I no longer mark the passage of time by New Year’s Day. Nor do I mark it by my birthday; but rather on this day, September 11th.
On September 11th 2001, I was coming up from the PATH train when the first plane struck the North Tower just as I reached the top of the escalator. The next few hours would change my life forever, along with everyone else in this nation and in the rest of the world. For the past nine years, I have struggled with acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, alcoholism, bi-polar disorder (which was diagnosed while I was in treatment for PTSD), and a degenerative spinal column. I have been tested for leukemia. My children have been affected because they have gone through the past nine years with a father who is still struggling to stay healthy and to find some type of spiritual order amidst the chaos. My wife has been incredible as a mother and a wife during this time, and I don’t think that anyone has quite addressed how she feels or what she has been going through; much like any of the spouses of those involved in 9/11. They too are the forgotten ones, along with those who continued to work at their jobs in the Financial District as the steel continued to melt and the air was still filled with the ashes of the dead…months and years later. While it is proper to acknowledge the sacrifice and heroism of Firefighters, Police Officers, and First Responders…the forgotten are those who were simply going to work one day and had their entire world crumble around them. They have suffered publicly and privately with a hell that no one could understand unless you were there.
Unless you were there…
There are times when you seek out history, and other times history seeks you out to become a part of its temporal fabric forever. I was there at the dawning of this new age; an age that I cannot say is either good nor bad. It simply is. It is what we are now; what we as a species need to understand is what we will become in the future. Will we be the voice of reason and love or the voice of hatred and intolerance of the past few weeks? Do we seek to blame others, or do we look inward and somehow realize that the only way…the ONLY way those 3,000 souls who perished on that day can be honored properly is not with a memorial. Not with a plaque. Not with a public ceremony once a year to once again mark the passage of time…but with an understanding of just what truly happened on that horrible day. It is not about vengeance, it is not about hatred, it is not about conquest of one religion over another. It is about the Human Race waking up and realizing that we are all truly brothers and sisters, despite the hatred espoused by some. It is about all of us waking up and realizing that if we don’t have each other, who do we have?
Every year on my blog (here and on previous sites) I post this reproduction of a piece I wrote a few days after the events of that Tuesday. I was still struggling to make sense out of it…or anything else for that matter. It has been used by a few professors in their classes (with my permission, of course). It resides in the Library of Congress as part of the documents that were submitted by people to tell their personal stories of that day. Every year I put this out there in the hope that another generation will read it and see for themselves just what happened and in the hopes that they may learn from history. It is also for you who could not possibly understand to be there. The images on television and in countless documentaries are vivid, but not as vivid as they remain in my own head and my own heart…
———Phoenix Uncertain: Originally written on Thursday, September 13, 2001—————-
CATHARSIS I: The Road to Damascus
I need to write all of this down right now, while the smells, sounds, and experiences of the past few days are fresh in my mind. I also need to do this now because I’ve gotten some clarity in the past few hours and I don’t know how long that will last for. I have alternated between disbelief, sorrow, confusion, and anger…and sometimes all of these simultaneously. On Tuesday, the man I was ceased to exist. The light has been extinguished from my eyes. I’ve tried to explain things to my wife and broke down every time. I cannot even begin to explain to my daughter Katie how lucky she is to have her Daddy around, nor can I explain to her why her Daddy screams in his sleep or why he shakes for no reason. I cannot explain to her why every time I head a loud sound or bang, I practically jump out of my skin. All I can do is try and take the medication that keeps me normalized and try and make some sort of sense of the whole thing. Now that I’ve just popped a “happy pill”, I’ve got 8 hours to write this all down, before I descend into my own abyss once again. In the past 72 hours, I have witnessed events that I never thought I would see with my own eyes. What you are seeing on your television is absolutely nothing…and I do mean NOTHING…like it actually was to be there. I keep telling myself that something or someone must have had a greater plan for me, and that is why I am alive today instead of being buried under a ton of rubble. Perhaps that plan just to write this document of my experience to share with others so that they may carry on the memory of those who survived like myself, and the memory of those who were lost. Perhaps it is to share with you that amidst all of the evil, I witnessed some of the finest moments of compassion and humanity that I have ever seen…an affirmation of a belief that I have always held: that we have greatness inside all of us. Perhaps it is about the redemption of my own soul, for like Saul on the way to Damascus, I’m slowly coming to the realization that my life has indeed reached a turning point. I also know that there is no going back to the person I was, and I just have to figure out just who the hell I am now.
CATHARSIS II: Abnormal Normality
TUESDAY, September 11th, 2001: 7:22 AM, Little Silver Train Station, NJ
Kissed my wife and daughters good bye as they dropped me off at the station. Took my coffee, laptop, and briefcase…bought a copy of the NY Daily News. Thankfully since the NY Giants/Denver Broncos game ended late, I don’t have to read about how my team was defeated. Read through the paper all the while sipping my coffee on the one hour ride to Newark NJ, where I will catch the PATH Train (a subway between NJ and NY) to the World Trade Center, just 3 blocks from my office at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza.
8:20 AM, Penn Station, Newark, NJ
Board the PATH train…and actually found a seat! I consider this a good omen for the rest of the day, especially as I was lugging around a very heavy laptop PC in addition to my regular briefcase. It was for this reason that I decided NOT to listen to my CD Player today…it would be just too awkward carrying around a CD player strapped to my waist as well as a laptop and briefcase. I close my eyes to catch a few winks on the 22-minute ride into Manhattan. 8:42 AM, World Trade Center, New York, NY Leave PATH train for the ride 6 stories up a series of escalators to the street level. I decide that my laptop is sitting awkwardly on my shoulder, and that I would fix it when I reached the top of the escalators.
8:45 AM, WTC Path Square (located in the center of the WTC Complex, 1 story Below Ground, where there’s a Shopping Mall)
Reach the top of the escalator, and begin to fix my laptop. As soon as I get myself situated…something happens…a sound…something different. Sounds like a crash at first…then a low rumble…then a “whoosh” throughout the complex. People are starting to run, and once others see people running, they too scramble for the exits. At this point, I think it’s a good time to get the hell out of there, and start to run toward the exits as well. Someone, in his or her haste to get out, knocks me over. I’m falling face first toward a plate glass window in one of the shops. Somehow, I manage to contort my body so that I land on my left knee pretty hard, but my face hits the floor. I’m dazed…compose myself for a minute…and realize I have to get out no matter what just happened. My knee is killing me, but the endorphins take over, and that pain is quickly gone. I feel something warm on my chin, and realize that it’s blood. My fall knocked one of my front teeth into my lip, putting a nice gash in it. I wipe some blood away, and follow another crowd into the lower level of the Border’s bookstore, which also has an exit to the streets…it’s much less crowded, and a calmer exodus of people. I reach the street and exit into the air. There is a burning smell…I’d never smelled anything like it. There are thousands of papers falling from the sky in a quiet procession of calm amidst the chaos. A paper rain, much like one of those party favors that you might have had when you were a kid…you know, the fake champagne bottles filled with confetti. I start to walk across Church Street. I can see smoke, but because I’m so close to the tower, I can’t really see anything. I begin to walk westward toward Broadway past St Paul’s Chapel. As I walk, people are looking up at the North Tower, then looking back down at my blood stained face. I see their eyes are filled with confusion. When I reach the corner of Broadway and look up I can finally see what happened. There, at the top of a building that is approximately ¼ of a mile long is a HUGE hole…several stories in length…plumes of smoke and flame billowing higher into the air. I can only stand there, watching in disbelief as I realize that what we had all feared had probably taken place: a bomb had gone off in the World Trade Center.
CATHARSIS III: Another Ulysses
APPROX. 9:00 AM, Broadway
It’s funny how the mind operates. You know, kind of like when you see a magic trick, you can’t believe what you saw…or when your team makes a triple play…or when you witness a birth. You know you’re seeing something, but your mind sends signals that it’s just not possible, but there it is. From out of the Tower, I’m seeing debris fall…but it’s coming in very irregular intervals. Usually, debris falls in a pattern as a structure is weakened, and at the same rate of descent. This debris was sporadic, and it wasn’t just falling in a straight line from the Tower…it was arcing. I saw it happen once, twice…but on the third time, I saw what I thought was debris MOVE, I thought I saw arms move…and I realized that debris cannot move, nor could it have arms. I had just seen people throw themselves from the North Tower to escape the consuming flames. I began to shake, began to shout “No F***ing way!” and “Oh my God” at the top of my lungs. Someone came over to me and put their hand on my shoulder and asked me if I was all right. I think I said something to the effect I was, but they offered me a bottle of water and some tissues to wipe the blood off my face. I accepted and I asked if they had seen the explosion…and that’s when they told me it was a plane that had crashed into the North Tower. They also told me it was an airliner. The brain couldn’t register that one really…except for the fact that I thought it was a terrible accident, and thank God it wasn’t a bomb. Another person in the crowd came up to me and asked if I needed help getting to where I was going. I realized that my hands were trembling and couldn’t hold either the tissues or water steady and my knees felt weak. Brain kicks in again: yeah, take this guy up on his offer. It turned out he worked for my company but at another location. We began to walk toward my building, and I notice some debris along the way. About a block from my office, right in front of the Federal Reserve Building I see some debris that catches my eye: some tacky looking upholstery that looks like it came from an airline headrest. It was then that I saw a seat cushion and an armrest…THANKFULLY empty.
APROX 9:12 AM, 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza
I walk one block further south to my building, and reach the Plaza. Just as I’m about to turn to enter my building, I hear the whine of jet engines. I look down the block at the South Tower, and see a fireball engulfing the building, showering flaming debris across the skyline, arcing outward and in my general direction. There is a low, rumbling sound, very much like what I had heard earlier…a sound that grew as the flames spread and debris rained down upon Manhattan. The crowd begins to run frantically toward the east, away from the falling debris. I overhear someone say that it was another jet that collided into the South Tower. It was then I realized that this was no accident, that my greatest fears were realized: we were under attack. It was at that moment, I knew that I had to somehow survive this…get the hell out of there…and get home to my family. I had just become a modern day Ulysses.
CATHARSIS IV:The Silence before the ROAR
APPROX 9:20 AM, 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza
I’m pretty superstitious. I usually sit in the same seat for a baseball or football game if my team is winning. I never pick up a penny “tails up”, and I don’t walk under ladders. In some convoluted manner, the Universe played a trick on me, for I work on the 13th floor of my building. It never bothered me before, but on a day like Tuesday, there was just no way I was going to go up into my office…so I decided to go downstairs to the Branch to use the phone to call my wife to let her know I was OK. (A footnote here and an important one because it’s going to come into play later: The Branch is an underground structure, kind of like a rectangular “donut”. It is just below the Plaza, with a circular glass enclosure in its center containing a fountain. There is an opening at the top of this enclosure to the Plaza to let light in. From the Plaza level, there is a circular wall that allows viewing of the fountain from the Plaza, and it’s quite beautiful when viewed from inside the branch at the level of the fountain.)
Just before entering the Branch, I meet up with a co-worker who sees me and is pretty amazed at my condition at this point…I can only imagine: A deer in the headlights look accompanied by a bloody face. I try and tell him what’s happened so far. It turns out, he’s not going to his floor either…and he helps me into the Branch. Needless to say, the Branch had been closed to all but employees with ID. I also know the Branch Manager, Assistant Branch Manager and many of the staff well because I’ve worked with them directly when I was in the Branches myself. I got in there; they sat me down and got me some first aid as well as some water. I called my wife, told her I was OK and told her of what I was going to do next: try and take the Staten Island Ferry and get to either my parents or my in-laws and have them drive me home. I just wanted to get the hell off Manhattan as soon as possible, especially with the thought that there were two ¼ mile buildings a few blocks away that had the possibility of collapsing. I called my parents and told them of my intentions as well. Needless to say, I’m pretty shaken up at this point. I decide to sit a few minutes to try and relax, collect my thoughts, and move on. A woman named Maxine (who I’ve never met before) sat with me and comforted me. She also spoke with my wife during my phone call and said she was taking care of me. God Bless her…she was a BIG help. We turned on the radio to listen to the news, to see exactly what had happened, and it was just as we feared: two jet liners were hijacked and were rammed into the World Trade Center…and one other thing that hit us all like a ton of bricks…the Pentagon was also attacked the same way. Nothing was the same anymore.
CATHARSIS V: No World Order
APPROX 10:15 AM 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza
Some people talk about a “New World Order”. At this point in my life, there was definitely a New World, but anything but order. I had finally calmed down, and was about to make my way toward the Staten Island Ferry when the unthinkable happened: That ROAR happened again…that ungodly Roar that still was imprinted in my head from the last few hours… …And then I saw the debris and smoke fill the glass enclosure around the fountain. The ground shook, and we all began to rush toward the escalators that would take us to the vault sub-basements in the Plaza. We arrived down there followed by a cloud of smoke and dust…we made our way through passages that led to the underground cafeteria where security told us to go. My first thought was that my building was attacked, but something completely unexpected happened. We had just found out that one of the icons of the New York Skyline, one of the World Trade Towers had crumbled to dust…and that rubble had spread across Lower Manhattan, washing across the Plaza. We were told to stay put…it was safer here, and there was NO visibility AT ALL outside. More people started to file into the cafeteria…all of them covered in dust…stark white ghosts with terrorized eyes peering from the rubble that had been strewn onto their bodies. Among them were two people who worked in my department. I rushed up and the three of us hugged and held onto each other. We got a table in the cafeteria; got some of the water and wet rags they were handing out to help us breathe. …And we sat…for two hours…and waited for news of when we could leave the building. In the meantime, there was another dull roar in the distance…THAT ROAR… …And the other Tower had fallen. …And God only knew what the rest of the world outside looked like.
CATHARSIS VI: A Hole in the Sky
APPROX Noon, 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza
Now I know what my cat feels like when I let him out of his carrier after we bring him back from the vet. He always wants to get the hell out, and yet he steps out gingerly, unsure of what he can expect. I kind of felt that way as I exited our building after we were told to head toward the East River. I also felt like a B-Movie actor on one of those bad 50’s “Day After…” movies, the ones usually used for cannon fodder on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. There was dust everywhere, and it looked like it was snowing in September. There had to be two inches of dust and debris on the streets as CJ (one of those guys I mentioned earlier who worked with me) and I made tracks for the South Street Seaport. We’re wandering around, towels around our faces like some post-apocalyptic version of TE Lawrence and The Shadow trekking across the Nafud, or Paul and Jessica across Arakis in “Dune”. We looked back where the Twin Towers had been…the same two towers CJ and I came through every day from the PATH (she’s from North NJ)…the same two towers that had dominated the skyline since we were children (we’re both 40, born a month apart). There was nothing. Absolutely nothing…except for a huge black cloud where those beautiful towers once stood gleaming in the sunshine. It was as if you used a photo program on your PC, highlighted the Towers, deleted the image and filled the blank area with smoke. It hurt to breathe (and I’m a smoker, so I can just IMAGINE what a non-smoker would have felt). The dust stung your eyes and skin. It was raining dust…a horrible snowfall on a late summer day…a snowfall that contained pieces of building, asbestos, paper, jet fuel, and God only know what else. I was reminded of Good Friday for some reason… We finally got to the River, and began to follow the exodus uptown toward God knows where. All CJ and I knew was that we had heard there were ferries still running to NJ (the SI Ferry was shut down at this point, so my first plan was abandoned) and we had to catch one. The air was clear, and I decided I REALLY needed a cigarette at this point (NOTE: A martini was my first choice, but the bars were closed). I offered one to CJ…who hasn’t had a cig in 10 years…she took it, we lit up and moved on.
CATHARSIS VII: Dorothy and The Scarecrow
EAST RIVER ESPLANADE: Approx. 12:30 PM
I’m thoroughly convinced that The Universe has a sense of humor. CJ and I stop and look out at the river just below the Brooklyn Bridge. We can see hundreds of people walking across the Bridge to Brooklyn, the same for the Manhattan Bridge in the distance. It’s actually a beautiful day; there are no clouds in the sky…there are people just sitting on benches on the esplanade looking out at the water…some are fishing…some are making out. Order amidst chaos. We had just come from chaos into one moment of perfect beauty. I think to myself that this is really a beautiful day, and I imagine myself at the Shore or in my backyard with my kids…and then it hits me… …No beach to walk on unless I get home. No backyard and no kids and wife unless I get home…and God only knows what else happens on this day. Snap back to reality…we’ve got to get home. CJ and I meet a Police officer who says ferries are leaving from Pier 11 for NJ and directs us Uptown. Just a slight problem…Pier 11 is just South of us a few blocks, so CJ and I are headed in the wrong direction. Like I said, the Universe has a sense of humor…
SOMEWHERE ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE: Approx., 1:00 PM
CJ and I have walked for a while. I’m still carrying the laptop and briefcase, and I really can’t feel the pain in my knee yet, but at least my lip has stopped bleeding. Needless to say, both my shoulders are killing me. We walk around trying to find Pier 11, just Dorothy and the Scarecrow trying to find Oz. We walk through neighborhoods that we would never walk through regularly, and people are coming up to us and asking if we are OK (we’re covered in dust at this point). They give us water and comfort. We see others helping people…a woman in a wheelchair giving directions and a bottle of water to two people…four people hugging in the middle of a street glad to find each other…Police Officers with their arms around people offering them comfort as well as direction. I realize at this point what my Dad always said about the blackout of 1964 (he was trapped in the subway) that New Yorkers are people who put all differences aside when in a crisis. We finally find a cop who points us in the right direction…we head back downtown.
CATHARSIS VIII: Just Click Your Heels Three Times…
PIER 11, New York, NY: Approx. 2:00 PM
We found OZ. No emerald city here, just a bunch of ferries that were going back to New Jersey. CJ and I parted company here. She headed back to Jersey City and one of the few remaining trains that were running out of Hoboken. I got on a high-speed ferry bound for the Highlands on the Jersey Shore, about 10 miles northeast from my house. I decided I’d worry about how to get home from there…I’d walk if I had to. The Police search our bags before we get on… The ferry is VERY comfortable, complete with bar that is, unfortunately closed…it costs approx. $18 each way, about twice my cost for the trains (which were NOT running at this time), but they were ferrying everyone at no cost. They gave us water, and there were two clergymen on the boat, a Catholic Priest and a Minister, both Chaplains of the Highlands Fire Department. A call comes over the loudspeaker asking for 50 volunteers to take the next boat. People get up and leave, willingly with no problems. I see the Priest and yell out, “Father, are you riding this boat?” He says yes. I decide to stay.
NY HARBOR, Approx. 2:20 PM
The boat leaves, and the Scarecrow decides to look back at the Emerald City. The Towers are gone. The Black Void is still there. The Scarecrow loses what Brains he had left and breaks down. Like the Towers, I’ve just crumbled into a pile of rubble.
IN TRANSIT THROUGH NY HARBOR AND THE ATLANTIC: The Minister sees me and comes over to talk. He was in Viet Nam for two tours of duty. I tell him what I’m feeling, and he tells me what happened to him. He’s describing what I’m feeling to a “T”. I’m amazed that someone else can describe what I feel…and realize just how fragile we really are as humans…and I also realize at this point, I’m not the same person who woke up that morning. We both pray publicly. It is my first time praying in public since I was 14. Like I said, the Universe has one hell of a sense of humor.
CATHARSIS IX: …And Say ‘There’s No Place Like Home’
HIGHLANDS, New Jersey Approx. 3:00 PM
We arrive in New Jersey The Minister walks me off the boat and asks if he can do anything else, and I tell him he did more for me than anyone in a very long time. I follow the crowd off the gangplank. We are told that we will have to present ID. We are also told that if we are covered in dust we will have to be decontaminated. I am told to go to the “left” line. My belongings are put in a bag; my laptop and briefcase are scrubbed by men in isolation suits by hand. I am told to stand forward a man with a fire hose that then proceeds to spray water on me from head to toe. As he is doing this, I can see the NYC skyline in the background. What two gleaming towers, had once dominated, was now dominated by a huge cloud of smoke and a gaping hole where the towers should be. I was told to turn around so they can spray my front. They do so…and I have been baptized into the New World. I’m handed my belongings, and a Police Officer takes my statement as he was informed that I was in the WTC when the first plane hits. It’s the second time that day that I’ve told my story…but this time more emotions are coming out…and I find I cannot look anyone in the eyes when I talk to them… I’m directed toward a bunch of vans, busses, and private cars where I’m told that someone would drive me home. I walk slowly, drenched…laptop and briefcase still present…away from the water and toward a parking lot. All I can do is stare straight ahead and make no eye contact with anyone. I feel like I’m there (here) but somewhere else. A woman named Doreen asks me where I’m going, and I tell her. She says she volunteered to give rides to people, and really has nothing to do…mainly because she was just laid off from Nike the day before. She offers me her cell phone to call my wife…it’s the first time we’ve spoken my phone call in the morning. I tell her I’m coming home in a few minutes. Doreen assures her I’m shaken, but OK. We drive off to my home.
CATHARSIS X: Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again?
We arrive at my house…and I run to my wife (holding our month-old daughter) and my 4 year old daughter, Katie. Everything comes back to me in a big rush…I break down. We all thank Doreen, and I give her a big hug goodbye. In the next few hours, I try and explain things to my wife…and some of them I can…most of them I cannot. We call my doctor who tells me to go to the ER at the Local Hospital for a chest x-ray and some tests…apparently the stuff I was exposed to may have contained asbestos…and God only knows what else. While getting tested, they had me speak to a Psychologist…just like others who were coming in. I told my story the best I could, and she was a HUGE help for my family and me. I needed to talk and I did…and I realized that there is a lot I still have to deal with.
CHARTHIS XI: Phoenix Uncertain
I’m hanging in there as best as I can…and for the past five hours, I’ve been spilling my guts out for those of you I know, and those of you I do not. This has been my story, and there are thousands of others such as I. I mentioned before that I am not the same person I was when I woke up on Tuesday. Quite frankly, I’m not sure who the hell I am anymore…but these things I do know: *I am a Father of two beautiful girls *I am a loving husband of, quite simply, the most amazing woman on the planet AND THOSE THINGS ARE THE ONLY THINGS THAT ARE MY LIFE! Please…just take the time to hug your kids, wife, partner, loved ones…NEVER take them for granted! Hold on to your friends and keep them close…chances are that this has touched us all in one way or another.
We have all been transformed in one way or another by this event. We are all filled with a plethora of emotions…I certainly know I am.
Let us work together to seek justice for those who have been killed or injured. Let us offer a hand to those who need it, whether or not they have been there first hand. Let us all show the strength of humanity and compassion that we are all capable of. Let us rebuild our city, our nation, and our fragile planet.
Let us go forward with one voice that says we shall never allow this to ever happen again.
God Bless You, Your Families, The United States Of America, and our Beloved Planet.
Kenneth Austin Walsh- BORN: Mar 14, 1961 DIED: Sept 11, 2001 REBORN: Sept 11, 2001
For nine years this post has reached the Internet…and for nine years I hope that we learn something from the ashes of that day. That we might have learned that this was truly a turning point in human history that requires us all to be brave, to be vigilant, to save us from the most dangerous enemy this world has known- to sacrifice our very souls if necessary…not from terrorism…
…but from ourselves.
“There are a million eyes watching the world tonight
Have we learned nothing?
Do we merit another chance?
By what grace have we earned some redemption
Ten million saviors, ten billion angels of man
Those who know that such miracles can be so
They arrive because they must go
And lead believers to bring it home”
-Todd Rundgren, “Shine”