August 10, 2016
A Voice From the Street
By Rev Kevin V. Madigan
Lisbon, Portugal May 26, 2011
A talk given at Luso-American Foundation, an organization that promotes cultural affairs between the US and Portugal.
The attack on the World Trade Center was one that was witnessed by the world in real time, at least the second attack on the south tower. That clip of the hijacked plane, slowly and methodically approaching its target, was played over and over again before billions of viewers. And, the presumption is that because we saw what happened, we know what happened---that Osama bin Laden had attacked the World Trade Center, out of all the buildings in New York City, because the Twin Towers were the city’s tallest, synonymous with the city skyline, because they provided him with numerous potential victims, and because the World Trade Center presented itself as the center of American and global commerce. So, 9/11was portrayed by the media as an attack by Al Qaeda on American capitalism and hegemony. That’s what everyone saw in what became the iconic video of a hijacked plan crashing into one of the Twin Towers. But what I propose is that something else may have been going on, something you did not see, because you saw only the aerial shot, and not from the street.
The designer of the World Trade Center was Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese-American architect who had developed a distinctive style, one in which he melded traditional Islamic forms with modern materials, methods and functions. He came to prominence with his design of the King Fahd Dhahran Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia, most likely erected by the bin Laden construction company. It would be the first of a number of projects he would execute for the Saudi royal family. So successful was it that a representation of it was placed on Saudi banknotes. A year after its completion, Yamasaki was awarded the commission for the World Trade Center.
Yamasaki described the plaza of the World Trade Center in quasi-religious terms. He wanted it to be “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.” To that end, he replicated the plan of Mecca’s courtyard by creating a vast delineated square, isolated from the city’s bustle by low colonnaded structures, incorporating a series of implied pointed arches, reminiscent of the pointed arches of Islam. These colonnades were capped with two perfectly square towers, clad in a shimmering steel skin, in the Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in a dense filigree, much like the inlaid marble pattern of the Taj Mahal, or the ornate carvings of the courtyard and domes of the Alhambra. For Yamasaki the plaza of the World Trade Center, with its central fountain surmounted by a globe providing an anchor for a circular pattern radiating outward, was designed to mimic two of Mecca’s holy sites---the Qa’ba and the holy spring.
Osama bin Laden would certainly have been aware of the projects that Yamasaki had completed in Saudi Arabia, as his family’s construction company had built most of them. Considering the years of planning that went into the attack on the World Trade Center, bin Laden probably was aware, as well, of the Islamic motifs incorporated into its design. So, I would suggest that for bin Laden the leveling of this monument to Western capitalism, clad in the raiment of Islamic spirituality, was not just an attack on a symbol of American power, but also the smashing of a false idol, this blasphemous representation of a “mecca of commerce.”
Before the attack I had walked countless times across that plaza and was only vaguely aware of some Moorish influences. It wasn’t until after the attack that an architect friend showed me an article by Laurie Kerr, a scholar of urban design, which appeared in slate.com/id/2060207/, that I became much more aware of the Islamic motifs. My above remarks are based upon that article. But I mention all this because it is so rarely cited in the usual narrative. I mention it because it points to motivation. One of the questions I heard from many people in the days after the attack was, “Why do they hate us so much?” I leave it to political scientists to deal with that. And, there is probably no single answer. Just as an individual’s behavior cannot be reduced to one cause, neither can the motivations of the terrorists be explained by a single factor. But when to the mix of political and economic grievances, is added the ingredient of religion, a toxic brew is concocted that allows the perpetrators, in their minds, to suspend the ethical norms of their own religious tradition for the sake of some nobler cause. I am not even suggesting that the motivation was primarily religious, but in light of today’s topic, that perspective should be taken into account.
My following remarks will be based upon what I witnessed that day and in the days and weeks afterward, that you might have some sense of what went on, what was not always captured by the camera.
The day that has become known to us as 9/11 began as one of the most beautiful of all that summer. It was refreshingly cool, and had that aspect of brilliant, cloudless visibility that airplane pilots refer to as “severe clear.” I imagine that many of those who made their way to their desks in the Twin Towers that morning, were thinking to them selves, “This is a day to eat lunch outside, down in the plaza, or in the park by the river. There won’t be many more days like this left to enjoy this summer.
After celebrating Mass and hearing confessions in St. Peter’s Church, I was on my way to the priests’ residence next door when the parish secretary informed me that a plane had struck one of the Towers. At first I thought it must have been an accident---some inexperienced pilot flying a small, private lane, much like the incident in 1945 when a small plane crashed into the Empire State Building. But it was clear that no small plane caused this conflagration. You have all seen the photos, no description is necessary.
I immediately ran out into the street, thinking I might have to anoint the wounded and dying (Last Rites). But all I could see was a crowd of people standing in the street looking up at the fire consuming the north tower. I overheard people saying that they had seen people leap to their deaths from the tower. I distinctly remember that I decided not to look, because I didn’t want to have such a memory etched in my consciousness. Standing where I was, some distance from the tower, I thought I was relatively safe, far enough away from the building to be clear of falling debris. I thought that whoever had perpetrated this attack had done their worst. And that as the saying goes, “lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place.” When all of a sudden a burst of flame emerged from the other tower, debris was flying in all directions. I remember the wheel of an airplane flying over my head, and a bottle of water bursting against the wall by which I was standing. Of course, at that moment, everyone fled in the opposite direction.
I then returned to the church to make sure the parish staff was safe and to tell them to leave the area immediately. It may seem hard to believe but crowds of people were just standing around observing what was happening. They had to be ordered by the police to leave the scene. And the scene was pretty chaotic during those first hours after the attack. I remember seeing a man weeping on the steps of the church. He was middle-aged businessman, and was distraught because his brother’s office was on the 78th floor of Tower 1. Not knowing what to say, I simply encouraged him not to lose hope. And most likely that hope was realized because over 98% of those working in the floors below the point of impact managed to escape. This was because after the first bombing of the parking garage of the World Trade Center in February 26, 1993, emergency evacuation procedures and drills were instituted that proved to be highly effective on the day of the second attack.
As I said, I was going from one corner to another, looking for the wounded and the dying in order to be of some assistance. Little did I know that the dead and many of the wounded were being brought to St. Peter’s to await transport to either the morgue or hospital. In fact, the marble floor of the church sanctuary served as a temporary morgue for more than thirty bodies.
This prompts me to relate an event which happened that day, and which was only made known to me some weeks later. About two weeks after 9/11, a man appeared in the church saying that he wanted to apologize for what he had done on the morning of 9/11. I had no idea what he might mean. But he went on to say how he, a physician, happened to be in the neighborhood that morning to attend a meeting. He was standing near the church when the first plane struck. He saw the police bringing some of the wounded into the church. He inquired to see if he could be of assistance, but, of course, he had no medical supplies with him. So, he went to the altar and ripped up the linen cloths that are used during the celebration of the Eucharist. He tore them into strips to make tourniquets to stem the flow of blood from limbs lacerated by the shattered glass of the towers’ windows. He added that he was Jewish, in his mind this increasing the offense. But, of course, there was nothing offensive in his action, since what he had done was to use the same cloths that we employ for our most sacred ritual, viz., the Eucharist, for what is our most sacred responsibility, viz., to bid up the wounds of those in distress.
I continued looking for the place to which I presumed the wounded were being taken. A police officer told me that there was an aid center on the opposite side of the World Trade Center. So, I, along with another priest and some police officers proceeded to walk along the periphery of the site. We heard some of the firefighters saying that there was a danger that one or both of the towers might collapse. Even though at the time I thought that unlikely, still as I was walking along, I kept asking myself what avenue of escape I might take if one of the towers should fall. I spotted nearby the entrance to a subway station. Having used that subway many times, I knew that the subway station extended several blocks away from the site of the Word Trade Center, so that, if we had to, we could use the underground passageway as an escape route, and emerge from another exit several streets to the north. As I was running all these thoughts through my head, suddenly I heard a dull rumble and saw a light brown cloud explode from the tower. It had begun to collapse. I yelled to my companions, “Down here!” We all raced down the steps and huddled against the walls, not knowing whether part of the building might fall in our direction, crushing us in the process. As you no doubt know, the tower imploded one story upon another. The interior of the subway station became filled with a light brown dust. Everyone was choking and gasping for air. Eventually the dust began to subside, and we were able to make our escape. One of the police officers had a flashlight, which proved helpful in guiding our way through the thick fog of dust. We linked arms and walked together along the subway platform, emerging from another entrance several blocks away.
At that point, we were told by the police that we should walk to the St. Vincent’s Hospital which had been designated to take care of those injured in the attack. We joined the small crowd of dust-covered people walking the three kilometers to St. Vincent’s. Along the way individuals came out of their homes, some setting up tables to offer water or juice to all those passing by. It was the first evidence we saw of the outpouring of compassion and support from ordinary people that would define the days following the attack. As we approached the hospital, the street in front of the main building was ringed with hundreds of doctors, nurses and other health professionals; they were all waiting for ambulances to deliver the wounded to their care. But the irony was that they waited and waited in vain because no ambulances arrived. For the most part, survivors managed to get there on their own. The victims of the attack either perished or walked away from it.
After undergoing a very quick physical examination, I left the hospital and proceeded to retrace my steps, returning to the church to see if any damage had been done. In fact, a piece from the landing gear of the first plane had made a hole in the roof, about a meter in diameter, which in itself was not much damage. But it rained two days later, and the water coming in did considerable dame to the wall. Just before I managed to reach the church, I ran into one of the other priests on the parish staff that informed me that the authorities had ordered everyone to evacuate the area. Although I would be able to come back daily to the area, we were not permitted to return to our homes for ten days. For some, it was as long as six months before they could return home.
The next day I returned to the site that had been the World Trade Center. The streets were covered five centimeters high with a grayish brown dust, what was left from the implosion of the Twin Towers. And with a moment of reflection one became aware that mingled with that ash were the remains of the people who had perished. But strewn over the ash were countless pieces of paper that had no doubt flown out the windows as the Towers were collapsing. And these fell into two basic categories---they were either financial spreadsheets, or family photos from the desks of the workers. In a very telling way, these relics summed up what the lives of those who were murdered that morning were all about the same basic thing---how they had simply gone to work as usual, just to earn a living to support their families. And, in the days after, as the names of those who perished were made public, what became evident also was the diversity of their backgrounds---eighty-four different nations of origin, and economic levels ranging from financiers, whose salaries ranged in the millions, to undocumented aliens delivering morning coffee, working for less than minimum wages. And the random aspect of some of those deaths became apparent, as well. While there were some who had worked for years in the Twin Towers and who just happened not to be there that morning because of a doctor’s appointment or a transportation delay, there were others who had been at the World Trade Center only once or twice before, but just happened to be attending a business meeting that day.
In the days and weeks after the tragedy New York became a quite different place. Those same people who always seem to be in a hurry, preoccupied with their own concerns, began to be more aware of and more courteous to their fellow citizens. If there was a unifying theme that might describe the feeling of those days, it was simply one of profound sadness at the death of so many innocent lives that were taken, and a feeling of profound sympathy for their families. Throughout lower Manhattan pictures of those who were still unaccounted for appeared on lampposts and on the walls of neighborhood firehouses, in the hope that they might still be alive, perhaps disoriented, and might be recognized and reunited with their loved ones. About a week later the New York Times began a series of vignettes, something like obituaries, capturing from interviews with their families something of the unique character and personality of each of those who had died. This went on for months, and it became part of a collective mourning ritual for New Yorkers to read these stories, view the photos and somehow connect with the victims and their families. And, in the weeks after, there were countless funeral services to attend, some with the body present, more often, nothing at all. One fire fighter mentioned to me that he had attended 74 funerals, and that was not at all uncommon.
Through this whole experience people admitted to being more reflective about the very meaning and purpose of their lives. There was a profound sense of coming together after having been a city under attack. But it was less out of a sense of vengeance or retribution against the attackers, than of working together to find any survivors and offering emotional support for their families. In that light, one thing that should not go without a mention were the final phone calls of those trapped in the towers to their family members. Many of these calls were left on voicemail, so we have a record of the last words of those who realized they were about to die. And to a one, they consist of a single theme, telling their wives, husbands, lovers, parents, children, friends, simply goodbye, that they loved them, and to remember them. It was hearing such stories that helped put life in focus for many New Yorkers.
In the days immediately following the attack, the area around the World Trade Center, which by this time had become known as “Ground Zero,” was inundated with people who had come from near and far, hoping to be of assistance. Many, remembering how people had been discovered days after an earthquake, still alive amidst the rubble, came thinking they could be part of a similar rescue effort. Since most of these rescue/recovery workers had no place to stay, the doors of St. Peter’s were kept open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a month and a half. The workers could then come to the church to rest, sleep or pray. But this scene was in no way comparable to the aftermath of an earthquake, and it became clear that the good intentions of these volunteers would only lead to their becoming a hazard to themselves and to others. So, in short order the whole area surrounding Ground Zero was placed under martial law, and only those who were part of an approved organization were allowed to enter.
In the months after, the rescue effort was transformed into a recovery effort, endeavoring to return the bodies or, more often, parts of bodies for burial. All the while that this work went on amidst the twisted iron and concrete, the “pile,” as it was referred to by the recovery workers, continued to smolder, breaking out into flame each time more debris was take away. It remains the longest active man-made fire in North American history. In the end all that remained was a huge gaping hole.
Strange as it may seem, the site of such cruelty and barbarism also possessed at times a macabre beauty. At night, the twisted wreckage was illumined by huge spotlights that were in place to allow for the 24-hour recovery effort. Large sections of the colonnades with their vaguely Islamic design that had surrounded the plaza remained. But for someone like myself, more familiar with Christian architecture, they seemed more like the arches of a Gothic church or cathedral with their stained glass removed and only clear light shining through their tracery. It was only later that I learned that the Gothic arch was actually imported from Islamic architecture during the Middle Ages. But they seemed to provide a kind of sanctuary protecting the graves of the dead.
Today, much work has been done to rebuild the site. The outdoor part of the memorial will open this year on the day after the tenth anniversary of the attack. The Memorial Museum will open next year on the eleventh anniversary, and the first of the towers to be rebuilt, One World Trade Center, will open in January, 2014, and the Transportation Hub in the Spring of 2014. I would add that the whole neighborhood has undergone a kind of “rebirth.” This area had been a site for the financial and insurance industries. But after 9/11, a number of office buildings have been converted to residences, apartment buildings have been built, some new hotels as well. This neighborhood and the area immediately to the north, known as Tribeca, has become a very desirable place to live, to which many young couples have moved to start their families.
The scars remain in the streets and in the hearts of those who lost loved ones. As can be expected, different people have different ways and timeframes of grieving. Some have moved on and have managed to create new lives, while still remembering him or her who was taken from them. Some are still stuck in their grief. There is the hope that once the memorial is completed, there will at least be a gravesite to visit. Because so many had no remains returned to them, there is no place to go to mourn in the usual way. But it will only be a step in the long process of healing.
In a homily I preached at St. Peter’s Church on the first anniversary of 9/11, I said, “Prior to September 11th we were accustomed to look at the Twin Towers as the symbol of America’s strength and power in the world of trade, commerce and finance. But as those buildings turned to dust before our eyes, we came to look to each other to see where our true strength and power lie.” That remains for me a positive memory in what otherwise was a terrible experience.