How Americans remembered 9/11

THE SUN Newspaper-Sola Oshunkeye

It was my second visit to New York City, United States since November 2006. My first time at The Big Apple, as the city that never sleeps is fondly called, was shortly after my International Visitor Leadership Programme in Washington D.C. during the fall of 2006. The programme was sponsored by the Department of State. And because it was packed to the hilt with activities that left me with little or no time for leisure, I had decided, while leaving Nigeria early last month, to explore The Big Apple as much as I could afford this time around.

During the three-week tour, I attended several professional events and absorbed as much of New York as possible. I visited several landmarks – the United Nations, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Central Terminal, Madison Square Garden (venue of many historic world boxing championship bouts), Times Square, Wall Street, Ground Zero, to mention just a few.

At the professional level, I covered the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States; undertook a guided tour of the United Nations, and participated in two roundtables. The first was on the forthcoming Nigerian elections, the other was on the genocide in Rwanda, to coincide with President Paul Kagame’s visit to the city ahead of the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly held between September 23 and 24. The Global Information Network, a not-for-profit organisation chaired by Ms. Lisa Vives, an American Jew, masterminded both roundtables. And how illuminating the sessions were.

As they say, all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. And since I didn’t want to be a dull reporter, I headed for the Buka, a Nigerian Restaurant on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, where the Rainmaker, Majek Fashek, was to take the stage. The former reggae superstar, who took the Nigerian music scene to the azure skies in the early 1980s but crashed years later as a result of alcoholism and substance abuse, proved he still has some fire left in him. It was a rainy night. A storm preceded the rain. The angry storm sent diagonal sheets and tree branches in my area on Pacific Street flying in diverse directions. The erratic winds sent pedestrians, including some friends and I, scampering for cover, running for dear life. The rainstorm made many motorists distrust their vision. And Majek Fashek capped the cold-warm night by giving me sadness and joy.

He made the night both joyful and sorrowful for me. Sorrowful because the sight of a half-drunk Majek Fashek, holed in a car outside the Buka, looking like with a derelic with rheumy eyes crashed my spirit. The pall of gloom over me, however, dissolved into spasms of joy as the man took the stage and sent the almost capacity crowd gyrating on the dance floor.

Of all the assignments that I covered in New York, the ninth anniversary of 9/11 was the most memorable. It was one of the most emotionally tasking assignments I have ever covered in my journalism odyssey. While it lasted, it ceaselessly pumped my adrenaline and drenched me emotionally. For once, the saying that time is the ultimate healer of pains, seemed to have reached its apogee. Time, it is said, is a true narcotic for pain. It is either the pain disappears when it has run its course or you just learn to live by it. But judging from what I saw on Ground Zero on Saturday, September 11, 2010, nine years proved far too short to ease the pains. Nine years after, time has refused to heal the pains of the families, friends and acquaintances of victims of the terrorist attacks on America.

During this year’s anniversary, the bereaved families, families, friends and acquaintances were still as emotionally and psychologically exhausted as they were in the immediate aftermath of the crashing of the World Trade Centre (WTC) twin towers. Like the terrifying aftershocks that usually ravage lives and properties whenever the earth convulses via a tremor or a massive quake, the visages of many bereaved family members were still as seared in agony as they were on the day the terrorists hit the heart of America in attacks that claimed 2, 752 lives. The memories of that cataclysmic event were still as fresh as they were nine years ago.

Clad mostly in black, and hiding their sorrow momentarily behind dark glasses, many of them wept loudly or sucked as Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, kick-started the commemoration, recalling how America and Americans had learned how “to embrace the task and the life” before them. “We have learnt, inch-by-inch, that the best way through the dark sides of our personal sorrow, is to link our hands with those who can lead us towards the daybreak of a new day,” he said.
Consequently, and over the next three to four hours, victims’ family members, accompanied by those who work on the site daily, read out names of the 2, 752 people who perished in the attacks. The citations were as heart-rending as the somberness of the entire occasion. As the names of the tragic heroes were being reeled out, mourning mums and dads, widows and widowers, and their orphaned kids, huddled together, either raising pictures of their lost loved ones as tears cascaded down their cheeks, or throwing flowers into the commemorative fountain on the grounds. But for the protests and campaigns, and some clowning by some people who wanted to light up the occasion, majority of the people outside the fence also got soaked in sorrow. Most of them fought tears as long as the occasion lasted.

I was hit, too, by the whiff of sorrow as I moved from one end to another, looking for news. Standing on Ground Zero for the first time, and later visiting the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, brought the raw horror of those moments when the two planes hijacked by the terrorists rammed into the towers. You could still see in fresh, horrifying colours, people jumping to their deaths from the heights.
•Oshunkeye with a cop on Ground Zero
• Photo: The Sun Publishing

Those who witnessed previous anniversaries told me that this year’s commemoration was the most sombre, yet ultra-charged, when the tragedy jolted the world like a bolt of thunder nine years ago. Ostensibly because of the ongoing frenzied construction on Ground Zero, the site was fenced, and only family members were granted access to the place that day. Yet, the place could not contain mourning family members. Those who came late had to watch proceedings from outside the perimeter fencing, struggling with the crowd to get vantage view of the commemoration activities. Wherever they heard the name of their lost loved ones, they shuffled through the crowd and rushed to the fence to hang their flowers. Two Chinese ladies, who lost their brother and fiancée in the tragedy, but who wouldn’t tell me their names, sobbed almost all day. By the time the names of their men were announced, they were either so physically weak or so emotionally drenched that they couldn’t find strength to shuffle through the crowd to drop their flowers. They waited till the end of proceedings before paying their respects to their lost loved ones.

Many others either sat on the foregrounds of the historic Saint Paul Chapel (established in 1776), or in front of The Millennium Hilton Hotel, directly opposite Ground Zero, singing dirges or engaged in sorrowful monologues. There was a surfeit of ‘where-were-you-when-it-happened’ stories by acquaintances that had the courage to reminisce on that day of profound sorrow-September 11, 2001. Yet, others milled to the World Trade Centre Tribute Centre on 120 Liberty Street, as well as the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, adjacent to Ground Zero, to relive raw horror of the tragedy through literature, pictures, graphics, and exhibition of equipment, models of the ongoing reconstruction efforts, and some other things that tell the vivid story of what happened that day.

A group of nuns gathered at a corner of The Millennium Hotel’s frontage, rendering soul-stirrings Christian hymns and psalms. They sang songs like Horatio Spafford’s ‘When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows, like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul’, and ‘Power in the blood’, among others. The front of Century 21 Department Stores was also not spared by the throng of mourners.

If the commemorations were sorrowfully peaceful on the site, its tone and tenor were different outside and on the adjoining streets. The atmosphere on the streets around Ground Zero was ultra-charged. It was a culmination of the caustic global debates that had attended the dangerous global controversy deliberately ignited by publicity-seeking eccentric pastor of a 50-member church in Gainesville, Florida, the Reverend Terry Jones. His threat to burn copies of the Holy Quran on the ninth anniversary of the monumental tragedy spiked America’s political temperature so much that you almost had a feeling that America was at the threshold of a civil war. Viewing the hot debates and programmes on TV networks, like FOX, CNN, CBS, and others, you would think most of them were just waiting for President Barack Obama to make a slip for them to roast him. But Obama and his cabinet know America and Americans too well as to make a slip that would deal a fatal blow to the Democratic Party’s fortunes in next month’s mid-term election.

The war of words was very fierce by the fence of Saint Paul Chapel, directly facing Ground Zero. It was fought with microphones, banners and stickers pasted on poles, trees, walls, meridians, boulders, and barricades, or any available object within the precincts of the site. Both Christian and Islamic preachers and campaigners struggled bitterly to outdo one another in their campaign for and against the religious coloration of the anniversary. “Jesus Christ and the Bible are the truth,” a Christian preacher said on top of his voice. “Islam is a religion of peace,” his Muslim colleague fired back. Apart from their spoken words, their posters spoke volumes. Another preacher, apparently neutral, simple used his T-shirt to sell his message. All he was doing was to just walk deliberately up and down and make you see the inscriptions in the front and back of his vest: “War is not the answer, peace is it.” Once he was convinced you had got the message, he moved on smilingly, flashing the victory sign. Yet another campaigner just sang away in the blazing sun.

A poster pasted on a pole holding street signage reads: “It (the proposed but now aborted Islamic Centre to be located within the Ground Zero precincts) would serve the people of this neighbourhood in ways the former World Trader Centre won’t do. The Muslims of New York are not the same as Islamic terrorists and deserve to practise their faith as all Americans do. Blaming all Muslims for 9/11 is like blaming all Catholics for abusive priests.” A Christian poster countered this in another poster on another pole few metres away, saying: “There is no place for Sharia in a civilised country. Because this is insensitive. Plain and simple. Everywhere and there, you say your religion is peaceful, how about showing it?” A Muslim poster replies: “Stop the racist war against Muslim people. Say ‘No’ to racism and anti-Islam” sentiments. Yet, another says: “Islam has been in New York for 400 years. The attack on Islam is racism. Your bigotry and hatred is a national security risk.”

Few blocks away, from the site, specifically at the intersection of Park Place and Breedney, a pro-Islam rally was holding. Speakers took turns to espouse the virtues of Islam, and underscore the need for Americans to continue to co-exist peacefully and live the ideals of their founding fathers. Park Place, and indeed all the streets around Ground Zero, brimmed with hordes of cops and men of the no-nonsense anti-terrorism squad. They paraded on foot, motorcycles, cars, jeeps, horses, and choppers, name it. Security was watertight.

No 51 Park Place, two blocks away from Ground Zero, is where Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had planned to establish his controversial Islamic Community Centre. On the day of the ninth anniversary, the police barricaded the street. The scores of battle-ready cops who swarmed the area days before were at high alert. There was no thoroughfare on the street. Indeed, the New York City Police Department had, days before the commemoration, erected a temporary watchtower at the corner of the road to keep an eye on the crowd. Despite the febrile atmosphere, the police still allowed people some basic indulgences, like taking photographs. Some cops, indeed, snapped some shots with whoever desired. I did and got a shot with a very courteous white cop who ended his response to every enquiry I made with ‘sir.’

Speaking with me on Ground Zero, after the commemoration, Anas Elbery, a 35-year-old architect, a naturalised American of Mid-Eastern extraction, said he brought his wife and three kids to the commemoration to help them comprehend the devastation of that day of sorrow. And to further teach them the values and virtues of patriotism and respect for people’s rights under the law. He said such was the devastation on the day the dare-devil terrorists delivered Armageddon to America that the smoke that billowed from the ruins of the crumbling towers of the World Trade Centre was seen in three states. And decrying what he called the “skewed emotions” that had been expressed in the weeks and days preceding the anniversary, he said people should know that death never discriminated on September 11, 2001. He said both Christians and Muslims, Jews and animists, gay and straight, perished when the towers crumbled. In fact, he recalled reading a piece that informed that some Muslim workers who were observing their prayers on the 17th floor of one of the towers perished while praying.

Elbery rounded up the interview, restating that he brought his little children, who are Americans, to Ground Zero “to teach them what happened that day,” adding: “I also want to teach them and show the American people that even though we are Muslims, we are as patriotic as any other American. Islam is a religion of peace. Islam abhors terrorism. Islam is not Al-Qaeda. Therefore, American Muslims should not suffer unjustly for the crime of some terror organizations. What is happening is not about Imam Rauf building an Islamic Centre around Ground Zero. It’s about religion. It’s unjust persecution of Muslims. The American people must wake up for the freedoms that they are known.”
Job Spoto, an ex-marine whose wife fought in the second invasion of Iraq, called for “real, truthful investigation into what really happened on 9/11. They are not telling the truth.”
‘What is the truth?’ I asked him.

“I don’t know the truth. They know the truth. I’m saying that terrorists committed 9/11, but who are the terrorists? The terrorists are defence contractors. They make money from destruction; they make money from reconstruction. They made money out of 9/11. They were paid money to blow up the World Trade Centre; they will make even more money to rebuild it.”

Spoto said many unprintable things, sometimes raising his voice angrily, as if saying ‘come and arrest me if you can.’ But the police gave him and me the kind of attention you give a slumbering tot. Silence.
A day to my departure for Atlanta, at the start of my return journey home, I decided to visit Ground Zero again to see what the area looks like on a normal day. That was on Friday, September 24. Although I left the house in Brooklyn at 10 a.m., local time, to visit Staple Stores situated between 8th and 9th streets on 4th Avenue, I took a wrong train. After I alighted from the C-Train at Kay Street, as Goggle map had told me, I took an A-Train instead of an F. And before I knew it, I was in the heart of Manhattan. It took me almost three hours to retrace my route and finally locate Staples Store in Brooklyn.

Consequently, I got back to Ground Zero at, a rush hour, but good enough for me to capture the sight and sound of the place on a normal day, days after the commemoration. It paid off. People were streaming at the Zebra Crossing on Vesey Street across Church Street, which borders Ground Zero. Unlike the day of the ninth anniversary, when the whole area was brimming with security personnel, both uniformed and plain-clothed, things seemed relaxed this early evening.
Instead of the hordes of tough-looking policemen that I saw during the 9/11 memorials, pedestrian safety officers were in charge. They wore lemon waistcoats atop light-blue jackets and black trousers. They held thick yellow chains with which they blocked the road at precisely five minutes intervals, either to stop pedestrians from crossing or vehicles from passing while pedestrians were on the move. And they hit such a perfect rhythm the way they operated you would think they were being manipulated by a computer.

Saint Paul Cathedral that brimmed with mourners during the ninth anniversary was empty and firmly locked this evening. Established in 1776, a bill-board at the gate boasts of the church as “Manhattan’s oldest public building being in continuous use.” It further boasts that it is “Witness to the Great Fire of 1776”, “Host to George Washington on Inauguration Day” and it’s a “survivor of terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

These are valid claims. It’s just that the monument is not the only survivor of the 9/11 attacks. So are The Millennium Hilton located directly in front of where the WTC towers once stood, and the behemoth, the Federal Office Building bordering Ground Zero to the right. This is not to mention the Century 21 Departmental Stores, all arrogantly facing the tragic site.

Unlike the day of the ninth anniversary, the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site was open to the public. A giant screen intimates visitors with data and graphics of reconstruction going on at the site, displays models of the edifices that will replace the ones destroyed by the terrorists, and tells you that with the pace of work at the site, the engineers are optimistic that they would meet the September 11, 2011 opening. Tower 7, according to information at the 9/11Memorial Preview Site, has advanced to at least 47 floors. Tower 4 is rising rapidly. The reconstruction of train tracks and subway that would replace the ones destroyed in 2001, is recording good progress, and so on.

The preview site, which opens to visitors Monday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 7p.m., except on Sundays, when it closes an hour earlier, also has souvenirs and books on the 9/11 attacks. Very close to the glass frontage of the preview site, a high definition TV gives those who cannot gain access to the building a panoramic view of the twin towers before they were destroyed, and what the world would behold come September 11, 2011. A light-blue power bike is on display at the left corner of the building. A group that calls itself “Local 3 IBEW Motorcycle Club” donated it.

My last port of call was number 51, Park Place, the erstwhile site of the Islamic Community Centre, and the controversial mosque that Imam Rauf proposed for the precincts of Ground Zero. On my second trip, a police patrol car with two cops standing by, was stationed near the entrance of the building. The street was still blocked. But more significant is the fact that all signage on the building that I saw while covering the ninth anniversary had been removed. The wall was now bare. And the police would not allow anyone to loiter or stand on the sidewalk on the side of the building. To record this new scene in photo, I sought their permission. They granted it but advised me to do my stuff across the road, not anywhere near the sidewalk. I took my photographs and left, grateful to God that I had a good story.

On my way back to the Buka, the Nigerian restaurant on 946 Fulton Street, to wish my friends bye for now, I reflected on the way the Americans honour their dead in contradistinction to what we do in Nigeria. Each anniversary of a national calamity and bereavement brings fresh and better appreciation of the departed. Their sorrows and appreciation of their heroic sacrifices are appreciated with fresh vigour on each anniversary. In addition to initial efforts at immortalizing their dead heroes, Americans build memorial monuments that will outlive generations.

As the train raced on, my mind went to the January 28, 2002 bomb blasts at the Ikeja Military Cantonment, Lagos, and its tragic reverberations several kilometers away at Oke-Afa, near Isolo, that sent hundreds of innocent citizens to untimely death. Apart from the Lagos State Government that built a cenotaph by the tragic river at Oke-Afa, and offered jobs to the five local divers that helped rescue many survivors, the Federal Government has not lifted a finger to honour the memory of the citizens who perished in the tremor caused by the cantonment blasts.
Eight solid years after who tragedy, nothing has been heard or said about the link bridge that the defunct Olusegun Obasanjo administration promised to build to connect Isolo with Ejigbo in order to ameliorate the daily traffic snarl on that stretch. The terrible traffic situation in the area has turned the lives of motorists, commuters and pedestrians to one huge nightmare.

Unless those in the corridors of power change their attitude to governance and the people’s welfare, we may continue to mock the memories of the dead with our usual lackadaisical response to natural and man-induced tragedies. We need to borrow a leaf from the Americans on how to honour our dead. Otherwise we may never be able to handle, for instance, the terrifying aftershocks that usually define the earth’s convulsion during a tremor or a massive quake, or respond appropriately like the Chileans have shown the whole world in case our miners get trapped. With the 33 miners safely brought out of the mines, from half a kilometre down into the earth crust, the government and people of Chile have sent the world riveting with raptures of joy. They have taught the world a precious lesson about life and living with the astonishing success they recorded on Wednesday when they safely rescued the miners that had been trapped for 69 days. If the miners were to get trapped in Nigeria, would the world be rolling out the drums and popping champagnes the way people have been doing across the globe since Wednesday? Question.


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