by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
Sept. 17, 2002
SHARKS IN THE SKIES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It happened to be a lovely September day in New York City - warm air, blue sky, a few puffy white clouds. It was Sept. 6, 2002, but to me every plane flying overhead looked as if it was ready to attack a building. To me, every plane looked like a shark swimming across the sky.
I was meeting a friend for dinner, and since I was early, I waited on a bench outside an ice cream store on Columbus Avenue. A helicopter hovered overhead for what seemed like a very long time. It hardly moved at all, so it wasn't a traffic helicopter. It just hovered over Central Park; it made me nervous.
New York City is deep in post-traumatic stress, and you can't help but feel it. When I met my friend, who works on Wall Street, she said she had begun to grind her teeth in her sleep. She was especially worried about two of her co-workers, who left the subway on Sept. 11 just after the planes hit the towers. They saw the jumpers. They haven't been the same since.
Like most people on the anniversary of Sept. 11, I watched the television coverage. I saw the planes, those snarling sharks, attack the buildings. I saw the fire boiling out of the buildings like pools of blood in the water from a wound. I saw the buildings fall.
But of all the horrors, my mind remains stuck on the jumpers. In one documentary a fireman comments, "How bad could it be up there that jumping was the better option?" I am obsessed with that question.
I collect jumper stories. The Rutland (Vt.) Herald, for example, had an interview last week with a man who lived near the towers. He, his wife, and their two children, ages 2 and 4, watched from their windows as people fell to their deaths. This is what he told the reporter:
"One man tried to parachute off one of the towers with something that looked like a blanket. But it tore soon after he jumped, and he fell to his death. A chain of 12 people were holding hands outside an upper floor, and once they lost their hold, they continued holding hands all the way down."
On television, someone said he watched from a nearby office window as people dressed in business suits, ties, shirtsleeves, heels and stockings, clung to the outsides of the towers. They were waiting to be saved. No one knew, the man said, that they were going to die in less than five minutes.
And I took this horrible story from Newsday, from a book review by Philip Connors. The book was "September 11: An Oral History," by Dean Murphy.
In it, Murphy describes the experiences of Ernest Armstead, a Fire Dept. emergency medical specialist who was doing triage shortly after the first tower was hit. He came across a woman in the plaza who had fallen from a great height.
"Her right lung, shoulder and head were intact, but from the diaphragm down she was unrecognizable," Armstead recalls.
He gave her a black tag. (Green for minor injury, yellow for serious, red for critical and black for the dead, or for those close to death.)
She mustered the strength to speak. "I am not dead," she said. As Armstead went in search of more casualties, she yelled after him, "I am not dead. I am not dead." That day was "a walk through the valley of the shadow of death," Armstead said.
"I felt death, I heard it, I saw it and I smelled it," he said. "And with that lady in the plaza, I even talked to it."
I think I'm obsessed by the jumpers because they have been airbrushed out of the Sept. 11 narrative. Because I am terrified of heights. Because many of us play the game, "If you had only 24 hours to live, what would you do?" Because I can see myself in their position, and I wonder what I would choose to do.
But on the other hand, how far can identification take me? After all, I live in Vermont, not New York. I don't work in an office; I work at home. I don't own a pair of stockings, a skirt, or high heels.
When I look deeper into myself, I believe I am obsessed with the jumpers because I am still in denial about the passengers on the planes.
Anyone who has taken an airline trip, anyone who gets a little panicky when they hit an air pocket, can identify with those innocent passengers. It is still too painful for my imagination to consider their terror, because it is still far too real. With the jumpers, no matter how human they are, they are not me. The terrified people in the planes - they are me.
My mother happened to be visiting when the towers were destroyed, and of course, her flight home to Florida was delayed. She flew out the first day that Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., was open again. She was terrified and so was I.
Before she left, she took off her wedding ring and pressed it into my hands. If anything happened to her, she said, she didn't want it to be lost.
It's no surprise that people are still afraid to fly. We're still freaked out; maybe we'll never be whole again. I've been on two uneventful plane trips this past year, and I happen to be flying a shark again to Florida this week. Nothing will happen to me, I'm sure, but I'm terrified just the same.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.