteers and for the many people who now clutch photographs of friends and loved ones, missing since yesterday’s tragedy.

This is the most hopeful part of the day. We still imagine there will be survivors. School is closed; my daughter is eager to help. “This will be like when Kennedy was shot,” she says quietly. “Pearl Harbor. Everyone will remember where they were when the towers were hit.” She and I prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches assembly-line style, give these and fruit to the neighbors who make the trek to the hospital. 

We bake cookies and walk north on Fifth Avenue to give them to New York State Troopers who patrol at 14th Street. The avenue is filled with people. Many are snapping pictures through the Arch in the direction of where the tall towers once stood. The wind has shifted today, and even where my daughter and I walk, smoke from the disaster fills the air with its foul, sorrowful scent. In a drugstore, we find face masks to wear.

Mail is delivered to the house today, washing the afternoon with an air of the normal, though the television scenes continue to display yesterday’s horror, as if it is happening again and again. 

When my daughter and I return from delivering the cookies, we are grateful to peel off our face masks. Remnants of the day before still lie on the kitchen table. The dog’s leash, the mail, and my fanny pack sit there, as if frozen in time, just where I flung them after Tuesday’s aborted walk.

We try to make Thursday as normal as possible, given the events and disturbing news. School is in session. The school psychologist holds a meeting for parents. She warns that there may be losses from the tragedy. Or unfounded rumors of loss. We should confirm any news and be aware of what our children read on the Internet. Censor alarmist messages. Watch for changes in a child’s behavior. In one’s own. Discuss what’s happened in general terms, she advises. Healing takes time. It’s hard to comfort a child, she says, when the world feels so uncertain.

But at 10 o’clock that night, my husband receives a call from his sister who lives on the Upper West Side. She tells us in a tense voice that her daughter’s friend has an uncle who works at the CIA. He has told his family to leave New York in the next 36 hours. Something more is going to happen. We make the decision on a whim. Who knows if this is real? I feel like a coward, but still, we decide to leave. I phone friends in New Jersey and ask if we can visit.

Posters of the missing tacked to a building after 9-11, Photo: Troi Santos

Suddenly, we are refugees. My husband’s sister and niece will join our daughter and me, but he will stay to work at the hospital. We pack hurriedly. What does one bring in such a situation? What if a calamity were to occur and we could not come back?  My husband, with two parents who are Holocaust refugees, seems schooled in what one does. In 10 minutes, we pack passports, money, jewelry, a few clothes, photos, checkbooks. I wander around the house. What’s really important here? Not much. Only lives. My husband keeps us company as we drive past outdoor restaurants, on streets where traffic is sparse. Police still patrol intersections. We pick up our passengers, and then my husband leaves. When we hug good-bye, I think, will I ever see him again? Then we travel away into the night, across the sparkling George Washington Bridge, on dark New Jersey roads to the large house with its elegant lawn and air of calm, far from the city’s uncertainties.

It is a tonic to be away, a return to life before Tuesday. We enjoy the quiet of wooded suburbia, company and conversation, although the news on television, which we watch constantly, is heartbreaking. When we join our hosts to shop for food at Costco on Friday, we stand in an aisle and observe a moment of grieving silence with the other customers.

I awake in the middle of the night on Sunday before we are to go home, the sharp clamp of fear pressed in my belly and chest. Why are we returning to New York? My instincts urge me to flee.  I imagine bridges blowing up, tunnels exploding, and cabdrivers—many of whom are Middle Eastern—self-annihilating with their passengers. Ugly new prejudices surface. I am not afraid of enemy airplanes, but fear the people who already live in this diverse and sprawling nation, people we have embraced. I think of the messages I received by email earlier in the week. Are you okay? Yes, I had responded with reassurance, but now I don’t know. 

On this sunny Sunday, with its vast blue sky and the cool air of September washing over us, I force myself to pull out of the driveway with my passengers and travel with resolve toward the George Washington Bridge.  The steel sparkles in sunlight, and a huge American flag spans proudly across the width of it. 

Sometimes one needs to talk about what one has witnessed, and sometimes one needs silence. Ten days after the World Trade Center tragedy, I walk along the same route I traveled that Tuesday morning, the northern perimeter of Washington Square Park, letters to be mailed in my hands. The park is now the Primary Memorial Site for those who have died or are missing. Hundreds of scented candles grace the ground at the base of the Washington Arch. 

Notices are posted: Black-and-white or color photographs.  Descriptions of the missing. Paper is tacked everywhere in the city—to the gray metal fence that surrounds the Arch, to banks, firehouses, grocery stores, on a wall near Bellevue Hospital called the Wall of Prayers. MISSING. LAST SEEN ON THE 101st FLOOR OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER. 6’1”. MOLE ON NECK. Today, after a rain, the damp sheets of paper buckle. 

Near the Arch, hang American flags and large canvases. People have written prayers and words of grief and anger: IN MEMORY… NEW YORK—TOUGHEST CITY IN THE WORLD. FDNY. GOD BLESS AMERICA; Missing. WTC 2 89th floor. Last seen wearing a Rolex watch and a gold cross. On the ground and in the fence, mourners, or those simply waiting, have placed bouquets of flowers. 

Wall of Prayer after 9-11, Photo:Troi Santos

So many of the missing and dead are young, 25 to 35 years old. How many are gone? We still aren’t certain and may never know—5,000, perhaps 6,000. The figures change every day. People in the city talk of the tragedy constantly. The memorial near the Arch is for those who are missing, and for our collective loss, too, of innocence and safety.

Last week, we in New York were consumed with the human toll and devastation to our city. But 10 days later, the explosions seem more complicated, nefarious, and disturbing; the ramifications more dangerous. I tell myself we need to slip back into normal life, to help those who have suffered, even as we wait uneasily for what comes next.

But there are times in life when one witnesses an event that cannot be erased from the mind. The glimpse of it lingers behind the eyes, floats in the brain’s cavity, free-falling. 

gray jet plane in mid air during daytime
Photo by Ron Binette on Unsplash

This is how memory works: I do not remember what I was wearing on that Tuesday morning, or what was on my mind then or the tasks to be accomplished that day. 

I recall only the bright sunshine and a sky so blue that God could have painted it. A breeze, like cool sherbet, and the eager bounce of our dog’s steps. 

An airplane, the glittering towers of steel. 

8:48 a.m. 

The sounds, a chortle, the roar, the explosion. 

Circles of orange flame.

Published in River Oak Review, October, 2001.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of two collections of short stories and a novel. Her most recent book is Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life. She won a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Ronna is the senior fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review and a founding editor of the journal.

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