Blue skies remind of tragedy | AspenTimes.com

Blue skies remind of tragedy

Meredith L. Cohen

One of the delicious pleasures of living in Aspen is drinking in the sight of a robin’s-egg blue sky on an early autumn morning. There’s only one time and place in my life prior to living in Colorado that I can recall a sky even more memorable than the ones we enjoy almost daily in the mountains. September 11, 2001. New York City. Chaos didn’t slam into every crevice of Manhattan the instant the planes hit the towers that Tuesday morning. Further uptown from the World Trade Center, a crescendo of whispers, confusion and disbelief spread its way across the sidewalks, up the avenues and filtered into offices and apartments. The sight of fire trucks leaving their stations wasn’t automatically significant or chilling, as there was initially no reason to question whether they would make it back.Within an hour after the attacks, the scene on the Upper West Side was like something out of a Will Smith doomsday film. Thousands of people in business suits and high heels poured up Broadway in the unseasonably warm morning sun while fighter jets roared in the crystal blue skies overheard. As each plane passed above, all eyes shot upward. Another attack felt imminent. The race to get off the island of Manhattan was afoot as bridges and tunnels closed, trains stopped running, cabs were nowhere to be found and cross-town streets were blocked off. People were terrified they would never make it out of the city. Others were fearful that if they left, nothing would be remaining when they returned.It was, of course, still there. But it was changed. In the days, weeks and months following the attacks, the air was murky and ripe, the smell of burnt flesh tattooed nostrils. Posters for missing people with pictures from birthday and Christmas celebrations were plastered desperately on every conceivable slice of open space. Tearful, frantic pleas from husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons and friends looking for their loved ones were seen on every television channel. The networks and newspapers showed nonstop footage and photos of falling bodies. The omnipresent military officials brandishing automatic weapons made it impossible to imagine life could ever go back to normal. Hospitals, museums, offices and apartment buildings implemented invasively rigorous security measures for the privilege of walking in the front door. Concrete barriers were erected outside theaters to prevent truck bombs from getting too close.And then there was the anthrax, the empty threats and the false alarms. Subways would stop between stations and the interior lights would go out without warning or explanation. But details were hardly necessary; the aborted conversations on those motionless trains were signs of complicit understanding amongst the passengers that there must have been a terrorist threat somewhere in the subway system. Sometimes the trains would start up again after five minutes. Other times the wait was over an hour.A simple walk to the restroom or a break for a cup of coffee at work was no longer a way to get some fresh air or relieve tired eyes from a computer screen. It required planning. Bags were carried loaded with sneakers, cell phones, passports, wallets and gas masks in case of an attack. Companies issued emergency instructions, flashlights and pocket-sized diagrams of their office buildings with all exits clearly marked. People compared strategies on how and where they would meet-up with their families when it happened again. When, not if.The surviving firefighters and police officers spent the months after 9/11 sifting through the rubble at Ground Zero piece by piece, looking for incomprehensible signs of former lives – a shoe, a billfold, a finger tip. For the next year, there was no escaping the funerals. Whether it was five miles or 150 miles outside of the city, families clad in black proceeded behind hearses every day. Some of the hearses were void of coffins, the services only ceremonial when emotionally exhausted families finally resigned themselves to the fact that their loved ones weren’t coming home nor were phone calls forthcoming to let them know that a precious body part had been found amid the ruins. Four years later, New York has famously recovered. Those who were there that day or are still there can forget for minutes, hours or even days at a time, but never completely. The reminders are everywhere, big and small. A fire engine driving down the block. A flower laced through a fence. The subway and bus bombings in London. The release of the 911 tapes. And sometimes, a reminder of that Tuesday comes simply from looking up at a blue sky on a clear autumn morning. Like New York, the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast will ultimately triumph even though thousands will never return home. It won’t ever be the same. But they will eventually come out on the other side of the devastation.Let the sirens we hear in Aspen remain an indication only that noon has arrived. May our biggest worries continue to be recycling ordinances, unleashed dogs and height restrictions. Happy Thanksgiving.Meredith Cohen can be reached at meredith_cohen@hotmail.com