9/11: The Story, The Shrines, The Smell, The Scandal, The Meaning

The Story

When I meet someone who says he was in lower Manhattan on September 11, I apply a little test. Yes, I was watching from an office building on West 17th Street, I say. A high-rise. We had a clear view. Where were you, exactly?

If the answer is vague — standing on a corner or watching out a window — with no specific details offered, I figure the guy is blowing smoke. He wasn’t there. People who were there launch into The Story. The Story varies, of course, but the usual details involve the precise location, such as street name or building, where they stood to watch the towers collapse; where they had just been; where they had planned to go; the people they knew who were, or might have been, in the towers; and if they were close enough, mention of the flaming objects, and people, they saw falling from the sky.

Eight years ago The Story was told urgently. Now the telling is more mechanical, as if reciting a lesson. The details are no longer raw and jumbled, but polished and fixed into place. But The Story still comes out. We still feel a need to tell it.

The Shrines

There were details about life in New York in those days that didn’t come across on television. You had to be in New York to appreciate how the city turned into a shrine, for example. At first there were photocopied pictures of the missing ones afixed to lampposts and scaffolding everywhere. Then came the flowers, cards, notes, candles, flags. Little shrines grew like kudzu all over the city, covering sidewalks and spreading through subway stations.

The Smell

Something else you couldn’t see on television was The Smell. For weeks after, lower Manhattan and Brooklyn were permeated with a sharp, bitter smell of burned plastic, metal, fuel, and we didn’t want to think about what else.

Just a few days after September 11, people who spent large amounts of time where The Smell was strongest began to report skin and respiratory problems. A common condition was being diagnosed by doctors as “World Trade Center cough.” Some people wore surgical masks when out walking.

Still, all the news reports tols us not to be concerned about The Smell. The Environmental Protection Agency issued five press releases within ten days of the attack assuring people that the air was safe to breathe. We would learn later that the truth was being censored.

On September 12, EPA head Christine Todd Whitman issued a memo: “All statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC [National Security Council in the White House] before they are released.” Thus, facts and recommendations from EPA scientists were muzzled in favor of the cheerful, but false, news that there was nothing in the air to worry about.

Recommendations that people with asthma or other breathing problems should take precaution were stricken. Warnings that the dust outside and inside office and apartment buildings was laced with toxins and should be cleaned by professionals never made it to the public.

A few days after 9/11, Congressman Jerrold Nadler set up the Ground Zero Elected Officials task force. The task force decided to conduct its own air quality tests. One September night city council candidate Alan Gerson and Councilwoman Kathryn Freed snuck some scientists with air testing equipment past the barricades. These scientists made the first independent measurements of both air quality in lower Manhattan and asbestos debris within residential apartments. The scientists found levels of asbestos that were more than double what government guidelines say are “safe.”

On September 30, Mayor Rudy Giuliani said,

“There is a lot of questions about the air quality because there are at times in downtown Manhattan and then sometimes even further beyond that, a very strong odor. The odor is really just from the fire and the smoke that continues to go on. It is monitored constantly and is not in any way dangerous. It is well below any level of problems and any number of ways in which you test it.”

On October 26, the New York Daily News published a report by Juan Gonzalez, “A Toxic Nightmare at a Disaster Site.” Gonzalez reported that the EPA had found levels of benzene and dioxin in the air that were several times above the danger zone. Gonzalez wrote more stories revealing that the city’s asbestos-cleanup instructions were dangerously lax.

What I know is that I made my way to the Financial District in mid-October, and after only an hour of walking around my eyes and throat were burning. This didn’t feel “safe.”

The Scandal

Meanwhile, the dedicated firefighters, policemen, and others who worked daily at Ground Zero — the heroes of the hour — breathed toxins all day long without proper safety equipment and instruction. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) refused to enforce worker safety standards even after months had passed and the work was no longer an “emergency.”

A recent study revealed that the a quarter of Ground Zero workers still have persistent lung problems. There doesn’t seem to be an official tally of 9/11 responders who have since died of diseases caused by exposure to toxins, although some news stories put the number at around 100. Keep in mind that some kinds of cancers related to toxin exposure can take decades to develop.

Juan Gonzalez has a recent story in the Daily News about Joe Picurro, an ironworker who volunteered at Ground Zero. Today Picurro is dying, painfully. “The list of ailments ravaging his body is stunning,” Gonzalez writes.

Officially, about 3,017 people died in the terrorist attacks of September 11. Because no one bothered to protect the health of Ground Zero workers, more will die in the years ahead.

The Meaning

There were some things one didn’t see much in New York City. For example, it would be months before I saw the T-shirts with the flaming towers and weeping bald eagle, and I had to go home to Missouri to see them. The imagery seemed as crass as photographing one’s mother’s last moments of life and putting that image on a T-shirt. Or maybe you could celebrate that special moment when a loved one’s vital signs monitor flatlined.

The ideologues pushing the obscene “9/12 Project” want to take us all back “to the place we were on September 12, 2001.” Anyone who really wants to go back there wasn’t in New York. Clearly, the 9/12ers have internalized their own Story, and that Story has very little to do with anything that happened in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon on 9/11.

To me, there’s the Meaning of the day and the Meaning of the Meaning. The first is personal; the second is pathological. The second, to me, illustrates all the ways humans separate themselves from anything real.

It’s much more satisfying to “remember” 9/11 with brash, jingoistic rah rah than to fully acknowledge that day, that moment, with all its heartbreak. It’s more satisfying to enshrine the image of firefighters raising a flag than to see to it they got proper breathing equipment or medical care. It feels better to use 9/11 as a club to bash your enemies with than to fully acknowledge what happened, mistakes and corruption included.

Note the inverse proportion: The further away people were from the events of that day, the more they want to glorify it.

There was glory that day, but not of the sort Glenn Beck wants to fabricate. To me, there was glory in the fact that thousands of people evacuated the towers, walking orderly and calmly down endless flights of stairs. There was no panic or trampling. The infirm were helped by friends and strangers alike.

There was glory in the way New Yorkers reached forward to do what they could. On that day I saw lines of New Yorkers, sometimes several blocks long, winding around hospitals. Sorrowing, they stood in line for hours to give blood, to give whatever they could give. It turns out there was no need for the blood, but the giving was beautiful nonetheless.

This is what I choose to remember, part of my Story. I still feel a need to tell it.

27 thoughts on “9/11: The Story, The Shrines, The Smell, The Scandal, The Meaning

  1. The meaning of the day and the meaning of meaning? What a powerful way of putting it. It makes me think hard about how difficult it is to speak face to face with others about memories when the real, ground level experience is not shared. I don’t want to meander all over this post which is about your memory and your story but it is also a cautionary tale about how inevitably and how quickly a real historical fact, with its human face and human grief, gets transmuted by the political process into mere propagandistic dross.

  2. You’re a good lady, Maha.
    You get things right time and time again.

    Any thinking person should be able to figure out that what happened on that day spewed a witches brew of toxins over the city, the EPA under “W” urged everyone to get back to work.The “little people” pay the price, the fat cats roll the dice…….

  3. You’re exactly right….My wife and I have our own story (much less traumatic; it involves being stranded in Chicago with our four-year old son, locking him in the hotel room with cartoons on TV (bad parents!) and watching live news coverage of the towers tumbling down with a crowd of people in the hotel lobby….and yes, I do feel the urge to tell the story now and again.

    for what its worth, I nominated maha for the redesigned Reality-based-community website


  4. Thank you for such beautiful, honest writing. It’s why I keep coming here.

    Your paragraph “The Story” took me back to the view out my window that morning: the tepid white-and-azure skyline of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. A flock of pigeons wheeling and settling peaceably on a rooftop. Early-morning stillness.

    And the thought I had: Dear god, this is bad. And we’re going to make it much, much worse. It’s what we do.

    The realization that all the children I knew would grow up in a much uglier world than it had been just one day before.

    Thoughts of my dear friend Carol, who’d died of cancer Friday, Sept. 7th, and whose memorial service I’d attended the evening before. Then I thought of all my lost loved ones and felt, bitterly, a sense of relief that they’d miss what I knew was coming.

    In the years since, we’ve learned to fear and hate the truth about our leaders, ourselves, and the choices we’ve made as a nation. This is another reason why I keep coming here. The truth hurts… but just for a little bit, and then it starts to heal.

  5. I got a call a bit after 10 AM from my younger son, who was doing some work down on lower Broadway. He was crying and told me to turn on the TV. Seeing the tower fall real time just about put me over the edge and I went into a depression that lasted months. I was glad he was safe, but only later on did I find how close this tragedy came to our family and friends. One of my son’s buddies, working down town narrowly missed getting pulped by one of the landing gear of the second plane. My brother-in-law was hit by debris on the head and shoulder, but survived with a broken jaw and loss of hearing in one ear (as well as other injuries). He was in a coma for two weeks and we had no idea of his situation.

    I became a couch potato, glued to the tube 24/7. I remember when finally the cable channels went back to commercial programming: I watched a Martha Stewart cooking show. The recipe is engraved on my psyche, and I have made it many times since (steamed green beans and tomato scented with basil and garlic). It is so bizarre that with all the tragedy of that event, mostly to others, but striking close to home, too, that I should have such a clear recollection of a damn recipe. But it was part of the healing.

    The other thing I remember distinctly was how proud I was of the people of New York City, how bravely they acted in the aftermath, and worked together without regard for social class, skin color, or any of the other things that usually divided us. (I lived in the city for about 10 years, and still consider myself practically a New Yorker). The people in the city were absolutely awesome in their unwillingness to give in to panic, in their instincts to work together.

    In my opinion, we beat the terrorists completely on 9/12. Perhaps our country’s finest moment. If you ignore the craven politicians that used the opportunity to make a power grab. But my blood pressure is high enough already.

  6. Your story really brought back the day. I think it’s going to take me a couple hours to quit thinking about it and I am grateful to you for that. It is beyond my imagination what it must have been like, but you have brought it a good bit closer. Thank you .

    I think this calls for a bit of Irish whiskey.

  7. aimai – “…gets transmuted by the political process into mere propaganistic dross…” reminds me of an article which appeared in USA Today shortly after the event. It attributed the sudden jump to a 90% approval rating of Bush to how BRAVELY he had taken on the necessary fight against terrorists who attacked us.

    Making political capital out of an event of unimaginable human suffering was to set the stage for the next seven years of atrocities, against the rule of law in this country and against innocent peoples abroad, committed by the Bush adminstration – all justified by 9/11.

  8. You are the closest thing I have to anyone who was there, and I so appreciate this raw, powerful telling of what it was like, and what it turned into.

  9. felicity,
    I was thinking of how we were all exhorted to fly those flags, and watch those funerals, largely in order that we might all continue to feel as a country the anguish that we individually felt as people. The utility of that mass grief when it came to whipping the country into a fervor seemed so natural, to so many people, that I got thrown off an internet bulletin board for pointing it out. I merely said, more or less, funerals are a place for great, griveous, emotion and continually forcing yourself to relieve that emotion is going to leave you open to being manipulated politically by whoever promises to avenge those deaths, or relieve that emotion. So stay away from it, because its going to make us all ripe for unthinking, terrible, political action. But people were so caught up in their own real grief, or their own need to (as they saw it) be present with the actual victims of the towers, that they simply couldn’t see how they were going to be manipulated into political acts of unimaginable horror–the towers visited on the iraqi civilian population a hundred times over.

    The book that helped me most afterwards–and my own story is banal and unimportant, was Tich Nhat Hanh’s “Anger” which the Harvard Bookstore had the wisdom to put in the window along with all the raft of books explaining islamic terrorism and etc…

    It is from that, too, that I came to feel so strongly that Bush, and the country, had a real, existential choice whether to take us down a path of spiraling, uncontrollable, violent rage or to pull back and grieve, honestly, but grow and move on. It wasn’t the natural, or necessary, thing to reward those deaths with more deaths. It was a choice that sprang from an unreconstructed and, to my mind, fundamentally dishonest response to those deaths. Dishonest because the revenge came late, long after a normal person would have grasped that there is a difference between the cause and the effect.


  10. Thanks for this poignant memory. It is a good example of a time when the President of the United States was a true blue LIAR. We were lied to so much for 8 years, but especially about 9/11. Now, we have an honest, gracious, humane President; but, the supporters of the “lying President” call this new President a liar just because of the color of his skin. How sick some of the inhabitants of the US of A are. This website always reminds me that there still are sane, sensible, and caring human beings in this country. That is something to celebrate everyday.

  11. aimai – yes, and the Bush administration’s reaction to the event of 9/11 continues to have tragic ramifications to this day. The agenda of a terrorist begins with an act of revenge. The next step, hoped for but not guaranteed is a huge reaction from the injured party followed by, of course, world wide renown. Without the 2nd and thus 3rd parts of the agenda, the terrorist group pretty much stays hold up in a cave somewhere and, what’s very important, does not manage to recruit followers from around the world.

    Had getting bin Laden been assigned to low-profile intelligence operatives as it should have been, much of what we’re still faced with today would have been avoided. Whether Bush etal operated from sheer stupidity or saw an opportunity to accrue political capital is a question historians may be able to reason out.

  12. Thank you for this Maha. I still remember where I was and what I was doing that morning when I learned what was occurring on the eastern seaboard. I thank my lucky stars that what happened did not affect me personally, and I still remember all of those it did affect every year.

  13. Oh, the irony….
    On this 9/11, at Ebay,one can bid on dinner for 5 with Sarah Palin, or even better, Lunch for three with Turd Blossom, himself. I can ‘t afford either, but if I could, it would be lunch with Carl, Jonathon Turley, and a cop to arrest the Turd Blossom

  14. One of the events that touched me about 9/11 was watching the Canadians turn out to offer aid and comfort to air travelers whose flights were diverted to Canada when American air space was shut down and no flights were allowed into the United States. It was a heartwarming experience to see the love and humanity poured out on Americans who had no clue as to what was happening in the United States at the time. Thank you, Canada!

    Then you get assholes like Bill O’ Reilly who can’t let an opportunity pass to denigrate the Canadians at every turn for whatever sick reason motivates him.

    In times of drought, you know the good fountains…and in times of adversity, you know the good friends.

  15. “The odor is really just from the fire and the smoke that continues to go on. It is monitored constantly and is not in any way dangerous.”

    Good old Rudy. What is it with conservative politicians; do they really just have no consideration for working people? Rudy just wanted the mess cleaned up ASAP, better for his leadership image. The same mentality sent soldiers to battle in Iraq without proper body armor, again conservative politicians sacrificing everyday people’s lives for their own political expediency.

    Thanks for the post Maha.

  16. On 9/12 we were scared shitless and unquestioningly obedient to an authoritarian, mean and stupid Republican government. That’s why the Glenn Beck crowd have such nostalgia for that day.

  17. A lifelong New Yorker until 2000, who had been up in the towers many times, I was in Raleigh, NC when it happened. It was a miracle that I didn’t know anyone who died that day. I had been, until late 1999, an Adjunct Professor at an upstate NY college where many graduates went into the financial industry.
    I visited the site in November of that year. I remember the towers being just holes in the ground when I was a kid. And I went to mourn those who lost their lives as they returned to that state. And it still smelled of burnt metal and chemicals two months later.
    I almost go into a fight that day. My friend probably saved me from being arrested. It was bad enough that people were sticking their camera’s above the fence to photo the wreckage. I went ballistic when a couple of groups staged their smiling friends and family members in front of the fences for staged photo’s. I started screaming that this wasn’t Disney, or Epcot, and that they should respect the dead – and to get the fuck out of here before I fucking beat the living shit out of them. They took off and my friend calmed me down because I was about to chase after them.
    I still hate Bush & Co. for staging their wars and using as their backdrop the smouldering ashes of those who died, in large part, because of their negligence. To me, September 11. 2001 will not be another “day that will live in infamy.” It will instead be a day to remember the ineptitude of men who then kidnapped a nations sorrow and channeled peoples emotions to wage war for profit. If there are circles of Hell, these people ought to be in the bullseye.

  18. I left this comment on Aimais blog earlier. Hope you don’t mind:
    I was walking somewhere around Rector and Lower B’way last year, to meet some teachers for a drink before going to a banquet at the UFT headquarters. I looked down at the sidewalk and saw a small dusty gray plop of mud. No doubt about what it was. The color and texure was unmistakeable. It must have shaken loose from a ledge somewhere, and finished its descent to the street on this quiet evening some seven years later. That stupid light gray pulp really shook me for a moment. I wasn’t expecting to see it that night.

  19. That morning was one of the few when I had no radio or TV on before work. As soon as I got to my work place, a maternity hospital, I knew something was wrong. “Haven’t you heard,” they would say in an unbelieving tone. By the time I got to my office and people I knew well, I got the story. There were patients to see, babies born Sept 10 who had just as much need to breastfeed as did those born on Sept 8. I went room to room, trying to concentrate on each mom and baby. THey deserved no less of course. In each room, the TV was on. Family members were watching but the mothers rarely did. They had a new baby and their world was just that. I wonder if they actually remember the day like the rest of us. All those babies turned 8 years old on the 10th of Sept. It is hard to believe how the world changed while they were meeting mom for one of the first times of their lives. I remember the room I was in when we learned about the pentagon. The mother hardly looked up, but the father looked stricken.

  20. I remember the smell of smoke. I was out running an errand and even looked around the horizon to see where it might be. I am roughly 10 miles from the pentagon. I came home and my girlfriend called to tell me to turn on the tv.
    For weeks after that the local police rode with rifles propped up in the front seat and after that, anytime there was a code orange or some alert, they would have them propped up again.

    I remember in days after, the stories we heard of people helping each other in New York. It’s stunning that our government with held important information the citizens needed on the air quality. Once again it makes me wonder just who they are working for.

    I was also touched by the condolences from all over the world.

  21. Beautifully written. I think it is so important to hear the human side of this epic tragedy. The other story that is never told is why this tragedy occurred in the first place. Bush told the fairy tale version, that the terrorists “hated us because of our freedoms”. The real story is more about sowing hatred and war and supporting state terrorism perpetrated by Israel eventually comes back to get us. It is about karma.

  22. The other story that is never told is why this tragedy occurred in the first place. Bush told the fairy tale version, that the terrorists “hated us because of our freedoms”. The real story is more about sowing hatred and war and supporting state terrorism perpetrated by Israel eventually comes back to get us. It is about karma.

    God, is it ever. And even now, eight years later, there are so few voices who can even talk about this, and those that do are as far from the mainstream as you can get.

    I remember trying to find the words for this in the days after 9/11, and feeling completely alone in this sentiment, as the country plunged into madness.

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