(Members Blog) My 9/11 by Muriel Tillinghast

(Members Blog) My 9/11 by Muriel Tillinghast

I have written about this elsewhere, but I will commit to writing about it now.  I can remember the day it happened  It was a Tuesday morning.  It was a day to remember not only because of the events that unfolded, but because it was an exceptionally beautiful morning.  The sun was shinning brightly and the sky was the kind of clear blue that I would say is reserved for Central Asian skies which were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  So, all of that was going through my mind while I was driving down 2nd Avenue on my way to a Head Start Sponsoring Board Council meeting.  These meetings were held in a conference space of a major law firm housed at Grand Central high above the main floor. 

I was listening to the news on 1010-WINS on AM as I remember.  In the clarity of the moment, I looked at the sky and saw a plane approaching the World Trade Center (WTC),  The building was so big that it could be seen for miles and  from 42nd Street it was quite visible.   I knew instantly something was wrong.  No jet planes fly over that landscape in Manhattan.  All jet plane traffic is routed to Queens, so I knew something was off.  I just didn’t know how off!  

I saw the impact and the black smoke and then the flames.  I didn’t have answers, but I saw that there was an attack underway.  That was from the left.  On the right, while I don’t think that saw that plane, I saw its impact a few minutes later.  And, another large cloud of smoke was curling in the crystal blue sky.  The World Trade Center — I tended to speak  of both buildings as one — was on fire on its topmost floors.(1)  

As I had been to 109th floor several times in obviously better times, I knew that the fire department had no way of reaching whomever was up there as the fire equipment cannot go beyond the 9th floor,   And, no water pressure could reduce that kind of combustion that far up.   It is true that they can do some rescue off of rooftops, but that is assuming that the roof is not on fire and that was to going to be the case now.  The people at the top — the ones who reported to work early — were going to be trapped by the fire.  Who were they?  Why had this occurred?

Fire trucks by the score were racing down 2nd Avenue along along with ambulances.  I moved off to the side, parked and proceeded to my meeting in somewhat of a daze.  The world that I saw through others’ eyes was fractured, and we all moved as if we were stunned.  When I reached the mezzanine of the Pan Am Building, the former name for Grand Central  Station, which I reached by escalator, I was told several things:  there would be no meetings at this building today; the elevators were closed and we could not proceed any further, wait.   Clearly, no we had no idea what in the devil was going on in our financial district or anywhere else, but the building was on lockdown.  The word was, stop! After a while I could leave.  We all were in a quiet hysteria.

I had to think!  What to do now? One of my children was abroad, at least for now, there was safety there.  I retrieved my car and proceeded south.  Curiously, a continuous layer of thick, light-colored soot floated in the air and was soon to cover everything.  According to the moment-to-moment news, a plane was in trouble in Pennsylvania.  No details were available just then and another plane had run into the Pentagon.  Four jets, four acts of kamikaze-style aggression actually not seen since WWII and pretty much unknown on this landscape were in full display.(1)  The country was temporarily paralyzed.  Those of us in motion moved around Manhattan in somewhat of a daze, but we kept on moving.  Eventually, I headed back north towards upper Manhattan after being turned around because I could not proceed southward after a point.  The police were re-routing all traffic after a certain point.  I found my daughter who was on foot up around Columbia University.  Those students were tumbling out of their classes, too, in disbelief.  That I found my daughter rather easily was in itself a miracle! 

[Lower Manhattan was now being cordoned off at Canal Street, I believe.  At some point in the next several weeks, as I recall, I was there in the debris of ash along with the myriad of fire trucks and ambulances, police still trying to figure things out.  On that day, however, whatever order existed was self-imposed.  Getting a hold to what was happening took a bit of rock-hard sanity.  Before returning to the upper part of Manhattan,  I remember continuing going downtown on the east side as close  to Lower Manhattan as I could get to find out more.  Everywhere I was on that day, Manhattan was eerie, ghostlike, quiet, sobering, and ominous.  We didn’t know what was coming next.]

Everyone, including me and my car was getting covered in this light white-grey soot which was everywhere.  I was to learn that each one of us was on our own. I observed people were actually helping each other and people needed help.  I remember that many restaurants opened their doors and gave people seats and water — the two things everybody needed.  I may have taken a bottle or two of the free water, but once I joined with my daughter, we need to find a way to get home.  That was our priority.  

I was thankful having a car because the subway system was pure chaos.  But a car had its limitations.  All the bridges exiting Manhattan were closed.  The Canal Street and Williamsburg connections were useless.   At 59th Street, until way late in the night, that bridge was also closed.  I thought about going up through the Bronx and coming down through the Whitestone, but that was closed, too.  On another mission, I went to the bank to withdraw some funds and that was closed, too.

All the while, from the earliest time of this event — close to  9 A.M. —  people were coming to rescue what they could at the WTC.  It turns out that they couldn’t rescue much.  With the fires burning and people jumping out of the windows to avoid the flames, but dying for sure on impact, being at the WTC was dangerous business all around.  How many really died that day, I submit that we will never know. 

I clearly remember that I tried to get someone to open an elevator which was packed with people in a particular building.  I don’t remember how I came to learn that information at this time, but it doesn’t matter.   It was ignored.  Few, if any elevators were opened for various reasons they later said.  And, those people that I knew of died.   I never got nor did I expect to get an explanation as to why a specific elevator which I knew of was not opened when there was still hope for life.  Were I less aware, I would say that the people in charge knew what they were doing, but I know better.  Then after the planes’ impact and those immediate deaths, the buildings were due to collapse and so the danger continued.  Breathing that air was toxic and actually fatal.   And, Rudy Giuliani, America’s mayor, he was no where to be seen.  We were on our own.

Christine Todd Whitman, who was at that point the inept head of the Environmental Protection Agency, put out a public notice that uniformed first responders were not to come with any individual protective equipment, e.g., masks, hazard suits and gear and so forth.  She was probably goaded into that position as were her other policy moves.  However, I thought that this one was particularly odd and colossally stupid.  It turns out that I was correct on both counts because almost to a person, all of those who were at scene and obeyed those insane directives have died as a result of some form of cancer.   Double deaths, but those of the rescuers could have been mitigated with some common sense.  Nope, no common sense was available — just shock and reaction which is how we got to Afghanistan, but that is several paragraphs down in this writing.

We finally learned some of the businesses and companies were tenants.  We would never know all as some information remains classified.  We know many of the people who were caught in the conflagration, but some we would never know.  Families would know who was caught because they didn’t come home ever again.  Lots of undocumented people frequented the area for “off the book” work.  The Wall Street area was infamous for immigrant workers in that regard.   Also, the WTC was a major artery for many subways and underground walk throughs.  It is very possible that people at the street level and below were the last to really know what was happening above their heads and by the time their learned, for many, it could have been too late.  

There were shops in the area that I loved to browse.  There was a great shop on the corner which had the best peasant loft bread and it was not far from a small jewelry store that frequently caught my eye.  Across the street from where I once worked was the best hamburger joint in the world and down the street on the other side was a favorite Chinese restaurant on the second floor and a number of others serving great food within walking distance not too far away.  Windows on the World, a top gourmet restaurant, was on the 109th floor at the top.  

Only the people who were below where the planes hit had a chance to leave the buildings, if  they moved quickly and exited by the stairs.  Once I knew someone who was doing temp work in one of the buildings.  She said, the building shook hard and she smelled smoke.  Over the loud speaker, workers were encouraged to stay at their desks.  She started putting her things together and heading for the door.  She was on the 80th floor.  She spoke to another person across the aisle and asked if she were leaving.  And, they young woman said no.  Well, my girl got up and headed for the stairs which were now flowing with a constant stream of human traffic.  Two men were carrying a wheel-chaired co-worker down the stairs.  They were not abandoning her.  Everyone was moving quickly and quietly, helping where they could.  No shoving, just focused determination and energy.  No time to waste!  According to her experience, they all  made it, down and out as they scattered in the street streaming uptown.   One hour and 42 minutes after impact, the inevitable happened.  In the fire, the buildings collapsed.  The people who stayed were never heard from again.

Anyone in an elevator was doomed.  In fire, the elevators automatically go to the bottom shaft which is below floor level and have to be opened by engineers or trained service personnel — all unlikely to be available under these circumstances.  This is why it is written on all elevators near their doors that in case of fire, take the stairs.  “In Case of Fire, Do not Take This Elevator” should be familiar to everybody.   All of it — that cozy enclave of wealth and consumer pleasures which was the financial district was gone almost in an instant.   Confusion, anger, confusion and frustration, death remained.   That was on that day and for many days and years to come.  

In a day or two, a name was floated on the news, Osama Bin Laden.(2)   I didn’t remember hearing of him before, perhaps I had, nor had I paid much attention to a country called Afghanistan. I am reminded, however, that prior to the New York experience with him, “he blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.”(3)   Still he was vague, but not for long.(2) 

It seemed, at least according to the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld issued statement, that the United States had been the victim of a state of war by one Osama Bin Laden and they were going to get him no matter what.(3) Now a thousand questions were asked then and most of them remain unanswered even now.  How does an entire country get to be the target by one man’s operation even if it did cost thousands of lives?  It was a complicated question and the answers were even more complicated.  Nonetheless, soon, the United States was headed to Afghanistan to find this elusive character who lived in a cave and was on dialysis.  In any case, the Americans who worked in Afghanistan knew him.  It seems that there was a history via the mujahideen, the Afghan fighters, who had been battling the Russians for the previous decade or so.  It seems that the United States  — always itching to fight the Russians in a proxy war — knew and had trained many of the mujahideen who now had a leader who now declared war on the United States.

 

Let me add to the package of absurdities, our fearless leader, George W. Bush, the son of Herbert Walker Bush, who was not only not the sharpest knife in the drawer, was also the puppet to the puppet masters of Richard Cheney, his vice-president, and head of Halliburton, a big war contractor,  along with  Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.  This ensemble to arch-right nut jobs not only decided that a full-scale war should be raised against Afghanistan, but declared that “this would be a short war,” that we’d be over and out in a matter of weeks.  Spoken aloud and with some semblance of intelligence, a war was started.   

 

The blind were leading the blind, the United States walked into an area full-blown about which they knew little or nothing.  In fact, maps of the country were so rare that the map sellers in the Manhattan had their maps pulled by the Pentagon.  I know because I spoke to several of them.  And, now 20 years later the Americans have finally left the best way they could, running and in some disarray. It wasn’t easy coming in.  And, it was never going to be easy or victorious coming out.  That I could have told them for free, not at the cost of $825 billion for which they have nothing to show for lives lost, money spent and the destruction.(4)  

 

Alexander left Afghanistan 2,000 years ago.   The Russians left it willingly after their losses in the 1990s.  So why would the Americans think they could shape this rugged country in their image with some people they had just met and with whom they have almost nothing in common?  Arrogance!  Billions spent on something useless,  while the infrastructure of the country was decaying, lots of homegrown issues were left to simmer then flameout. . .   Osama was finally caught and disposed of on a clandestine mission in Pakistan of all places.  

 

These are my short notes on the long engagement in Afghanistan and America’s militarism as its prime and most consistent area of foreign policy.  Enough has been said for now.

 __________________________

END NOTES

1  Later I learned that all 4 jets had about 20,000 gallons of fuel and were due to fly out to California.  So, they were deliberately selected to do maximum damage for an air strike.

2 Some of the huge family spell their name Ladin, maybe to separate themselves from Osama’s legacy.

3   “ . . .[T]hat killed mostly Kenyans and Tanzanians (224 dead, 4,500 injured.”   Additionally, he was the mastermind behind blowing up the USS Cole, a ship deployed in the Gulf.   

Source: “In The End, Bin Laden Won,” Michael Moore, online substance.com, September 7, 2021 

The USS Cole was a naval destroyer in the Gulf of Aden.  Seventeen American sailors were killed, 38 wounded.  Source:  USS Cole attacked by terrorists – HISTORY

https://www.history.com › this-day-in-history › uss-cole…

1,856 of these deaths have been the result of hostile action. 320 American service members have also been wounded in action during the war. In addition, there were 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities, for a total of 4,096 Americans killed during the war. More than 46,000 civilians have been killed by all sides in the Afghanistan conflict. These are the direct deaths from bombs, bullets, blasts and fire. Sep 1, 2021  See,

United States military casualties in the War in Afghanistan

https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › United_States_military_c…