The face of evil
The face of evil
Editor’s note: The following letter was written to Jane Keener-Quiat, in response to her letter, “We’re better than that,” published May 7 in The Aspen Times.
I’m sorry my cheers of joy for justice finally served, what you call “evil cries,” caused you shame. Incidentally, where were you on that sunny Tuesday morning nearly 10 years ago? Imagine for a moment that you work on the 26th floor of 1500 Broadway in Times Square, better known as the building that houses the “Good Morning America” studio.
You arrive at work, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down to start planning your day. Suddenly, you hear a scream from the lobby, a primal scream that sends your body instinctively into fight-or-flight mode. Everyone runs to the lobby to find the receptionist pointing at the TV. Smoke’s billowing out of the WTC’s North Tower. Then you witness a plane crash directly into the South Tower, live. The receptionist keeps screaming “Roberto!” – her boyfriend who works at the WTC.
The local news teams have cameras all over Manhattan, some permanently stationed on buildings and others in helicopters, zooming in on the victims. You see close ups of the people in those buildings, standing on the ledges, preparing to die. You watch them jump. You watch them hit the ground.
Your co-worker Jason enters the lobby, with no idea of what happened during his commute. He asks what is happening, then bursts into tears. His younger brother, who just graduated college, is interviewing for his first job today – at the top of the North Tower. The reporters say there are more planes in the air, probably hijacked, but their destinations are unknown. Another co-working keeps frantically dialing her cell phone, trying to reach her sister in the North Tower.
A security officer announces over the intercom that the building is on total lock-down, nobody in, nobody out. The elevators are disabled. Stay where you are and wait for further instruction. He sounds scared, but controlled. More colleagues gather, more screaming, crying and frantic phone dialing. Someone mentions that one of your biggest clients in the finance group has headquarters in that building, it’s called Cantor Fitzgerald. Then the reporters tell you that the Pentagon has just been attacked.
The security officer makes a new announcement. “Attention all staff: Please begin an orderly and immediate evacuation of the building. Don’t stop to get anything. Head to the nearest stairwell and exit the building immediately.” His voice is dripping with terror. There are still missing airplanes, the terrorists are going after high-value targets, and you’re sitting in the middle of the most famous destination in the world, Times Square. You’re a potential target.
Your group quickly descends the 26 flights and spills into the street. The scene is total chaos, pandemonium. People are screaming, running for their lives. Your colleagues decide it’s best to get as far away from Times Square as possible, so you run West on 43rd street, towards the Hudson River. Once you reach the West Side Highway, you have a perfect, horrible view of the scene. You head downtown towards the nightmare. You watch at least 100 people jump to their deaths on the way.
When your crew is a few blocks from the Towers, the ground begins to shake. You see what’s happening, but you can’t believe it. You’re frozen, like your feet are dried in concrete. The South Tower is actually coming down, and it’s coming right at you. The whole group turns to run, but you’re separated in the chaos. As you run, you look over your shoulder and see flaming debris falling from the sky. In a desperate attempt to save your life, you dive under a taxi abandoned on the street.
Huge pieces of concrete, wood and metal debris, all on fire, rain down around you. The sun vanishes. It’s dark as midnight at 10 a.m.. The minutes pass like days as you lie there, waiting for the chunk of concrete that will easily crush your shelter and end your life. But, eventually, the debris stops falling. It’s suddenly and eerily quiet. The only noise comes from the multiple car alarms announcing something horrible has just happened. You crawl out from under the car. You can’t stand up because you can’t breathe. Your nose and throat are on fire. The cloud is so thick you can only see about two feet in front of you. You notice something laying just a few inches away. It’s a man’s hand.
You’re disoriented. The street is deserted. Are you the only one who survived? You don’t know which way to go. A horrible, rancid smell permeates your entire body. What is that awful smell? You begin to stumble through the smoke in search of air. You feel like you might asphyxiate from the toxic cloud. Suddenly, out of the fog, a fireman appears. An angel sent from God. He’s running towards the battle just as you try to flee it. He sees you struggle to breathe. He takes off his own oxygen mask to give you some air. The hero tells you which way to go to escape the death cloud, and insists you hurry before the other tower falls.
Still in shock, you fight your way across the battlefield. All you can focus on is that horrible smell because the entirety of the situation is far too much to comprehend right now. It suddenly hits you: that smell is 2,600 human bodies burning all at once. You realize you’ve likely consumed vaporized human flesh. You vomit in the middle of the street.
You slowly make your way the 200 blocks to your apartment. Along the way, you comfort, and are comforted by, total strangers. Everyone’s crying, in shock. You don’t know what happened to your friends. Are they dead? In the weeks that follow, the simple act of going to work is a daily trauma. Every corner, wall, sign post and light pole in the city is covered with the images of the “missing.” But you know they’re not missing. They’re dead. You feel like you’re walking through a cemetery. Memorials outside the fire and police stations double in size daily. You can’t stop crying. No matter where you go in the city, you can still smell the sickening, rancid smell of burning flesh. Whether real or imaginary, it just won’t go away. The list of casualties is too much for your soul. Jason’s brother, Roberto, more than 600 employees of your client, all dead. Infinite sadness and grief surround you constantly.
Weeks pass, then months, then years … but you can’t stop the nightmares. You panic every time a plane flies overhead. You can’t get the image of people jumping to their deaths out of your mind. The stench of burning human flesh is inextricably embedded in your nasal cavity forever. You see a disembodied man’s hand every time you close your eyes. You pray to God for just one night’s sleep without a nightmare.
How would you feel if this happened to you on 9/11, Jane? Or if something much worse happened to someone you love? To call our cheers “evil” and compare us to that demon is reprehensible and not reflective of Christian compassion. As for what you should tell the children, I suggest the truth: that monsters really do exist, and they’ll kill you if you don’t kill them first.
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