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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.