Remembering 9/11 – a Brief Personal Essay

It’s been five years almost literally to the minute that I write this that a jetliner piloted by maniacs slammed into the first tower at the World Trade Center. I was here that day and saw the second one hit live on TV from my office at ABC News. A chill galloped down my spine, and all questions whether what had happened to the first tower was an accident evaporated instantly. The rest of that day five years ago sped past in a blur of frenetic activity: making phone calls (or trying to), reporting, and attempting to get our heads around what had happened.

I told my wife to run up to the top of our building with our video camera to shoot the towers. She did, and while we lived in Midtown at the time, the smoke could be seen for miles and miles in every directon.

Like so many Americans I felt fear, hatred and sadness, all bubbling together in thick poison stew in my heart. The moment of clarity came just three nights later. I’d spent all day down at Ground Zero trying to get in to shoot pictures. I managed to get past the police line and shot some nice shots of the smoldering rubble at Building 7 (recently rebuilt…and quite lovely…I got to do a shot up on the top floor two weeks ago). Anyway, I was walking back with my camera and wandered through Washington Square Park. There, a group of maybe 25 people had assembled, and as the sun went down, they suddenly burst into song. The group was led by a heavy-set guy who was a classic New Yorker: heavy Brooklyn accent, moustache, heaving belly beneath a too-tight T-shirt that, I believe, though I may be subconsciously embellishing, said I Heart New York. Anyway, I wandered over to them and started singing along. Song after song we bellowed to the darkening sky.

Each tune had some connection to New York. We sang for an hour, ad at the end of each tune, someone would either call out a title or start singing the first notes. Billy Joel songs, Broadway tunes, and, at the crescendo of this most amazing evening, we sang New York, New York. The song could have come much earlier, but it was as if we all subconsciously knew that this was how we’d end it. And when the chorus came, tears flowed like crystal rain, arms draped around the shoulders of total strangers and scores of faces turned up to the smoke-smothered moonlight. Teeth glinted in the light and our voices rose over the park and the city. And that wonderful fat fellow conducted us, used his small, chubby hands to lift our awful, hoarse voices. And what was the saddest of moments, was also the happiest. Strangely, these two emotions did not wrestle for our emotions like the snakes on the staff of Asclepius; rather, they mingled together like smoke and fog, impossible to tell apart, impossible to separate. And that’s kind of how I’ve felt ever since about that day.

The tragedy of loss of life is unfathomable, but in a way the event helped reconfirm how lovely life is and how gloriously vibrant is this city. In some convoluted way, this event of boundless cruelty better connected me with the greater humanity that was always there, but was oddly out of sight. And for me, it brought into sharp relief how great the human race is, how our cities and societies are made and mended overtime by a billion minds and hands with the purpose of ensuring that people realize their dreams and live life to its fullest.

Despite the mix of emotions, there was no ambiguity in that raw moment in Washington Square Park. Life is wonderful and life goes on. And while there are, and there always will be tragedies, music and art and commerce and love will always trump the dark tendencies that lurk inside of us. Those tendencies are forever there, but they will never win.