Susan Martinson

May 2002
NYC
#V0130

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September 11, 2011
In many ways, it feels like yesterday when all of this tragedy began to
unfold. The pain is still just as raw as it was then. The memories and
images still bring spontaneous tears to my eyes. Much has changed, and yet
so much will never change. We’re still living in the age of “The New Normal”
- a term that a friend of mine used to describe how life in New York had
changed in the days and months following 9/11. I hadn’t realized at the time
how far-reaching that term really is; certainly well beyond New York. There
is a heightened sense of our vulnerability now as Americans, which is much
more acknowledged – if not accepted – as something that goes hand-in-hand
with how we live and what we represent.

Returning to NY via a flight to LaGuardia on 9/15, I found myself walking
through a nearly empty terminal as the regular schedule of flights had not
yet fully resumed. Stepping onto the bus that took me to Grand Central
Station, I was asked to show a photo ID. Before the bus drove through the
Midtown Tunnel, it stopped to allow a police officer to board. At this
point, we were all asked to show photo IDs. None of us hesitated.

Within Grand Central Terminal, I noticed men in military attire with guns,
and a huge American flag draped from the ceiling. One of the constant
questions I heard before I began asking it myself, was something that many
people – strangers – stopped each other to ask: “Are your people all OK?”
From the doormen in my building along with other residents who I’d never
even noticed, to bus drivers, to cashiers, to building security staff,
everyone was genuinely concerned with the welfare of others. It was a unique
time for sure. As much as I appreciated it, however, I wondered how long it
would be before that would change – hoping, of course, that it never would.
Just like the feeling of being another human being on the plane – not a
passenger surrounded by other passengers and flight attendants – life
immediately after 9/11 left me feeling as though I was a member of human
race in a more profound way than ever before. People seemed to acknowledge
others as living souls with vulnerabilities and emotions rather than just
other people; it’s not something that’s easy to describe, but I remember it
well.

Over time, I discovered who survived and who didn’t, and most difficult to
bear: who among those I knew were faced with unbearable loss and grief. I
gave blood, attended the funerals of firefighters and civilians I never
knew, and created a memorial web site for Sandler O’Neill, one of the firms
who lost 66 people at the WTC that day. Day after day I endured the smell of
burning metal and smoke. Still, I felt useless in the face of so much
tragedy. I also felt guilty, even angry at times, for not having been in NY,
and not being exposed first-hand to the horror that others described. No
matter what I did, that feeling persisted.

There was a time I’d never consider giving up my good fortune as a New
Yorker – one who lived right in the heart of Manhattan no less – but I have
to admit, the nagging fear and doubt that accompanied being in New York
started to chip away at my enthusiasm for the place. A scaffolding collapse
on Park Avenue had people especially frantic because they heard the noise
and thought it was another terrorist attack. A plane crashed in Brooklyn and
everyone thought – at first – that it was another terrorist attack. During
the Great Blackout in August of 2002, as I walked slowly down 27 flights of
stairs with al the others who worked in that midtown high-rise, I’m certain
there was not one person among us who didn’t think we were under attack
again. Just the exercise of walking down so many flights of stairs,
obediently as New Yorkers do, with so many others, made me pause and think
about how hard it must have been for the people who similarly had to descend
the towers by stairwell.

In early 2005, I reluctantly agreed to a job transfer in a more ordinary
place. As much as I miss New York, I’m no longer living with the same fear
and doubt that I once had. “High risk, high reward” as they say.

My plans for the day are to enjoy it, and consider all that goes into that.
Each time I see military men and women, I thank them if I can – or at least
smile – to let them know how much I appreciate their sacrifice for the most
basic freedom we enjoy day after day. I’ve seen enough documentaries this
week on television, and seen enough references to the anniversary in the
papers. After 10 years, it’s hard to imagine that 9/11 will ever diminish in
importance but then I think of December 7th, and the lack of talk about
Pearl Harbor. I still don’t know just what to think about 9/11 -
unbelievable for sure, but part of history – and certainly something I hope
will never happen again. As a New Yorker at heart though, it always hits
home at a level beyond that of an American. There is talk of “putting the
day behind us and moving on” but I just can’t imagine that will ever happen.

The very last few pages of E. B. White’s “Here is New York” describe the
vulnerability of the city best. What he wrote about in the late 1940s seems
to explain exactly what happened in 2001, but because the book is so good at
describing the uniqueness of New York in such a timeless manner, my biggest
fear that it will continue to do so. He wrote, “…this riddle in steel and
stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of
nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and
meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations,
capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to
be stayed and their errand forestalled.”

- Susan Martinson