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January 26, 2012

Humanity in the Shadow of Inhumanity

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In keeping with this week’s musings on more current occurrences of conflict and war, guest blogger James Goertel talks about his experiences around 9/11/2001.

My memories about September 11, 2001 are not political. They seek to dispense no judgment one way or another upon a moment when two worlds collided. Nor does 20-20 hindsight offer more than what it was for me when “it” happened. The date itself is a convenient box in which I have collected the events of what was only a week in my life, but what is, in fact, a lifetime still unfolding for those directly and indirectly involved. My story is one of millions and is significant in some respect only because it is mine and maybe in some small way belongs to all of us, to any of us who have glimpsed humanity in the shadow of inhumanity.

On September, 11, 2001, I awoke in Dallas, Texas and prepared to begin a week covering a pharmaceutical conference for an agency out of New York City. At the time, I was a freelance sound mixer for film and video, both corporate and commercial. I stepped out onto the street from my hotel to the sound of blaring sirens. Having worked extensively in New York City, and being from Philadelphia, I thought nothing of the wailing, winding cacophony. I needed coffee.

James Goertel, author of “Carry Each His Burden”

I entered a greasy spoon after walking a few blocks. I have always favored local flavor over chain restaurant offerings available anywhere and everywhere. This ‘spoon’ had that down and dirty visual vibe – the kind that finds suits, hard hats, cons and cops all sharing counter space. My first clue this was no ordinary Tuesday came as soon as I entered. The hot grease wafting through the air was business as usual for a joint like this, but the entire lack of any conversation, the kind that forms a reassuring low level din which makes the new guy or gal entering feel right at home, was not only absent, but had been replaced by an aural vacuum that held hovering in its silent force only the sound of a CNN commentator babbling in fits and starts from the TV bolted into a corner of the coffee shop. All eyes, of every man, woman, child, and worker in this space, were glued to the flickering image of what I easily recognized to be the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex despite the inexplicable thick black smoke pouring from the structure. I had been on the 85th floor of that tower just a week before on a video shoot.

The hours that followed there in Dallas, hours which held further inexplicable and tragic events, were a blur. The initial fog of disbelief never really left me, but eventually gave at least some ground to a sobering and inevitable reality: nearly twenty-six hours of non-stop driving, first up through the heartland of the Midwest and then on across to Philadelphia and home. The airports in Dallas had been shut down almost immediately after the North Tower was struck and there had been an understandable imperative to head back East at all costs. The cameraman I so often worked with, and whom I was with in Dallas on 9/11, had a family member working in the North Tower, his twenty-three year old nephew, who it turned out was in the tower at the time of the impact and who became one of the nearly 3000 lives that fate would ultimately claim. Driving halfway across the country on 9/11 and on into September 12th had the eerie and unsettling feeling of a Hollywood-produced, post-apocalyptic movie, a feeling that has never totally left me.

A few days after returning home, I received a call from NBC Dateline asking me to be a part of a pool of crews to cover the events at Ground Zero and elsewhere. I said I would just as I had for many other similar calls from 30 Rockefeller Center to cover so many other events in previous years. This though, was not just another event, so I left for New York City with a sense of trepidation and, yes, with a sense of fear.

That atmosphere in New York City just days after the towers fell was both surreal and all too real. I cannot recall the exact number of times I passed through check points where my vehicle and the equipment I was carrying were given a thorough once-over by NYPD officers, but the trip to 30 Rockefeller Center that normally took me two and half hours took nearly six. The crew I was assigned to was dispatched almost immediately upon arrival and we made our way to Ground Zero – where surreal took on an entirely new meaning. The conversations I have had with those who were there in the days after the towers fell all contain this phrase in describing the scene, “… like something out of a movie.” The devastation up close could not be described. Even now, a decade later, I am at a loss for words. I can only relate with any literate accuracy my actions at Ground Zero.

Our crew it turned out was going to follow a retired fireman, Bob Beckwith, who had come out of retirement to join the search in general and specifically the search for a friend’s son, who was a New York City firefighter. The friend’s son had been among the first to respond after the North Tower was hit and was among the multitude of missing. Our producer brought me to Bob, introduced me and informed him that I would be putting a wireless microphone on him before we followed him into the rubble as he searched with so many others for the missing. I felt as small as I have ever felt, smaller than the little boy of my own childhood memories. The devastation and the reality of where I was swallowed me whole, along with the surreal nature of it all, in one anaerobic gulp. I suddenly felt as though I could not breathe. I had mic’d up thousands of people over the years, so my hands knew what to do, but as I raised them to begin the process with Mr. Beckwith they began to shake uncontrollably. My emotions, visually stricken and overwhelmed, had manifested themselves in a physical way I had never known could happen. I could not function and my eyes began to well with tears. It was then he took my hands in his, willing with the pressure of his touch my crying eyes to lift to meet his own – calm and assured, but utterly simpatico all at once. Then, knowing he had my full attention, he uttered the most sympathetic words I have ever heard in my entire life, “It’s going to be okay.”

That moment between two men, between two human beings, is the closest I have come to understanding what it means to be alive. Plato and Aristotle, with their bottomless well of philosophical insight into the human condition, have not even come close to imparting as much to me as Bob Beckwith did in that singularly lucid moment amidst a near hallucinogenic, often fragmentary block of time in those days following 9/11.

I would go on to cover stories at the two other 9/11 sites, Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon, and do innumerable interviews with survivors and family members of the deceased from these tragedies. These experiences were also rife with words full of humanity in their own right, but none more than those of a retired firefighter when we stood face to face at the gray edges of the long, historical, and continuous shadow of man’s own inhumanity.

 
Born in North Dakota, James Goertel spent twenty years working in television for ABC, NBC, and ESPN, among others. He currently teaches writing at Penn State Erie. His writing has appeared in Ascent Aspirations, LucidPlay, Manifold, and TNBBC. Carry Each His Burden is his debut fiction collection and was published in September of 2011.