September 11, 2001 – Twenty Years Later

From Martin Andersen

Dear Friends,

Twenty years after September 11, 2001, Chris and I pause to reflect on memories of that day’s events and the aftermath. It is perhaps not surprising to observe that, even as that period was so charged with emotion, drama, and tragedy, those feelings have been slowly receding into the realm of equanimity and memory. That process has been aided by the fact that no similar event has occurred in our part of the world since those unforgettable days. Still, recently, as we view the retrospectives on PBS and other sources, feelings of grief and sadness re-emerge. In a certain sense, these experiences, now two decades old, will be with us always. At the same time, Chris and I have to acknowledge that, although we were witnesses to these events, what we carry cannot in any way be compared to those whose loved ones have perished, either on that day, or in the years after – up to the present time – from the lingering health effects associated with the disaster and subsequent recovery and cleanup. It is also sobering to note that many more first responders and recovery workers have died since 9/11 than all the victims on the day and immediate aftermath itself.  

As we have done frequently throughout the years, tomorrow we will be attending Hoboken’s annual September 11 outdoor memorial service, on the waterfront with the backdrop of the Freedom Tower.

Below is a piece I wrote a week after the World Trade Center towers fell, which was shared with friends and family. Thought I would send it out once again.

One Week Later

 I have been wanting to write to our friends for a while now – to relate the events of one week ago from our point of view (which, literally, is only a mile from the site of the lower Manhattan disaster). For Chris and me it has been, so far, just a matter of trying to get through each day—finding not enough energy for much extra. But we must try to get our lives back to quasi-normality. Somehow. So I would like to tell you what we saw.

On a remarkably clear and beautiful Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, Chris went out early to join her walking group. After their walk, followed by coffee at Starbucks, and more coffee with a friend she ran into on the way home, she arrived in the lobby of our apartment building at about 9:30, where she first heard about airplanes colliding into the World Trade Center towers from the doorman. She went upstairs, got her binoculars, and then proceeded to a deck area between 1 and 2 Marineview Plazas, where she could get a good view of what was happening in downtown Manhattan. (The view from our apartment in 1 Marineview is to the north, east, and west, but not south towards the World Trade Center). Both towers were burning fiercely by then. Shocked, she stood and watched the scene for about ten minutes before the World Trade Center 2 tower (the second to be struck) collapsed in front of her eyes. But, because (from her point of view) 1 WTC tower stood in front of the other, at first she did not know what she was witnessing. In fact, it appeared as if the top of 2 WTC was exploding, and that the fire, smoke, and debris that spread as the tower collapsed on itself looked to her as if all thesurrounding buildings were exploding! She screamed. A while later, 1 WTC fell; and shortly afterward Chris decided she needed to go back up to the apartment. The time was about 10:45am.

At that moment, I was driving home from Newark and a canceled New Jersey Symphony Orchestra rehearsal. My first inkling that something was wrong had occurred at about 9:15am. Riding the elevator in our building down from the 24th floor, a woman asked me if I had “heard the news about the Trade Center”—something about a plane crashing into one of the towers. I said no—but was in a hurry to get to work. Driving out of the garage and down Hudson Street about 9:20, I saw both towers on fire, as the car radio told me that two airplanes had hit the towers, and that therefore this seemed not to be just an accident, but a deliberate act. Not knowing quite what to do, I headed west to Newark, looking over my left shoulder frequently, catching a glimpse here and there of a catastrophe in the making. Arriving at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the Symphony’s home, I quickly found out that the rehearsal was “on hold”. I was finally able to get through to Chris on the cell phone (service was very sporadic the whole day) and found her nearly hysterical. She was at home, just about to go to the deck. I told her to take it easy, but to take a camera. Then I rushed out to the back parking lot of the NJPAC; and there, with many colleagues, and at a distance of perhaps eight miles, witnessed the collapse of 2 WTC. First there were two burning towers—then, eight seconds later, there was only one. Rehearsal was cancelled. Some orchestra members living in NYC went to the homes of their NJ colleagues. Having no takers, I headed back home immediately.

               By the time I got to Hoboken, 1 WTC had already fallen:  both towers now were gone. It took me some time to garage the car—police were already blocking off streets near the river for emergency vehicles–and we live only a block from the Hudson. I found Chris in the apartment, glued to the television, and very upset. We decided to go back to the deck—but I ended up preceding her, taking binos and camera with me. What a terrible sight! Already clouds of smoke and steam were engulfing the disaster site and surrounding buildings—being produced by the efforts of the firefighters to bring the blazes under control. I stood there with my good friend Bob Reynolds (who lives in 2 Marineview) for a long time. There was little to say. A few others on the deck exchanged their stories. I did take a few pictures. The need to document…

After a time, Bob and I parted company and I returned to the apartment. After watching some more coverage on television (Chris still glued to the tube), I took our camcorder back to the deck and shot some footage. Chris soon joined me there—by now it was past noon. After a while we went back inside.

Earlier that morning in the apartment, before any of this happened, while Chris was already on her walk, I was on my NordiceTrack machine, reading a book as I “skied” before getting ready to leave for Symphony. The book in question was called The Journey Home, by Edward Abbey. He had lived in Hoboken for two years in the 1960’s, also spending a lot of time in Manhattan, before heading out to the West, living there, loving and writing about it for the rest of his life. I came across the following passage from the chapter entitled Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night:

At evening I walked once more along the waterfront and gazed across the river at the somber forms of Manhattan, the great towers largely dark, for on Sunday no one is at work over there but the janitors. I don’t know how New York can survive.

I believe the city is doomed. The air is poisonous, not so much with filth and disease as with something deadlier—human hatred.

But, a few paragraphs later, I read:

We must save the city. It is essence and substance of us all—we cannot lose it without diminishing our stature as a nation, without a fatal wound.           

My words therefore are dedicated to that city we love, that visionary city of the prophecies, humane and generous, that city of liberty and beauty and joy which will come to be, someday, on American earth, on the shore of the sea.

Now I know that this was what I was reading as the airliners, filled with hate and fear and fire and jet fuel, plunged into the towers.

The week has crept along very slowly, and our emotions have run the gamut from sadness and tears to melancholy, numbness and weariness. Still there is a weight and a cloud that hangs over us—just as that smoke-cloud still hangs over “Ground Zero”, which we have gone down to the waterfront to look at almost every night. On Tuesday evening the cloud struck me as shroud-like; Chris likened it to the souls of the dead, hovering over the scene. All along the Hoboken waterfront makeshift shrines have sprung up, consisting of candles, signs (some painted on driftwood), flags, and pictures of the missing. We spent time one night, re-lighting candles which had gone out. Good therapy, cathartic.

The Symphony cancelled its Opening Night Gala with Doc Severinsen; but decided to go ahead with a completely changed program for the weekend concerts on Friday and Sunday: a program of sadness and, ultimately, of hope. After some moving opening remarks—almost like being in church—we began playing the Star-Spangled Banner—but very softly and slowly with strings only, plus snare drum. An artistic risk that came out beautifully—most of the audience listened in meditative silence, while a few joined in to sing softly near the end. Next we played Bach’s Air on the G String, followed by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man—that quintessential affirmation of humanity, written at the close of World War II. After intermission, we concluded the program with the “Eroica” Symphony(No. 3) of Beethoven, whose slow Funeral March is then dissipated in the final movement with a message of supreme hope and affirmation. An emotionally draining experience for all involved—found myself tearing up at the end. Exhausted afterward. Sunday also.

One happy story: the morning of the disaster, the father of one of my young violin students was just about to take the five minute train ride on the PATH train from Jersey City to the World Trade Center when he saw the first plane hit. He stood there and watched the whole spectacle, worrying about coworkers already at work on the 92nd floor of 2 WTC. He had lived through the 1993 WTC bombing; and being one of the managers of his firm, had subsequently instructed his employees to always leave the building immediately at the very first hint or rumor of trouble. They followed his counsel to the letter that horrible day, and everyone at his company escaped, safe and sound. Those in other offices nearby were not so lucky. But his people are alive, at home with their families.

Well, that is our story thus far. Thank you again to all who called or emailed us. This has been a terrible time—but somehow it seems to bring us, the living, all that closer together. And that is a good thing. Time for a little gratitude. Thanks to all.

God bless,

Martin and Chris Andersen