Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Remembering “The Day” – Far From Home on September 11, 2001

In September of 2001, I took time to visit family and friends in Eastern Europe. My son, Ti, and his wife, Raluca, were living in her hometown of Craiova in southern Romania. On the afternoon of September 11 – still morning in New York City - Ti and I were playing a computer game and Raluca was watching Romanian television with her mother. She came running into the living room and told us to come quickly – something had happened at the World Trade Center. Raluca and Ti had visited there just a few weeks before departing New York for Romania, so Ralu understood the significance of what she was seeing unfold on TV. Ti and I arrived in front of the TV screen just in time to catch CNN broadcasting live the second plane impacting the south tower.

We had planned to travel over the border into Bulgaria later that day, but we quickly decided we needed to stay glued to the TV to see what would develop. We also concluded that this was not an opportune day for crossing international borders. Over the next several hours – and days – I wrestled with waves of competing emotions. I wanted to be home in the U.S. I wondered how long I would be trapped in Europe before plane travel would be allowed to resume. I speculated about how my many friends and business acquaintances in lower Manhattan were doing amidst the chaos and tragedy. I waited for the other shoe to drop. Were we on the brink of World War III? At an emotional level, I felt once again like the disillusioned 16 year-old who had been glued for an entire weekend to the flickering TV screen and the soothing cadences of Walter Cronkite’s voice describing the stunning events playing out in Dallas and Washington in November 1963.

The evening of September 11, I found myself reacting in anger when, over dinner, I listened to a member of Raluca’s family offer his opinion that the attacks had been launched by Israel as part of a plot to make Muslims look bad. Sensing my rage, he apologized and retracted his statement as irresponsible speculation.

I was scheduled to fly on September 13 from Bucharest to Moscow, where I would spend a few days visiting friends in the Russian capital. When my plane landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, I was stunned to find a small army of friends gathered to meet me. Vasia Zhuravlev spoke for the group when he greeted me: “America is at war; you may not be able to fly home for the foreseeable future. You are family, and we all want you to know we support you and you have a place to stay with our families for as long as you need to be here to stay safe.”

Later that night, Vasia, who works as an anchor on one of Moscow’s TV news broadcasts, dragged me with him and several friends to a music club. A Russian heavy metal band was on stage. Shortly after our party had arrived, the band paused between numbers and addressed the crowd: “An American friend has just arrived. We want to dedicate this next song to our friend and to all those in America who are suffering tonight. We stand with our American friends.” The surprising and heart-felt statement of support was rendered all the more poignant coming, as it did, from a rock band whose members’ rough appearance and outlandish costumes belied their tender hearts.

The hundreds of Americans stranded in Moscow struggled to find out when flights back the U.S. would resume. I was scheduled to fly from Moscow to JFK on September 16. I was advised to go to the airport and wait for Delta Airlines to put me on a waiting list. It turned out that the flight on which I was scheduled to depart Moscow was the first flight cleared to leave Europe for JFK, so I was one of the lucky ones who headed home on schedule. Our approach to Kennedy Airport that day took us over the lower tip of Manhattan and the still-smoldering heart of Ground Zero. Regular flights to Logan Airport had not yet resumed, so I spent the entire day at JFK while Delta figured out how best to return me to Boston. Late that evening, a flight was allowed to depart for Boston, and I was given a seat on that plane. Our departure path took us once again over the tip of Manhattan. Twice that day I saw the haunting image of the gaping hole that had once been the WTC – once in full daylight and many hours later in moonlight. They were images that remain vividly etched in my memory.

Is it possible that five years have passed so quickly – yet so eventfully? The emotions are less raw, yet they remain. Another stage of “loss of innocence.” Another day of feeling that “the world I thought I knew no longer exists.” Days of being overwhelmed by expressions of love and support, both from expected sources and also from unanticipated quarters. Days of feeling very human and very vulnerable. Days of being reminded to treasure every day we have with those around us whom we cherish. Another day of realizing that “tomorrow is not promised to us.”

Carpe diem – and tell a few special people today how much you love them!



Anonymous said...

This is one of the most moving and honest pieces I have ever read by you. Thanks.
In other news. It is my great honor to introduce you and your bloggership to Lost in Krakow-www.lostinkrakow.com. You can download a PDF version of the first issue. I am very proud and excited. I hope you enjoy.


Anonymous said...

Al, I will never forget my feelings that day and each year since. Your experience around that event was incredibly moving.

We have no leadership in this country and I believe that our place in the world is very tenuous.

God bless us all!

Love, Di