American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
September 2, 2003
NINE-ELEVEN DÉJÀ VU
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- "Just want to say, I love you," words left on an answering machine in tones suggesting he had work to do - helping others. They say "pride goes before a fall" but not that day. Line after line of transcribed voices suggest a pride in doing what has to be done in their present moment. There was no evidence of whimpering, simpering, or "poor me."
There's a difference between crying for and mourning with ... and the transcripts just released by the New York Port Authority, builder and owner of the World Trade Center, Towers I and II, put us side by side with those trapped on the morning of September 11, 2001. We can now read the words spoken one minute before the first plane crashed, (leaving the impression it was an accident), and continue through its collapse about two hours later, leaving no doubt it was an act of terrorism.
The screams were from those watching in horror, not able to believe their eyes. On the other hand, we learn from the just released transcripts, the victims continued trusting, waiting for the inevitable "all clear" so they could go back to normal. After all, what they were seeing could not be happening, not here, not now, in this land of the free and the home of the brave.
In that moment, their "present moment," they only had their secure past as a reference point. They based their understanding of what would happen next on what they could expect from previous emergencies. Plan A, B and C were in motion. The "accident" was in the other tower. They were to stay put. They were to follow instructions as they had been trained in employee manuals and actual evacuation drills.
They would wait for orders but those advising them during those shocking moments made the mistake of telling them to "stay where you are," only to have any orderly egress blocked by smoke and fire within minutes.
The tapes reveal bravery and heroism well beyond our comprehension of what it must have really been like to be there. With the publication of these transcripts, hundreds of poignant stories have risen from the ashes. I'll focus on one: Christine, presumably assistant general manager in the Windows of the World Restaurant on the 110th floor. She had 75 people on the premises when the explosion occurred.
Although this is a transcript of spoken dialogue between Christine and Officer Murray 106 floors below, I can clearly visualize and "hear" what's happening. I have had breakfast in that same Windows on the World room where the decor is grand and the decorum of the waitstaff impeccable. Food is served, then plates and crumbs are removed silently, as if in slow motion. Water, coffee, tea or wine is replenished as needed without intrusion. I'm saying "is" as if it's still available to us. Alas, it's not.
Christine would have been in command, totally professional, as she placed the call, introducing herself and identifying her location.
Christine: We're getting no direction up here. We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees as soon as possible.
Officer: We're doing our best. We've got the Fire Department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you, dear.
Christine (on another of the four calls she placed): Hi, this is Christine, up at Windows. We need to find a safe haven on 106, where the smoke condition isn't bad. Can you direct us to a certain quadrant?
(Officer only offered reassurance that help was coming.)
Christine: What's your ETA?
Officer: As soon as possible, as soon as it's humanly possible.
Christine: (minutes later) The fresh air is going down fast! I'm not exaggerating.
Officer: I know you're not exaggerating. I have you, Christine, four calls, 75 to 100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor.
Christine: Can we break a window?
Officer: You can do whatever you have to, to get to, uh, the air.
Christine: All right.
I was once among the grieving when a sudden tragedy in my life took a loved one. There were no more than 13 seconds between seeing an approaching car, directing his bicycle from its trajectory, at the same time braking, yet probably wondering, if he zigs will the car zag, trying to control a situation beyond anyone's control given the speed of both automobile and bicycle going around the same hidden curve. He reached the end of his life never knowing what hit him.
On Sept. 11, that time lapsing from at least two hours facing inevitable death must now be an agonizing reflection to those left behind. In my case, those scant 13 seconds before the end were a blessing to me. So, I could grieve with the families holding pictures of those missing, following the televised images of those combing through hospital records looking for a positive answer, and, at the same time, knowing they would find none. As long as they had hope, their loved one "could" be alive.
Today, 10 days from the anniversary of September 11, 2001, those mourners talk about having been near closure only to have it all opened again with the release of the transcripts. The wounds will open again and again, not only on family holidays and birthdays but on the never-ending media coverage year after year ... just as now, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the major battles of the war that ended almost 60 years ago.
Until now, we identified with those grieving, those brave, stoic souls who posted pictures and left flowers at the scene. Now, we can identify with the victims and be proud. We know there was horror, we know there was terror like none we've ever known. But, out of those ashes rose evidence of who we are and of what we're made. We are courageous, we are noble, and ... we are nothing short of magnificent.