16 August 2002
I am Gisela Ripón. Today is the 16th of August 2002. On September 11th of last year at 9 a.m., I was coming to New York on a flight Barcelona – London – New York. When we were about to land, the captain told us that there were problems and we would be landing at a military base in Canada. That was how an hour and a half later we arrived in Halifax where they informed us of the situation in New York. Meanwhile, there were some older people who had a radio on the plane and that was how we heard what was happening in New York.
There was a moment of great anxiety and hysteria from all of those who had family and friends in New York. I was with my friend Nuria who has lived in New York for the last 16 years and she was very affected by this situation. We spent more than 6 hours in the plane and then 3 more hours on the runway in Halifax and we finally got to the terminal where there was a small television set with very bad reception and we saw the attack on the Towers. We were anxious to get in touch with our families and finally, at about 12 at night, we were able to communicate with them and let them know that we were fine. They brought us to a refugee camp, Exhibition Park, and we spent 5 days sleeping in a parking lot on air mattresses without showers or luggage, with 1500 people. I was really struck by the situation that we were all in – that we didn’t have any power or any differences, that is to say that there were no hierarchies, there were no fights of any kind. We were all affected by the difficulties, the lack of information, the deprivation, the anxiety, and not knowing what was going to happen. All we could think about was the man who came by every half hour to give us information, saying that there was no information, but that this might be the beginning of the Third World War.
The situation was very nerve-wracking during those days. It allowed me to better understand American society, Americans themselves, and what the attack on the Towers meant in global terms that’s to say that we all felt implicated in this great destruction, this massacre of, at first we thought 11,000 people, then 8,000, later we heard from the newspapers 3,000 people. Never had we experienced an attack of this magnitude and we, in Spain, are accustomed to acts of terrorism. Never had anyone attacked such a powerful symbol as the United States.
We spent those eternal days of sadness in Halifax and because it was impossible for any planes to enter the United States, we were sent back to London where we were really poorly received at Heathrow Airport. We were transported, with difficulty, to a hotel where we spent the night. We bought a plane ticket so that we could return to Barcelona, see our families and rest a bit.
My position as a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton allowed me to return to the United States and spend four months here, as I had planned to do beginning on September 11th. Finally, we were able to come on September 27th. We received therapy to help us overcome this trauma and I spent more than two months taking sleeping pills to help me sleep because this was a situation like nothing I had ever lived through before and I found it difficult to go on as before. And when I came to Princeton and after everything – getting settled, meeting new people, and coming to a new place where I would spend 3 or 4 months – we were told about Anthrax that created another big panic during all the months that I was here from September until the month of February.
Anthrax was as criminal as the attack on the Towers and all of the threats and the advisories on the American television, on CNN, advising us of all the possible new attacks and above all, the possibility of biological attacks which are probably the most uncontrollable of all and with Anthrax, we lived through something close to that.
It has been a difficult and interesting experience and I think it didn’t discourage me from wanting to return to New York. On the contrary, it made me want to come back more than ever and really get to know this country that, from a European perspective, has always been very much criticized and doubted. It has allowed me to understand the feelings of Americans and what this Patriotism, which Europeans sometimes hate, means but that now I can better understand.
It seems regrettable to me what is happening at this moment at Ground Zero, which is being converted into a pilgrimage site – a pilgrimage site for those who have felt the loss of a family member or friend but also for all those tourists who come from all over the world and that don’t have any respect for the pain of all the New Yorkers and all those Americans who lost someone there. It seems that this pilgrimage site, like the pilgrimage sites in antiquity, should become a place of silence, not necessarily a place to pray, but yes a place of silence, where one can share with New Yorkers a sense of loss and a feeling of union.
This seems like what I wanted to say and I deeply wanted to be part of this story – this dramatic story – that New York had to live through. I hope that New Yorkers can overcome this easily because ultimately, history is made by death, not by life. I hope that we can understand more about the future because of what happened.
- Translation Sherry Kane