Family, History, Memoirs.

Oregon loves New York: memories of 9/11

My wife Cindy and I awoke early on September 11, 2001 in Portland, Oregon. As I was preparing for work, she called me to the television, which had the smoking image of the first of the burning World Trade towers. We both stared in disbelief, and watched numbly as that terrible day unfolded, as the second tower was struck, as people began to jump from the buildings, after which one building and then the other crashed to the ground, so rapidly as to seem completely unreal. We watched as the Pentagon was struck, and followed the tense and fragmentary reporting as planes were grounded, fighter planes were scrambled, and frantic searches were being conducted to account for all of the airplanes in the air, culminating in the crash of flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field.  We wondered what could possibly motivate someone to cause such horrific damage, to deliberately destroy so many innocent lives.

My flight to Washington DC for the next morning was cancelled, as all U.S. commercial flights were grounded.  One of my co-workers was on a 5:30am flight from Portland to L.A. on 9/11, which was in mid-flight when the military fighters were scrambled.  He looked out of his window and saw a fighter jet flying in escort of his commercial jet.  His flight was abruptly turned around and returned to Portland.  Once on the ground, the pilot indicated to him that the fighter pilot had told him that if he did not immediately turn around and return to Portland, his plane would be shot down!  Many of my co-workers were stranded all over the country, some waiting for over a week before being able to return to their homes.  Some rented cars and drove across good parts of the country to get home.

On 9/11, and for the next few days, the response from New Yorkers, and from surrounding cities, was to look for any way to help those in the World Trade towers.  Volunteers rushed to help, shelters and emergency clinics were set up, teams were organized to locate and help survivors.  It became terribly clear within a few days that, unlike many past disasters, there were almost no survivors to find and to aid.  Our President rallied the country, but it seemed that everyone I knew was in shock.

-Saved from flightforfreedom.com,

os_image. Saved from flightforfreedom.com.

After a couple of weeks, Cindy and I heard from my parents, Tony and Celia Wiebe, of an effort by a local travel agency owner, Sho Dozono, to organize a group of Oregonians to visit New York, as a sign of support. That soon after the disaster, many people were too spooked to fly or take vacations, with immediate economic effect:  Airlines were bleeding money, hotels were empty, and restaurants were already starting to shut down. The group was called Flight for Freedom, and grew to around 1,000 people; we joined them three weeks after 9/11 to visit New York City, to spend four days there.  Cindy and I had never travelled to New York together before that.

 

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.

 We found a somber city, still reeling from the blow, and just beginning to clean up the aftermath.  As a group, we attended a memorial ceremony in Union Square, and many of the group marched in the Columbus Day Parade as a show of solidarity.  Each of us wore Oregon Loves New York buttons or T-shirts.  We were treated with such kindness by New Yorkers of every stripe.

 

-PD-USGOV, Jim Watson

September 13, 2001. Attrib: Jim Watson, PD-USGOV.

We decided to go down to lower Manhattan to see the ruins of the World Trade Center, after debating whether it would be proper to do so; in particular, I wanted to see it so as to remember what had happened.  It was not possible to get any closer to what is now called Ground Zero than perhaps three blocks; every street was barricaded, and access beyond those points was controlled.  It was dusty, and just North of Ground Zero, several blocks of dump trucks were lined up to remove debris from the site.  Between the buildings, the twisted metal of the exterior steel frame which remained, perhaps three or four stories high, could be seen.  There was still a very heavy smell in the air, a part of which was concrete dust from the remains of the fallen buildings.  We walked around the area, with construction vehicles coming and going.  As we walked by the City Hall, which was situated just a few blocks from Ground Zero, Mayor Giuliani walked up the street with some of his aides, exhorting and thanking those he passed by.

-CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Michael Thompson

Union Square, NYC, Sept 18, 2001. Attrib: Michael Thompson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Click to view enlarged picture

Temporary bulletin boards were up all around lower Manhattan, and in the subway and train stations, including Grand Central and Penn Stations, which were displaying hundreds of pictures of friends and family that were missing, with simple messages:  “Have you seen our daughter Teresa Berenson?”, or “Missing from World Trade Tower One:  James Carter”, and phone numbers to call with any information regarding their whereabouts. These pictures brought tears to all of our eyes; the bulletin boards brought home the emotional impact of 9/11 more than any of the ruins.  As we looked at them, and studied them, first in lower Manhattan, and later at Grand Central Station, the loss of family and friends that so many New Yorkers suffered was palpable to us. These bulletin boards had obviously been left up as memorials, as by this time it was well understood that these people were not going to be found.

Cindy and I were taken with the dynamism of New Yorkers, even in their hour of pain.  None of the famous New York attitude was on display during our visit (nor, in several subsequent visits to New York, have I ever really seen it; if it even exists, I would say it is more of a direct and aggressive style, which I have found engaging, and yes, friendly).  The mayor’s presence, night and day, on the streets, on the television, in the press, was reassuring and inspiring; some of Rudy Giuliani’s best moments of public service were during those weeks after 9/11.

It was a real privilege to have been able to go to New York during those days, and in a small way, show some support to our fellow Americans.  We felt that in those first days after 9/11 that Americans would pull closer together, after two decades of increasingly poisonous rancor in American discourse.  Ten years later,  that hopeful sense of coming closer together has long been obscured by the all too quick return to the same disturbing trends in American attitudes towards each other.

More than anything else, our remembrance of 9/11 should be a recognition that Americans of many religions, classes and ethnic backgrounds died on that day, and that rallying in defense of our nation is rallying in defense of all Americans.

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