Frank OHara in Manhattan September 11, 2001
Battery Park & the twin towers of the World Trade Center
I was invited to speak at a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) conference at the United Nations in New York on September 10, 2001.
It seemed like a good opportunity to see a few of the sights. I hadn't been to Manhattan for years. Marion joined me on the morning flight from Toronto on September 7. That gave us the weekend for sight-seeing and Marion could leave on Monday morning to get back to work and leave me to do my stint on Monday afternoon. The weather was glorious; so we saw quite a bit of Manhattan, including a boat trip around the island with a great view of the World Trade Center Twin Towers. We even visited the vicinity of the towers on foot the next day. It's hard to believe that area is now in ruins.
On Monday my talk went very well. There was lots of interest in what CESO and similar organizations are doing around the world and I gave examples of my involvement. Monday evening my companions and I attended a cocktail party in a large room with wall to wall windows on the Brooklyn side of the United Nations building. The view was beautiful and peaceful and I met many interesting people from the USA and distant parts of the world. I always find it interesting how much we are all alike, no matter our origins. And most people are so congenial. Of course, a glass or two of wine helps.
I stayed at a place called Quaker House, a short walk from the UN building and near a YMCA. I went to the Y for breakfast on Tuesday morning and, as I was leaving to go to the UN building, I thought I heard someone say that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I thought I must have been mistaken. When I got out on the street there was a large pall of smoke coming up from the south end of Manhattan and many ambulances and fire engines with sirens screeching heading downtown. I still didn't associate this with a plane flying into the Trade Center but it sure looked like a large fire, judging by the amount of smoke. This picture is from in front of the UN building.
When I arrived at the UN I went by a coffee shop. A large number of people were gathered around a TV set. The TV was showing one of the Trade Center towers on fire when a second plane came into the picture, went behind the building on fire and crashed literally right through the second tower. I guess everyone has seen the replays of the explosion but to see it in real time was somehow unreal. At least with me, it didn't fully register. I actually went on to attend a meeting. I left before the end of the meeting and went to an area where there were a number of computers available where people could access the Internet. I accessed my email and was reading it when the announcement came to clear the building. I got a very short email off to Marion telling her I was OK and left the building.
Strangely, I didn't feel at all threatened. Perhaps that's a statement of the degree to which we North Americans have been isolated from so much of the world's turmoils. Just outside the building I came across three young women who were sobbing, one Chinese, one Japanese and the other might have been Indonesian. They were sobbing. I began to take things more seriously. The police ordered everyone to clear the area. It finally occurred to me that maybe the UN building too might come under attack. Looking back, I wonder whether I was walking in my sleep. Not any more. The world has changed. I've changed.
On the way back to my lodgings I stopped a couple of times and talked with people on the street. The others too could hardly believe what had happened. One fellow, a very tall and very black African American and I stood on a street corner and talked for probably fifteen minutes. I never really regarded myself as a brother to Americans, let alone this fellow who might have slightly intimidated me at another time. But we were brothers in these circumstances. I've always regarded myself as a world citizen. This was another relationship. The ambulances and fire engines continued to scream by us. I was certainly no longer only partially aware. Finally, we shook hands and went our ways.
Back at Quaker House about ten people had gathered in an intimate garden behind the house. It's hard to believe that such a tranquil place exists amid the Manhattan towers - at 48th St. and 2nd Ave. no less. Most of us were not Quakers. One young woman who was a Quaker suggested that we form a Quaker circle in the backyard for about twenty minutes. We sat around in a circle (with sirens still howling in the background) and she explained the process for us. We were to sit quietly with no need to say anything but if "the spirit moved someone" he or she could say whatever was on their mind. It was not to be a dialogue. Several did speak. One person, a Canadian, made a statement about supporting Americans in this tragedy. I felt compelled to make a statement to the effect that we were all in on this catastrophe. This was not an attack simply against the United States but against Western Civilization, possibly against civilization itself. This is not an isolated tragedy.
I shared my room with a woman from New Jersey. I hasten to add - I shared the room, not my bed. She slept on a mattress on the floor; I on the bed. Don't ask me to explain - it has something to do with not being fully awake. It was late on Tuesday evening but neither of us could sleep. She suggested we tell each other off-color jokes till we fell asleep. We must have traded jokes for at least an hour. She was a good story teller and had good stories but I succumbed to sleep first.
Of course all planes out of the area were cancelled. No buses were running. There was one subway train running out of Manhattan. Two other Canadians from Toronto, Marilyn Ashby and Charles Purdy, and I rented a car and drove to Buffalo. Fortunately one of the bridges off Manhattan island was open, at least to outbound traffic. Our objective was to reach Buffalo in time to catch the last bus at 10:30 PM, about a nine hour drive. We made it OK but the bridge was closed. So we rented rooms for the night and took a taxi in the morning to Toronto. Marilyn's husband insisted that he would pay because there was no telling what the next obstacle might be. Maybe he figured that Marilyn was upset!
We arrived safely in Toronto on Thursday afternoon September 13th. I can't speak for the others but I thought I had weathered the experience fairly well. However, on Saturday I found it necessary to have a cat nap several times and went to bed at 9 PM as if I had done a hard day's physical work.
Am I awake now? Well, I'm certainly very conscious of the necessity. My way of looking at the world has changed. It's not just that things are less safe than I had believed. I see the world as a more menacing place and I feel a responsibility to do what little I can to make it less so. I can't say that I subscribe to the Quaker philosophy of pacifism, although it's tempting. Neither am I in favor of tit for tat reprisals. What I have decided is that I will make a serious effort for the rest of my life to be truly aware. That statement sounds so simple but I am taking it as a solemn vow. In quantum physics they say that any action, no matter how puny, has world wide and perhaps universe-wide significance. I intend to shake a few leaves. We'll see where it leads.