By Dean Stattmann
It was a typical sunny Tuesday afternoon in Johannesburg, South Africa as I stepped off the school bus and onto the sidewalk in front of my house. Another strenuous day in the eighth grade had passed, and I was ready to relax. I walked through the garden, my backpack already on just one shoulder, and into the living room. As usual, I put all my stuff down on the floor and then went to the kitchen to get some lunch. After returning to the living room, I flopped down on the big black leather sofa and began eating from a bowl of noodles as I flipped through the channels, looking up at the big television screen in front of me. I remember how tedious it was navigating through the channels back then. We had satellite TV and there must have been at least 300 stations trying to get my attention every time I turned the thing on. That day was no different. I remember clicking through the cartoons, the food networks, the travel channels, the music videos, the breaking news and the sitcom reruns – all to no avail. At some point my mother called me. She asked me about my day and then mentioned that I should watch the news – something about a bomb. As I backtracked to CNN, I remember seeing something along the way that caught my eye, deciding to come back to it afterwards. When the news came onto the screen, it was exactly what I had expected – news. It seemed like the same news that was on every other day – intangible events in places I had never been, and most likely would never go. The banner across the bottom of the screen said something about trade but I wasn’t really paying attention. I raised my hand towards the screen, my fingers still clutching the remote control, and I changed the channel. That day was September 11, 2001.
On March 5, 2009, I stood in the winter garden bordering the West side of the World Trade Center site. Pressed up against the large glass window, I listened to the verbal accounts of people who lost loved ones that day. I was on a tour. The WTC Tribute Center on Liberty St. was offering unguided audio tours, and today I was here with my college journalism class. Looking out onto the baron 16-acre site, I tried to imagine the towers, the signature of a New York that I would never see. I attempted to visualize them, 110 floors above the ground, bustling with over 50,000 employees from hundreds of companies. I looked around, trying to find a structure of similar scale so I could at least have some kind of reference. Nothing came close.
Then I thought about September 11. Right around the time I put my noodles in the microwave, a plane traveling at over 400 miles per hour ripped into the ninety-third floor of the North tower, killing 1,365 people on impact. Seventeen minutes later, as I searched aimlessly for something entertaining to watch, another plane mimicked the first, this time with the North tower in its sights. At over 500 miles per hour, it turned floors 77 through 85 into a smoke-filled inferno, leaving only the outline of the plane stamped onto the side of the building, the way cartoon characters get slammed into the ground. Within a half hour, the North tower had been reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble, flattening out in twelve seconds.
And then the scariest realization of all: If I had been standing in this exact spot on that same Tuesday, I would be dead. The force of the collapsing towers shattered the windows of every single one of the surrounding buildings, destroying most of them. The newly renovated winter garden in which I was standing was unrecognizable on September 11. The voice coming through my headphones poured out scores of statistics about deaths, casualties… body parts. After a while, they just felt like empty numbers, like people without faces. I later researched those numbers and found that almost every source, from CNN to New York magazine, had different figures. They say that the death of one is a tragedy and the death of millions is a statistic. I find it tragic that there isn’t a definitive statistic.
After the tour, I still felt detached from the events of September 11. I had definitely learnt a lot, but I just didn’t feel it the way I thought I would. It was only afterwards, during a brief walk through the WTC Tribute Center, that it hit me, hard. Displayed modestly against a plain white wall, stood a mangled steel beam – formerly part of one of the towers – that had been removed from the rubble. The sign said not to touch but if this wasn’t going to make the events of that day tangible then nothing was. When I put my hand on the oxidized steel, it occurred to me that this was my first contact with a day that has consumed the lives of thousands of families for the last eight and a half years. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I felt guilty, almost disgusted by my ignorance. I wanted to help someone or at least do something, but it was too late.
My trip to ground zero consumed my thoughts for the rest of the day. I tried to think about how this could have been avoided. I tried to imagine losing someone I loved. I tried to comprehend what the fuck would drive someone to do something like this. I came up with nothing. But one thing I couldn’t shake was my admiration for New York City and its ability to move on. If I learned anything from that day, it’s that no matter what, things will happen in life that are outside of our control. Sometimes we’ll like them, and sometimes we won’t. But when tragedy inevitably strikes, all we can do deal with it the best way we can, and then move on.