Sunday, May 07, 2006

United 93 and American 11

The recent showing of the film United 93 has brought back the morning of 9/11 with startling clarity.

September 11, 2001 was a beautiful Tuesday morning, possessing a splendor and elegance that only September can distill as an idyllic memory --- the kind of day that poems are made of.

On that morning, I walked out of the market on La Guardia Place across from my apartment and looked up to see an airplane flying south so low that I could see it was an American Airlines commercial flight. The plane was flying full-throttle, and the engines sounded loud and laboring, an eerie, sinister whine that knifed through the September stillness with alarming swiftness and in a matter of seconds disappeared into the north tower of the World Trade Center some 30 blocks away in a flash of smoke and flames. The world changed in that instant, and I was stunned by the smoke pouring out of the north tower and the solemnity that cloaked the collision's aftermath in the semblance of silence. I was too far away to hear the screams of death and horror.

Minutes later, the world watched in terror as a second commercial airline approached from the southwest and erupted through the southern tower in a cataclysmic explosion magnified by telephoto lenses and television coverage. Throughout the day there would be repeated airings of this brutal attack, and when the towers collapsed, frequent relentless showings indelibly etched this catastrophe on our collective consciousness, including the ghastly images of people leaping to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. We also were intensely aware that when the planes struck the towers, countless numbers of people were instantly incinerated, including those ill-fated inhabitants aboard the hi-jacked airliners. Yet, minutes later, another commercial jet crashed into the Pentagon, and to my amazement, the media still seemed to be wondering if these events were related.

As these events were unfolding, passengers of United 93 discovered through their cell phones that they were destined to die as the others in the three flights that had been commandeered as volatile missiles by terrorists. This knowledge empowered them to act, in an attempt to take the plane from control of the terrorists, but their awareness of their situation had materialized too late for them to do anything but cause a premature crash, diverting the plane from its likely target in Washington D.C.: The White House. It crashed in an "empty" field in Pennsylvania.

An excellent writer of The American Digest, Vanderleun, places United 93 in context (Of a Fire in a Field). Fires continued to burn for many days in the subterannean aftermath of the collapse of the towers:
Inside the wire under the hole in the sky was, in time, a growing hole in the ground as the rubble was cleared away and, after many months, the last fire was put out. Often at first, but with slowly diminishing frequency, all the work to clear out the rubble and the wreckage would come to a halt... Far away on that day, far from the pillar of flame and plume of ash at the foot of the island, there was another fire in a field in Pennsylvania. Those nearby felt the shudder in the earth and saw the smoke, but it would be some days before we understood what it was, and longer still until we began to know what it meant.
...The film I saw by myself tonight expands that meaning and brings a human face to the acts by the passengers of United 93 that endure only in that rare atmosphere that heroes inhabit. What I know in my heart, but what always escapes my understanding until something like this film renews it, is that heroism is a virtue that most often appears among us not descending from some mythic pantheon, but rising up out of the ordinary earth and ordinary hearts when the moment calls for actions extraordinary.
In the days that followed the collapse of the twin towers, those of us who lived below 14th street, found ourselves in a war zone. Hordes of people wandered about this war zone. They collected in parks and along streets, stunned by the sudden and swift calamity that had befallen the nation. Strangers met and talked, and support groups and vigils met in parks and other public areas. Along walls and fences, pictures of people were posted in a desperate attempt to account for those missing who were thought to be in the vicinity of the attack. As time passed, these were transformed into walls of rememberance for those who were believed to have persihed, and were strewn with flowers and candles. As these postings were ripped from the walls by wind or passersby, the authors would repost and add to the text and images (including laminating them), a ritual that clung to the hope that some miracle might restore everything.

In the meantime, the war zone had been clearly mapped. The air still retained the smell of death, and the dust of pulverized remains were still sifting, drifting, and settling on the terrain. Residents had to be identified before they could enter the area, and shipments of goods such as groceries, magazines, and newspapers were curtailed. I had to go above 14th street to get a newspaper. There were shortages of bread and milk. None were permitted into this downtown zone unless they could demonstrate that they had legitimate business and had acceptable ID. Vehicular travel was limited to emergency vehicles, and troops were stationed throughout the area with deployment of heavy armament on strategic streets such as Houston, Broadway, and the entire downtown Wall street area.

As the time of this vicious attack has grown more distant, many seem oblivious to opposing worlds on the verge of collision and collapse. We have insulated ourselves from the impending violence and danger. Yet, we know that in the blink of an eye, at any moment, our fragile world may disappear in an act of hatred and devastation, as it did on that idyllic September morn of 2001.

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