Craig Taylor’s latest book is New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time.
Ask a New Yorker about September 11, 2001, and you’ll get a different answer depending on who you’re talking to. I spent years interviewing hundreds of New Yorkers about the city, and 9/11 was an unavoidable theme. Some spoke of the trauma of being so close to the World Trade Center buildings. Some were mournful because they had been travelling away from the city they loved at the time – their memories had to be forged from the same television footage the rest of us watched. “I should have been with my people,” I heard a few times. An engineer for the city told me what it felt like for him to see so much infrastructure destroyed in a single morning. An office worker described witnessing death in a city “where, up to then, I felt I was immortal – that’s what New York does.”
For some, 9/11 is linked to the grim sounds of the day. For others, it’s the dust that lingered for months; or the fear that crept into their lives.
Justin Gonzalez, a security guard at the Statue of Liberty, described the unease he’d lived with daily. He knew that if New York was to be attacked again, his workplace could be a target. Working at the monument had its mundane side. Justin spent most of his time on the job asking visitors for their keys, wallets and phones in different languages, but as time went on, he worried about what an attack might look like – he disliked it when the Statue of Liberty was destroyed in films such as Cloverfield or The Day After Tomorrow. The legacy of 9/11 was a constant low-level hum of potential terrorism to come.
After one bomb scare at the Statue of Liberty, Mr. Gonzalez sensed his vigilance would never disappear. An endless war on terror was not just endless elsewhere. As much as he just wanted to go home after work and not think about it, to treat it as only a job, Mr. Gonzalez’s time at the Statue was marked by its connection to the world – both as ambassador and target.
As I was interested in the workings of New York, during the research for my book, I joined a Facebook group for on-duty and retired 911 emergency operators. Luckily for me, I was contacted by a woman named Gladys DeJesus Mitchell, who had not only fielded all sorts of calls during her career, but also mobilized the 9/11 response. On that day, she’d attended a function for co-workers before getting called away by a supervisor who wanted her to field some strange incoming calls. Gladys is protective of her 9/11 story – as she should be. I’m still hoping filmmaker Spike Lee will interview her for another of his New York documentaries.
Ms. Mitchell speaks of her fellow 911 operators as the unsung heroes of the day. Operators, she explained, have to trust in what is spoken. All they have to go on are the words of the caller – even when they are outlandish, like an account of a plane hitting a tower. She told me her first thought was that she’d received a call from one of New York’s early morning drinkers. Then the second call came in. And a third. From that moment on, she was subjected to a kaleidoscope of voices, each one adding a new facet of terror. We often think of the visuals of 9/11, but for Gladys, what has lingered is the screams, cries and pleas – and also the sound of her own voice, reassuring some while alerting others. She’d always felt pride in her ability to stay calm – 9/11 was one time when she couldn’t, and she’s carried the fear in those voices for the past 20 years.
“We’ve experienced it through the call – people may think that, ‘Oh, that was just the call.’ No. We feel it as though we are there with the person,” she said. “That’s when you feel helpless. You can’t help them because the building’s falling on them, and you can’t even let them know that’s what’s happened.”
The attacks on the World Trade Center left what one other interviewee described as a legacy of dust. At the time, some of New York’s great street photographers captured images of those particles as they blanketed the city. Pete Meehan, then a local policeman, recalls wearing a mask to avoid the “pulverized” material in the atmosphere, though realizing that would do little to avoid inhaling it. “We all knew we were contaminated,” he said. “Right afterwards, we were like... ‘Someday it’s going to kill us.’ ”
Mr. Meehan now lives with a degenerative nerve disease that mimics ALS. For years, each time I visited him on Long Island, I marked its progression. After one lunch, he asked, without fuss, for me to help him get his weaker arm into his coat. While Mr. Meehan knows the advancement of his illness is unstoppable, he told me by e-mail recently that he’s still fighting, continuing to work on his PhD. “I complete all of my research and writing with my eye movement on my special computer,” he wrote. “It’s a slow process, but where am I going to in such a hurry?”
Perhaps the strangest part of the legacy of 9/11 is that in some parts of New York, the Twin Towers still stand – such as at the Panorama of the City of New York, a 9,335-square-foot architectural model of the five boroughs that is housed at the Queens Museum. I visited the panorama, accompanied by former curator Louise Weinberg. “We kept the towers – that was a conscious decision,” she explained. “After 9/11, our director and board felt that we couldn’t take them down.” It was too painful to see them disappear again. The result is a fictional, optimistic version of New York.
Only a few inches tall, the model towers still elicit a gasp from more than a few people, Ms. Weinberg said. “In some ways, it’s like a willful revisionist history. When people come, they key on them immediately,” she added. “It’s very emotional. A lot of people are shocked when they see them – and then a lot of people are also relieved.”
During my research, when I asked interviewees about the varied legacies of 9/11, I was told repeatedly that they were personal – that each New Yorker responded in his or her own way. I heard over and over about a sense of ownership. Some New Yorkers are still livid that the events of the day were used to justify war and jingoistic nationalism. The only constant that arose over the course of my conversations was the depth of the relationship. The phrase “Never forget” is superfluous.
“If you experienced 9/11, you’re married to it and there’s no divorcing it,” Mr. Meehan told me. “So you either make the best of it, or you let it ruin you,” he continued. “You cannot let it ruin you.”
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