It is a tale perhaps only Charles Dickens could tell – not merely a tale of two cities and a remote location in the Pennsylvania woods, but of two towers that have come to define a society and a way of life, glistening towers of steel and glass that seen from a distance may have even come to symbolize the American Dream. Yet since Sept. 11, 2001, those towers – whose images decorate everything from jewelry to postage stamps – have become the permanent mental marker of nearly 2,800 lives lost there and the unimaginable masses of those who must live with the guilt that they survived the most dramatic moment in modern memory.
Like Dickens' old man – who survived the Bastille – victims of the crashing Towers in New York City, those in the towers, those escaping from under their cloud or those left helpless to watch from a distance, will be marked forever by the distinction of north tower or south, as well as the floor number on which they died or fled or on which their lives were robbed of a loved one.
Sept. 11, 2001, was not merely the worst of times, as Dickens might have written, but clearly for those attacking our nation and our way of life, the immeasurable best of times as these terrible villains crowded into four aircraft dedicating themselves to mass slaughter of innocent victims. But it is the best of times for our sometimes greedy, petty and foolish people who rose up to defy this evil, to confront the villains, and to challenge the concepts that led to such an attack. These acts of defiance varied from place to place. Few of those in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon building saw the attackers the way those heroes did on Flight --, certainly those amid the smoke and exploding glass in the World Trade Center did not have the opportunity to shout “Let’s roll” and to take on their attackers the way the passengers in the plane did. Yet in many ways, the struggle that ensued was as full of courage and daring.
It was the best and worst of times when courageous and perhaps overly enthusiastic New York City firefighters, police and other emergency personnel charged into the targets, each thinking to save others while in the midst of the disaster lost themselves to it: heroes with dust-covered faces and desperate stares; heroes with the sole intent to undue what hate had wrought.
It was the best and worst of times when office workers – caught in the most acutely competitive landscape on the planet – bonded together to help each other in a way few moments in history could recall and few moments the future would ever forget, setting aside their personal inclinations to fight not only the terror of the attack but the terror inside their own souls, as many knew even as they called out and cried to loved ones on cellular telephones that they would not survive.
Few moments in American history could provide the scope of this tragedy as a stunned, grime-covered huddled masses made their away north through Manhattan or off the island via the massive fleet of ferries, eyes thick with tears, gazes thick with terror, faces revealing expressions of shock, pain, disbelief and depression – all of them instant refugees to a war no one knew was being conducted in the most unlikely battle-ground imaginable. This was not the mountains of Bosnia or the jungles of Vietnam, but the financial capital of the world, grand with glistening unsinkable towers that – in a the space of an hour – had collapsed around them.
No novel – even one as grand in scope as Dickens could write – could capture the whole of what occurred on that single day in autumn, when the whole world witnessed two great stone giants tumble into a spray of incomprehensible rubble, mixed with the spilled blood and lost hopes of 2,800 unsuspecting victims.
Of those struggling under the clouds in Manhattan, watching from other places like Staten Island or the shores of New Jersey, or even on the cooler, calmer still more distant medium of television, only New Jersey seemed to contain the larger picture of horror and the remarkable, historic human endeavors made in helping the masses recover – if only temporarily – from the assault. New Jersey, near enough to see it all, was far enough away to serve as a distant shore of hope to which the lost multitude could flee in seeking safety.
From Weehawken’s grand promenade to the piers of Hoboken to the ferry terminals in Jersey City and the walk way at Liberty State Park, many of us witnessed the events transpire – physically safe, emotionally assaulted, each vivid scene etched firmly into our memories as to last for our lives. None of us could comprehend the enormity of what we witnessed, although each of our faces showed the grief and shock over what we saw – stricken even more when the first tower fell and then the second. We could not see the slaughter of individuals the way those closest to the towers could or the rushing flood of humanity scrambling to escape the tumble of concrete and steel when they fell. Yet we could sense the death and despair, and eventually held our arms open to receive the thousands when their terrified flight brought them finally, grimly to our shores.