9/11: Scenes from the aftermathWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
First published Nov. 12, 2001, in the South Florida Business Journal.
The water was clear and warm. The ocean tide supported me as I floated in the sunshine, drifting along the beach behind my Fort Lauderdale apartment building. I was relaxed, almost dozing, when I felt a sharp scrape along my right shoulder. With thoughts of sharks swimming in my head, I put my feet in the sand and turned around in the chest-high water, fighting panic.
A sheet of metal bobbed on the tide, a ragged section marked with the familiar pattern of a World Trade Center tower. I lifted the placemat-size debris and carried it to the shore, out of the waves’ reach. I studied it, disbelieving, then turned and faced the ocean.
In front of me, hundreds of beachgoers were walking out of the water, each carrying a section of World Trade Center rubble. People in swimsuits of every color dragged concrete and steel onto the beach, reverently walking back into the surf to retrieve more wreckage. After my third trip out of the ocean, I looked at my bare feet and legs and realized I was no longer slogging through water; every drop had turned to powdery gray soot.
I was wading back to retrieve an arm, a wedding ring glinting on one waterlogged finger, when I woke up. I sat up in bed and pulled the blankets back, expecting to see the sheets around my feet stained with ashes. When I pulled the blinds open and looked out, I was convinced I would see miles of debris floating in the ocean below.
Learning to fly
Terminal 4 at the Fort Lauderdale airport has a tunnel-like walkway to the security checkpoint. On my first flight after Sept. 11, 2001, I walked past six National Guardsmen cradling M16s as natural extensions of their bodies. I passed through three metal-detecting devices and three ID checks. On the plane, people were quiet, sullen and hyper-aware of their fellow passengers.
Every time I have flown, even before Sept. 11, 2001, as I step on the plane, I kiss the tips of the fingers on my right hand, and draw a cross on the side of the hull, holding my hand against the metal as I duck inside. I feel self-conscious, but the superstitious act hasn’t failed me.
Before I flew that first time after Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote a will.
“And as the smart ship grew, in stature, grace and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Till the Spinner of the Years, said ‘Now!’ And each one hears,
And consummation comes and jars two hemispheres.”
Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” captures a slow-motion kiss of death that could be ship striking ice or plane striking building. It is about an accident, not murder. I doubt the dead draw comfort from that distinction, whether they are trapped under rubble in the depths of the Atlantic or trapped under rubble in the depths of New York City.
That distinction does not matter to the man I saw in a recent issue of Paris Match magazine. The European press does not practice the restraint we Americans do, and the magazine published several pictures that have not been seen here — people jumping from the towers, body parts in the ruins, bloodstained concrete. One full-page picture shows firemen carrying a body. The man on the stretcher is in a business suit that is neat and surprisingly clean. His hair is not messed up or dusty. His light brown eyes are open, but not in horror. His arms rest at his side.
His mouth and lower jaw are gone. Two teeth hang from his upper jaw, spaced an inch or so apart.
The firemen carrying the man’s body are crying, tears cutting streaks through the soot caked on their cheeks. Only they know if they were crying for the man they carried, for his imagined family, or for the countless others they knew awaited discovery, crushed beneath the rubble.
I’ve watched the tape of those airplanes thrusting into the towers a hundred times, seen the hellish consummation and violation over and over. I have to remind myself it is not an accident. It’s one thing for an unfeeling, unthinking sea to swallow 1,500 people, for a hurricane or tsunami to exercise its random selection of death.
This was not an act of nature, or a human misstep like mechanical failure or pilot error. It was planned, calculated, intentional. How do civilized people process that knowledge? How do we respond? With civility? Do we try to match their barbarism?
If we could, would we gather those responsible, convict them, and put them, their wives, their children and their children’s children on an airplane and plunge it from the sky into the mouth of whatever cave hides al-Qaida?
Ghosts on the half-shell
I go to Shuckums looking for ghosts.
The same issue of Paris Match featured a full-color picture of Shuckums, the Hollywood, Fla., restaurant where Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who would turn planes into missiles, ate on their last Friday alive. Shuckums made international news when the FBI interviewed workers at the seafood joint who had argued with the men over their $50 tab.
Arguing over a bar bill is a banal act for men who are about to change history.
I walk around the bar before choosing a seat. Where did they sit? Did they watch sports on the television? Did they flirt with any women? Were they laughing inside, or wishing they could take these South Florida people to hell with them?
A dirty, bedraggled man wearing a Homeless Voice T-shirt pokes his head inside to tell a waitress he knew she would want him to eat outside.
“I smell,” he says, but he smiles, a sense of humor radiating through his cloudy eyes.
The waitress at my table whispers about large payments from tabloid reporters and international papers, about people trading increasingly embellished stories for cash. No, she says, she didn’t work that night, but she knows enough to talk to me if I am interested. I order a cheeseburger and watch her walk to the kitchen. I watch her huddle with two men in the kitchen, and although she brings my food in good time, she does not invite further conversation.
A manager tells me there are a lot of curious people who photograph the bar and who ask where the men sat. I want to know, but I don’t want to know.
I study the bar, the sports pennants on the walls, the four televisions replaying the explosions in the sky. Patrons in booths around me talk about anthrax and Afghanistan, not Dolphins and Heat.
Shuckums is no different from a thousand other bar/restaurants in America, except that it provided temporary shelter for an evil that was only 84 hours from consummation.
I pay my bill and leave.
The homeless man is still outside, waiting for someone to serve him.
He offers me a Homeless Voice with an American flag on the front page, its colors bleached and smudged from being carried in the Florida sun.
I leave him a dollar, but I do not take the newspaper.
I walk to my car, three blocks away, and drive past Shuckums. The man is still waiting to be served.
Learning to fly II
In Detroit, it takes almost three hours to pass through the security checks. Carry-ons are scrutinized, boarding passes and IDs are checked four times, federal marshals watch people in line and it is a painstaking, winding, inconvenient, dragged-out process that everyone submits to without complaint.
On the plane, every patch of turbulence is scrutinized.
Everyone seems relieved when we leave the city’s tall buildings behind; the unyielding ground would be a kinder end than sky-scraping concrete.
When a passenger leaves her seat and heads for the front of the plane, I tense, ready to tackle her, and I am not alone. With every unbuckled seat belt, six sets of eyes track and follow.
This woman, elderly and unable to walk without help, is not a likely hijacker, but we react to her with distrust and vigilance.
We are ready. We are ready to roll.
Watching the skies
It has been two months since bin Laden’s airplanes came rumbling from the clouds like the parent-killing rhino in “James and the Giant Peach,” trampling What Used To Be into a nightmare of uncertainty and worry.
At the beach in Fort Lauderdale, the once-ignored drones of overhead airplanes cause people to crane their necks upward, searching the blue sky like they once scanned the blue waters for sharks.
It’s difficult to watch for the fins of terror in the water and the air at the same time, to be alert every waking hour, to sustain grief and mourning, to remember normal.
Most of us will never touch a piece of rubble in New York or Washington. Our hands will never be dirtied by the debris in Pennsylvania.
But we are still removing wreckage, still clearing away the soot-and-bloodstained remains of what was, hoping to make room for what is, and what will be.
Hoping to sleep without dreaming.
Hoping to stop bracing ourselves each time an airplane flies low overhead.
Hoping for normal.
I’d give anything to be bored again.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.