Remembering this day 18 years ago brings to mind so many thoughts and feelings. We were hosting an exchange student from the Republic of Georgia. Ella was a delight and joy and a wonderful addition to our family. So much so, we still stay in touch.
In the 5 weeks she had been with us, she had been in school and enrolled in debate. In English mind you (she was also fluent in Russian, Georgian, Italian and had a smattering of German.) She and my daughter Kristin had boarded a bus for the Kansas State Fair where they would be going to “debate day” where debaters around the state either participated or watched other debaters.
Imagine if you will, if it was your daughter who was oversees on that day. You can imagine the frantic call we received around noon from parents who spoke no English, and I, trying so hard to be calm, until Ella’s sister could get on the phone and say “We are so scared.” I assured them Ella was fine, we were fine and far away from the attacks and I would have her call as soon as we got home.
I, like millions of others, was glued to the television, as well as working with pastors in Lyons to create a worship service for that evening. Pastors who didn’t usually participate in ecumenical gatherings were there. All of us, searching, reaching out and struggling to comprehend what had happened.
Mostly, on this day, however, I think about my friend Jeanne Woods, now recently retired, and her sharing with us who loved her, her thoughts as she worked day in and day out in New York City. You see, we were part of an online community, one that stills communicates almost daily. Her accounting of this day and the days after made what happened so much more real. Her sacrifice and dedication is a beacon of hope and commitment that I will never forget and on this day, I report her reflections. They speak more deeply and profoundly about this day than I ever could.
So in honor of Jeanne and all the others gave of themselves in the aftermath, I share her reflections:
A couple days after 9/11
I was wrong- I’m not working 13 hour tours– I’m doing 16-17 hour days. When I get home, I’m so, so, tired, but I can’t really sleep, you know? I expect I’ll crash eventually. Meanwhile, we’re all getting by on 5 hours a night.
Friends, the pictures don’t begin to show the tragedy. They show the devastation, but they can’t convey the vast, all-encompassing horror. At 4am, the worklights make an eerie brightness over a still smoking wasteland. Imagine a war movie- carnage everywhere. Now, magnify that by 1000, and immerse yourself in it. Add the smells- jet fuel, and dust and garbage and smoke and burning flesh and rotting bodies. Smell it so much you can taste it.
Now hear it- hear the cranes and backhoes and engines and generators and people talking. Worse, add the sounds you THINK you hear– the cries for help that you’re sure came from over there- or is it over there? That way? You don’t just see the big things, either. You don’t just see the massive gap in the skyline you grew up with. You see a haze in the air- a haze that makes your eyes sting, your throat choke, and your skin itch. You see enormous chunks of steel, and concrete and glass. You see cars upside down, inside out, 30 feet up on a pile of rubble. You see clothing and shoes and vendor’s carts and paper, paper everywhere.
And you see bodies.
And parts of bodies.
More than your other senses, though, you FEEL the pain and terror.
You feel the grit in your eyes, despite your goggles. You feel the uneven world below your feet. You feel the ache in your bones from lifting stones, only to find nothing underneath. You feel the scrapes and bruises. You feel tired, but if they didn’t make you stop, you wouldn’t until it was all done. You feel the despair as you realize the people you’ve found are nowhere near the 10,000 missing. You feel nauseous, all the time. You feel incredible frustration, because in your mind, you could be directing the rescue efforts better, and getting more done.
You feel the tears always in the back of your eyes, because your friends and so many others are dead.
And then you feel anger. Rage. Fury.
And deep sorrow. Guilt. Grief.
And often, strangely, pride. For your country, your city, your co-workers, your friends.
And you keep digging