Ten years ago, you could have typed three numbers and immediately everyone would've known what that represented. Nine, one-one. The three-digit emergency telephone number that links U.S. residents with first responders in times of crisis or imminent danger. Sadly, today that is no longer the case. For when you type nine, one-one, it evokes sadness and tragic memories of a fateful day in history.
I've been reluctanct to recall those memories. And in the days leading up to the tenth anniversary/memorial of "nine-eleven," bombarded with reminders on television and the web, I've been reticent to share any feelings associated with those memories. Today, I finally broke.
As I watched the end of Live with Regis and Kelly, they had a prolonged moment of silence. Then, I stumbled upon a documentary titled "9/11 The Falling Man" on The Western Confucian blog. I knew that I needed to speak and let those feelings flow freely.
The Nine-eleven disaster did not effect me directly. I knew no one in the tower. I'd never even been to Manhattan and seen the World Trade Center in person, only on TV. I was 1,100 miles removed from Ground Zero. Yet, I have vivid memories of that day.
Working in the Pepper Building, part of a sprawling network of government buildings in downtown Tallahassee, I overheard my coworkers watching live coverage of the terrorist attack on MSNBC. The first tower had been struck. People were gathering around the computer monitor on the other side of the cubicle I was in. I needed to get to a television, so I took a coffee break and drove to the nearby Governor's Square Mall. I found TVs blaring live coverage in the food court of the mall. I was stunned; flabbergasted, even.
Watching the news with horror, I called my wife who was on maternity leave with our two-month old (to the day) daughter. They were watching something other than the news, oblivious to the terrorism that had just been perpetrated on American soil. Until that day, the most shocking attack of this kind we had seen on television, was the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta or the Murrow Federal Building bombing in Tulsa. My wife was bewildered as she turned to CNN.
I received a call on my cellphone that our office had been evacuated as a safety precaution. In fact, the entire state government came grinding to a halt. The Capitol Building and adjacent offices in Tallahassee were cleared because of the fear that the President's brother, Governor Jeb Bush, would be a likely target. I was relieved that I didn't have to go back to work. I could hardly remove my glare from the televisions at the mall. Truth be told, I could hardly believe my eyes!
It was around 9:30 that morning and the news cameras had already shown the second tower being hit by a hijacked airliner and now the tower was falling. The iconic World Trade Center in New York was crumbling before my eyes. There were people leaping from busted out windows in the other tower. The scene was absolutely surreal.
I don't remember how long I stayed at the mall that morning or what time I returned home, but I must have been glued to the cable news networks for hours that day. It seemed as if pandemonium had struck the heart of Manhattan's financial district. It had, indeed.
The interviews with victims' spouses in the first 24-minutes of The Falling Man film will bring you to tears. But the positive spin one husband gives was inconceivably imaginative considering his great tragedy. His wife, stuck high in the south tower before it fell, was found on the sidewalk in front of the building across from the tower. She obviously had jumped. He tried to imagine the split-second thought going through her head as she made that fateful leap from high above lower Manhattan. He describes the liberating, breathtaking sense of flight and how she was finally able to breathe, free of the smoke, ash and burning embers of the unstable trade tower. I was amazed that he could even find an image so positive from such a horrific act.
USA Today reports the gruesome story about those who jumped, but whose deaths are still labeled "homicides" by the New York Coroner's Office. Not all who "were forced out by smoke and flames" made it to the streets below. "On the south side, firefighters reported 30 to 40 bodies on the roof of the 22-floor Marriott Hotel, adjacent to the north tower." One eyewitness from the south tower saw a lady fall just outside his window. He recalls, "She wasn't screaming. It was slow motion." He saw her hit the ground. How horrified he must have been.
Gruesome though it may be, that sight saved hundreds of lives. "Many south tower survivors say the sight of people jumping created an urgency that caused them to leave immediately and ignore announcements that it was safe to return to their desks."
USA Today estimates that upwards of 200 people jumped, mainly from the north tower which was hit first but stood 46 minutes longer than the south tower. "The Falling Man" has been identified by family and co-workers as Jonathan Briley, a worker at the Windows on the World restaurant. No positive i.d. was ever made, however. Information and pictures about the late Mr. Briley can be found on Michelle Malkin's blog in a post titled, "The Falling Man Revisited".
The film asserts that we, as Americans, have attempted to erase those gruesome images by refusing to look at them. But I, for one, can never erase them from my memory. They were the visible casualties from a man-made disaster that claimed nearly 3,000 lives. And while I did not know any of them personally, the images of those who jumped from certain death TO certain death certainly touched me deeply.
Because of that fateful day ten years ago, no one can ever say, type or think 9-1-1 without having to pause that split second and think, is that "nine-eleven" or "nine, one-one?" That three-digit code will forever link our country with the heroic first responders who come to our rescue in times of personal crisis and who came to Ground Zero at that time of national crisis. May all who died rest in peace. May all who live, "Never forget."