A year's perspective on Sept. 11 offers simple hopes, deep humility, and wishes of strength for all those who are rebuilding, says industry observer Lou Bertin.
Over the next weeks, InformationWeek and many other publications are preparing editorial packages that revisit the attacks of last Sept. 11, their immediate aftermath, and the regeneration that's occurred at places near and far from where those planes hit. I beg your indulgence as I tell my tale.
Along with so many of you, I was in Tucson, Ariz., at the InformationWeek Fall Conference and as a too-frequent traveler, my body clock remained set to Eastern time. It wasn't unusual, then, that I'd be up and about at 5 a.m., watching local news. As the broadcasts prepared to cut over to the networks at 6 a.m. local time, pictures came in showing almost innocent-looking puffs of smoke emanating from the first of the towers to be hit.
That prompted a phone call home to my bride, who for years used the World Trade Center as her subway stop each morning and night. No, she hadn't seen the report. Yes, she would turn on the television. And so we chatted for a minute or two, knowing that even a two-seater plane crashing accidentally into one of those buildings would spell huge trouble.
Seeing reports of a second plane hitting prompted a second phone call home. During that call, I heard a sound I wish had never reached my ears. While still talking, before any correspondents' reports ever made it onto the air, through the phone I heard a boom. I heard things rattle in our house a couple miles due south of the Pentagon and the equally rattled sound of my bride's voice reporting that the house shook. A couple of minutes later, my bride informed me that smoke obscured the sun.
At that point, there was nothing tangibly productive I could do, save for heading to the conference where I believed I might be of some help to my InformationWeek colleagues and to the friends who were our guests. Adrenaline was pumping a little too quickly, I soon discovered when, as a friend asked "Lou, what do you think we should do?" and I literally (and, for those of you who know me, unprecedentedly) found myself incapable of speech. One tower was down and the second was about to collapse.
What followed was a blur, but what I'll never forget was the mobilization of my colleagues and me with no thought other than ensuring that whatever needs we and our colleagues had for comfort, for counseling, for communication were met. The hugs received from and delivered to friends, knowing there were for all of us thick hours where loved ones were unaccounted for. Naked admiration for colleagues who knew precisely what tone to take and when to strike it when the time came that some folks might want to gather to share their thoughts. Never in an absurdly lucky career that's spanned 25 years have I ever been prouder to be part of a team than I was that day. Never have I been luckier to be in the company of such good friends, brand new and old, than I was that day.
A little more than 24 hours after the attacks, four of us piled into a rental car to begin an ill-advised, irreplaceable journey. Hours and miles passed, then: a dual rainbow following a king-hell thunderstorm in New Mexico ... the dazed, uncomprehending looks on the faces of people at truck stops in the dead of night in Tucumcari, N.M., and Amarillo, Texas ... the deepening of one of the great and surpassing friendships of my life and the creation of two new bonds what won't soon disappear. And on we went until I walked in my back door about 8 a.m. on a rainy, miserable Friday.
Looking back with a year's perspective, I see that the process of regeneration for me began with that New Mexico rainbow. That thinking was prompted by my first visit to the former World Trade Center site just a couple weeks ago in the company of, and at the prompting of, one of my fellow riders back from Arizona. Just hours after Engine Co. 10 Ladder Co. 10 officially closed for business literally in the shadows of the scaffolding still surrounding that sacred place, I paid my first visit, after months of consciously avoiding the site for fear of being an intruder.
As I stood at the grave's edge, disoriented despite the fact that I had walked the WTC halls hundreds of times, my attention focused on a patch of freshly poured concrete with rebar still protruding. To me, it was a bit of construction forsythia, a sign that the worst has been endured and that rebirth will follow. A simple thought, but all that I was capable of at the moment.
On Sept. 11 last, I somehow pulled from my memory a quote from former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, journalist Mary McGrory encountered Moynihan and said: "Oh, Pat, we'll never smile again." To which Moynihan replied "No, Mary, we'll smile again, but we'll never be young again."
I could try forever, but trying to top Moynihan is a losing proposition. Here's to my formerly young friends with whom I shared so much on that awful day and to whom I am so grateful. God bless the innocents whose lives were ended that day but more so, God bless those who survived and are left to rebuild shattered lives. Strength to them and strength to those who protect civilization.
It's hard to believe it's been nearly a year since we were attacked. As predicted, life has changed. Please join us in remembering what each of us has lost and gained since Sept 11. Your thoughts will help everyone better understand where we are and where we're headed. Go to our Listening Post or call 888-999-4082 to share an oral record of your experiences, some of which could appear in print and online. Participate in the discussion.
To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.
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