Saturday, September 12, 2009

A day late - updated with link

Pool photo by Chris Hondros (NYT)
The ceremony at the World Trade Center site on Friday,
eight years after the terrorist attack.

Bill in Portland, Maine, gives us "Questions Worth Re-Asking:"
Why did the president sit in that Florida classroom for several minutes after being told "America is under attack"?

Why did Rudy Giuliani put the anti-terrorism command center in the World Trade Center against the advice of experts who knew better?

Could there be any greater examples of heroism than the passengers who fought back on Flight 93, the rescue teams at the Pentagon, or the NYPD and NYFD responders who ran into the towers without hesitation because "It's my job"?

Father Mychal Judge: Saint...or Supersaint?
Why did firefighters have faulty radios instead of dependable ones, Mr. Giuliani?

And many others you can read here.

Yesterday was too busy and too long for me to post a decent memorial to that day.

Somewhere, God willing, I have a CD with my photos from St Petersburg, September 2001, and I will share them, but I have not seen it for a very long time. Here are my memories.

We were on our first visit to Rusia, seeing the sights of the imperial city. As we gathered for dinner two sisters came downstairs and informed the rest of us that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. This seemed so bizarre that we asked if it was some small private plane gone off course. No, they said, an airliner. In horror and disbelief we had a very subdued supper.

The last thing we would want to do when visiting a foreign city is spend time glued to the tube but everyone rushed back to their rooms. Seeing a disaster movie's special effects while reason says "this is real, not Hollywood," was so disorienting. The scope of it all was difficult to fathom. We were eight time zones ahead of New York so this went into the late hours for us. When CNN re-ran the same material, I switched to BBC. When both were endless loops, I began bouncing around in French, Spanish, and Italian channels where I could understand most of what they said. Exhausted with horror we went to bed.

Before we left the room the next morning we remembered that our new step-brother-in-law, Mike, was supposed to be at the WTC. We called home. Sister-in-law said that surely father-in-law would have told us. My ex reminded her that father-in-law did not tell us for months that his sister had died and asked for some follow up.

The Russian people were amazing. The compassion and grace they showed in our remaining days touched us deeply. Strangers would come up and offer their condolences. Our tour guide changed our plans that day so we could stop by the American Consulate. We visited a large produce market, stopped at a flower shop for flowers, then parked a street away from the consulate, walked through a school playground to get to the next street over, which was blocked to traffic, and approached. Expat Americans and Russians were gathered, laying flowers, standing in silence, weeping, praying, holding each other. Guards were everywhere on the assumption that any US outpost was a target.

I am no fan of Vladimir Putin as he appears to be an unreconstructured lover of permanent power. Even so, he was the first world leader to call the White House and express sympathy. By his order all the flags in Russia were at half mast. As our coach left the hotel that morning I saw the white-blue-and-red at half mast over the Winter Palace (Hermitage) and wept. Not one but five minutes of silence were called for at noon that day. We were, at that point, in the Russian Museum, working our way through the amazing exhibits with school children ahead of and behind us. Noon came and and complete silence fell. Long, total silence. The only sound was one American in our group who was clueless and kept asking questions of our guide who only nodded in response.

When we returned to the hotel there was a message on the phone in our room. The first four words are engraved on my memory. "Bill, Bob, Mike's OK." It was brother-in-law Bob telling us all we really needed to know. He elaborated a bit. We later learned from our stepmom that Mike was in the second tower. Folks had been drilled since the bombing back in 1993 (I think that was the year). Feeling the neighboring impact they immediately began to evacuate. They took the elevator part way then the stairs. He emerged from the building and walked straight to his hotel and called home. I have never asked him about it. I know he fled amid falling bodies.

The fact that we had no idea how or when we would get home was disorienting but chump change compared the the awful reality, the stunned grief, the global uncertainty. Planes were not flying in the United States (if we ignore the one taking the bin Ladens and other Saudis out of the United States and why have we NEVER been given a good explanation of that one?). Our visas expired on Saturday so we had to leave Russia.

The first leg of our return occurred on schedule. We flew from Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg to Helsinki. The original plan was to change planes, fly to JFK, then to LAX. Instead the travel agency that arranged this tour put us up in a hotel in Helsinki for two nights until we could all fly back to the States.

There was not much security in Pulkovo. There was overwhelming security in Helsinki. We went through metal detectors three times. If you did not look northern European your bags were examined (profiling of the most blatant sort). Dogs went by repeatedly. The airport was crawling with armed police and military. In the chaos that greeted us at JFK there was plenty of security but not as much as in Finland. We cheered when we touched down on US soil.

The return involved booking each leg when you got there. It was beginning to look as though we would not get the next connecting flight as a very inefficient and, yes I will say it, incompetent doofus fumbled. Finally one of the Finnair folks, having finished with his own passengers, stepped over and almost immediately got us on our flight to Los Angeles. More security. The wand was going off by my shirt pocket. I told the security lady that I had a piercing there. She groped me to verify it then let me through. (It is long gone.) Then I realized it was not that at all but the little foil-lined packet with a towelette that I had from the previous flight.

We finally got to LAX and forked over for a taxi to take us to my in-law's home. It was the wee hours of the morning and I don't recall how long we slept and how quickly we returned to the Bay Area where we lived.

Special prayers and sharing time had been arranged at St Cuthbert's while I was still in transit. (Thank you, Pamela.) I went through the phone book, looking for the nearest Mosque to arrange for some dialogue and diffusing of ethnic and religious prejudice. The world needed, and still needs, healing. The entire nation was grieving, processing fear, making choices on how to respond.

And the stories of heroism, tragedy, and dislocation kept unfolding.

I think I am grateful to have been so far away in another country (the land of the enemy of my childhood). Distance was a small cushion. We received support from total strangers, people who could not speak English, people who had been raised to think of us as the enemy, people who lived in the city besieged by Germans in WWII. Responses were personal, heartfelt, and free of agenda but they reminded me of the larger human family, of the mortality we all share and the compassion of which we are all capable.

Ultimately, there are no words - for that day or for the sorrows we humans inflict upon one another. I will close with this (which was posted by Elizabeth Kaeton).

Leonard Slatkin Conducts the BBC Orchestra on September 15 2001 in honor of those who lost their lives a few days prior. (Use this link if embed is not working.) Samuel Barber's Adagio:

--the BB


Fran said...

I am astounded by this post - I don't even know what to say other than thank you.

Paul said...

Thank you, Fran.

I have not thought my experience any big deal but was finally moved to record it before memories fade further. I should encourage Bill to write about it too.

Fran said...

Yes - write it down. I wrote a long 3 part piece in Sept 07 and had it on FIA.

I was retelling the story to someone this year and I realized that I had already forgotten some details, had to go back and look!

The Cunning Runt said...

I was surprised with the passion this day aroused in me, I having only been a distant witness, but am astounded by your first-hand recollections from outside the lock-down.

Thanks for sharing this slice of your life; it adds an appreciated personal perspective.

Paul said...

Ralph, even though you were at a remove your response moved me so much I had trouble finishing it. I think all of us speaking from our hearts leads to a shared human language.

susankay said...

Paul -- we were in the heartland -- Clay Center, Kansas -- where a Muslim physician was attending to my very ill father-in-law. His terror was greater than ours. Long lines at gas stations with fears of -- something. Days of driving back to Colorado with no planes in the air above us and our dog catching our tension and vomiting on a regular basis. I look forward to when we do not remember that day with all this pomp and circumstance but I still remember 11/22/63 deep in my heart so I'm not sure when, if ever it will happen.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Prayers ascending!