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September 7, 2011

The Fallout

A Louisvillian reflects on her time in Manhattan on — and after — Sept. 11

In September of 2001, I was a New York University undergrad living on Broome Street, about a mile away from the World Trade Center. When I left my building that morning, I didn’t know. Groups of people on the sidewalk stared upward. Countless vehicles were trying to reach the Manhattan Bridge to get off the island — I’d never heard so many horns and sirens. Finally, I asked a woman what was going on. She was speechless. Without looking at me, she raised her index finger high above her head. I followed her hand until I saw the smoke and fire pluming out of craters in the Twin Towers. A man in the street turned to us and said, “I saw it! Two planes, two planes hit the World Trade Center. They finally got you! This happens every day in Israel. Now you know what it’s like.” He continued downtown, perhaps to share this insight as far as Ground Zero.

As I walked to class, I called my parents and left a message on their answering machine saying I didn’t know what was going on but that I was OK and I loved them. The phrase repeated in my head, “Two planes. Two planes?”

Shortly after I made it to my Shakespeare course, a girl opened the door to our room and told us classes were canceled. She wept so hard she gasped for breath between words. Our professor gave us the option of leaving. Half the students did, but I stayed. We could hear the fighter jets flying low over Washington Square Park.

We didn’t know they’d collapsed. We didn’t know about Pennsylvania or the Pentagon. After class, as I looked south from the bottom of the park, they were gone. There was nothing but smoke and hordes of people walking uptown covered in ash as fine and sticky as talcum powder.

I was more fortunate than many people in New York that day. I didn’t lose anyone, I didn’t get caught in the fallout, and I didn’t witness people jumping out of windows. Yet for me, it wasn’t that one day that affected me — it was the trauma that followed. For months, I smelled the fallen towers burn along with their contents. Rumors constantly circulated about chemical warfare and follow-up attacks. Bomb threats were common. Postal workers delivered mail in HazMat suits. And I was perpetually on the edge of an anxiety attack.

The man who yelled at me in the street that morning had a valid point. Except for vague worries about the Russians bombing us in the ’80s, I’d never even considered the possibility that a group of people could come to my country to kill me or my loved ones — even though they told us they were going to. But in downtown Manhattan that morning, I realized I’d been living a lie for 20 years, a delusion based on privilege and entitlement. When that man yelled at me, I was ashamed.

That month, I got a taste of what living in a war zone might be like. I had to show my ID and proof of residence at a police barricade to get past Houston Street to my dorm, military personnel with machine guns patrolled the subways and airports, and for a while, the only vehicles I saw on the streets surrounding my building were ambulances, fire engines and police cruisers. Of course, what I experienced was only a fraction of what civilians in other countries have suffered and continue to suffer.

My Bosnian friends in the ’90s would say, “You don’t understand. You can’t under-
stand,” as they told me about the war. In 2001, I finally knew what they meant and realized how narrow my understanding had been and still was. However, I also learned the isolation of having experienced something many others couldn’t understand — not that I’d want anyone else to carry the burden of that knowledge. Too many people know already.

Although I’m grateful there hasn’t been another attack on U.S. soil over the past decade, it’s not completely over for me because it’s not over for millions of people worldwide. Terrorist attacks happen all the time. We’ve been fortunate here, but so many others have not. On Sunday, I hope people remember Sept. 11 and find some comfort or closure, but also remember the soldiers and civilians who continue to be affected by war and terrorism throughout the world.