In Memoriam

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

The old World Trade Center…

It was the posters that finally made it real.

Everyone has a 9/11 story. Mine isn’t all that exceptional. I was in Midtown Manhattan that morning, preparing for a sales trip to New Jersey. I’d been awake since about 2 AM, working on a project for work.

… and the new World Trade Center

When the sirens first started, I didn’t think much of it. At least at first. But they kept going… and going… and going. Finally I looked out of the window and saw the column of smoke rising into the clear pale-blue air—and realized something serious was going on.

Then I turned on the TV and saw what everyone else did: the smoke, the helicopters, the collapse of the towers one by one.

It was real, yet not real. It felt as though I’d been suddenly catapulted into some science-fictional future. The idea that actual human beings died didn’t really register as anything other than an abstraction—despite the fact that I spent several hours on the phone tracking down the whereabouts of some of my employees who might have been on planes to involved cities or, even more scarily, down at the World Trade Center. And despite the fact that my immediate reaction was to calculate the number of humans who might have died, based on the building populations.

Fortunately my back-of-the-envelope calculation—50,000—was more than an order of magnitude off. But even though I ran the numbers, and stayed on the phone and on IM (which, interestingly,  worked better than the phone lines) until I’d ascertained that all my employees were safe, it didn’t really register to me that thousands of people died.

Not even after the people began to stream by. I lived at the time on 33rd Street, and later that morning we began to see silent columns of people walking north, their faces streaked with gray dust, their eyes blank. Nobody knew what to say, so nobody spoke. The people streamed north like refugees in some B-list zombie movie… We all desperately tried to get our heads around what had just happened.

Reflected in glass and clouds…

… the new Freedom Tower rises

The next morning, in the predawn darkness, I very consciously dressed in my best suit, and drove the 30 miles to my company’s offices in Stamford, Connecticut. I couldn’t explain in words why it seemed so important to go to work as though nothing had happened, and wear my most professional attire. But when I saw my boss, the CEO, in the offices at 7 AM in a three-piece suit, his shirt starched and shoes shined, I knew he’d felt the same impulse. I remember our eyes met for a moment in a silent acknowledgement: “Ah, you get it”. Maybe it’s an Italian thing (both my boss and I have Italian roots). There’s something in the culture about facing calamity not just with courage but with grace and polish. Or maybe it was deeper than that—a deep-rooted desire not to let the bad guys destroy our spirits.

The 9/11 Memorial, South Pool

The Survivor Tree

Whatever it was, my boss did something else particularly gallant: He sent a company-wide email saying, among other things, how grateful he was that we hadn’t lost anyone, and how prayers were going out from churches, synagogues, and mosques for the people who had.  One of our engineers, a Muslim woman, sent a note saying, “Thank you beyond belief for including us Muslims in your email. You can’t begin to imagine how alone and isolated we felt. Thank you for including us.”

Despite all that, though, I didn’t really grasp the fact that people died.

Until the posters began going up.

Anyone who was in the city in those days remembers the posters. Taped to every available vertical space (building walls, construction sites, parking meters), they were eerily similar: “Missing… Have you seen?… Please call…” The photos of the missing smiled hopefully, or gazed seriously, at the top. There were so many, layered in a respectful mosaic, making sure they didn’t obscure each other.

And slowly it began to sink in: Each of those posters was a son, a mother, a father, a daughter who wasn’t coming home ever again. Whose family had no idea how he or she had died, only that the loved one was gone.

Reflected in water

Water falling

I didn’t learn for years that many people died by jumping out of windows (or were blown out by force of the explosion). That footage wasn’t shown in the US (though my European friends all saw it, almost in real time, but thoughtfully never mentioned it to me). I should have figured that, of course. But that was one more thing that took longer than it should have to register.

The names

The smell, though, registered right away. Later that day, it began wafting up from downtown: A strange chemical mix of something like burning rubber and something like jet fuel, but unlike either, and totally unlike anything I’ve smelled before or since.

As soon as I smelled it, I thought of a gruesome story my mother had told me. As a young woman, she’d spent several years teaching in Germany after “the war” (World War II). This would have been in the early fifties—some five or six years after the war had ended.

Germany had barely begun to rebuild. Entire city blocks were still filled with rubble, and cordoned off by fences.

And in the springtime, if you walked past those blocks, you could smell something sweet and awful: The people who had died during the bombing, still trapped inside the rubble, the bodies thawing after the winter cold, beginning another year of decay.

Looking up at the Freedom Tower

When the smell hit me, I thought of the microscopic particles of incinerated people that were part of the scent, and shivered inside.

The smell didn’t go away for months. In my memory it was over a year, but memories are notoriously treacherous. I don’t really know anymore.

There are other memories. The following summer, the summer of 2002, I would drive home from Stamford late at night. I parked in a nearby garage, and as I walked home, I would pass the generators. The side streets near New York University Hospital were closed off and lit up as bright as day, with white tents covering almost the entire street, and generators humming loudly. Even at 11 at night, with the summer heat hanging heavy over my shoulders like a mantle, the generators were humming.

Reflections without end

It didn’t occur to me to ask what they were for. I found out later: Inside, doctors and technicians were sifting through the rubble for human remains. Night and day the generators ran, powering the refrigerators. And night and day the doctors and technicians worked, tirelessly, to uncover scraps of bone or body parts, something, anything, to send back to the families.

So as with all catastrophes, the real impact took a long time to resonate through me. My first reaction was anger, and that deep-seated desire to not let the bad guys win. But over the days, months, and years, I thought about the people who’d died, and the people who’d lost them. And it changed the way I looked at the world. That was the first time I truly realized that life is short, that nothing is forever, that the people you love can be gone in an instant. It’s a lesson that came home to me again a few years later when I lost my father, too young, to cancer. And it’s a lesson that prompted me to make some major changes in my life, including quitting the job in Stamford and starting my own company.

So as the years passed, real life came back to the fore again. And I stopped thinking so much about 9/11. When the 9/11 Memorial opened last year, I had no particular desire to see it. To tell the truth, I was more interested in seeing the Occupy Wall Street encampment than the 9/11 Memorial.

The North Pool

But a few weeks ago, my business partner and dear friend came to New York with her two youngest daughters. All three of them wanted to see the 9/11 Memorial, so Vlad and I went.
.

I’m not sure what I expected. Very little, I guess. I remember joking that 10 years on, I never would have expected 9/11 to turn into a “tourist destination”.

“… and her unborn child”

If the goal of a memorial is to ensure that people remember… the 9/11 Memorial succeeds beyond measure. I can’t describe the impact that it has—it is something deeper than words. The Memorial is powerful and beautiful and unbearably moving. It will be even stronger when it’s complete, but what’s there now—the two square waterfalls and the Survivor Tree—is more than enough. The names of the dead, etched in black granite, bring home the feeling I first had on seeing the posters. “Missing… Have you seen?.. Please call..” Only now they are truly gone, the loss no longer potential but real, carved into time. The scent of bodies is long gone, as is the humming of the generators in the hot summer air. Families have moved on, as best they can, growing and living beyond the loss.

Only the names remain.

_______________________________________________________

More of Vlad’s photos of the old World Trade Center are here, and of the 9/11 Memorial here. Some lovely and evocative photos of the 9/11 Memorial can also be found on the blog Where’s my backpack?

Update: Bonnie Frogma’s first-person account of 9/11 (she was actually present at the WTC when it was struck) is here. It is very much worth the read!!

30 responses to “In Memoriam

  1. A lovely tribute to those who are lost, thanks MJ

  2. Johna Till Johnson

    Thanks MJ. And the memorial itself is a wonderful tribute. Thanks for reading, and commenting.

  3. This is a moving first-hand account of this day. The suit story is really powerful. I find it so interesting over the years to read how 9/11 affected people individually. It had a profound impact on Americans everywhere. I was driving through Southern California last week and saw this really nice memorial of 9/11 at a firehouse: Two steel beams going straight up, and I wondered if it was actual material from the wreckage that that fire department brought home.

    As always, nice photos from Vlad!

  4. Johna Till Johnson

    Could well have been! First responders from all over the country arrived as early as 9/12 (some had driven 18 hours or more) and worked tirelessly in the aftermath.

    The tragedy was that there were so few survivors… people stood in lines around blocks to donate blood, but it wasn’t necessary. Those who survived, survived. And those who didn’t…. left memories.

  5. You hit the one thing that no one who wasn’t here understands..the smell. The clean blue September skies over the next weeks and yet…this odd and pervasive odor.
    I too, spent the day tracking down employees – we had a number of people working down near Wall Street – and it wasn’t until close to 9pm that everyone was accounted for. However, it turned out that two clients were working at Windows on The World that morning and my MIL’s next door neighbors in Chatham were on one of the planes…

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Oh dear! Sorry for the losses… And yes, the smell was memorable. Do you remember how long it lasted? My recollection that it was a full year seems outlandish, but could be true…

  6. So poignant, Johna, and wonderful photos, Vlad. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be in Manhattan when it happened, but even thousands of miles away, it felt like an alternate reality to me too.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi ailsapm… Thank you! Yes, some of the most memorable 9/11 stories come from thousands of miles away. New Yorkers in no way had a monopoly on the experience.

      Another thing that most people don’t realize is that New York became (and is to this day) a warmer, friendlier place as a result. The crime rate went to almost zero (literally, I think two reported crimes in a week) the week after 9/11. And the proverbial random acts of kindness began to flourish.

      There’s something about realizing that the person next to you may be called on to save your life (or you his/hers) that makes one hold back from that snarky remark or rude gesture… at least sometimes…

  7. Beautiful and moving! I watched the horror of the second tower implode on live TV! A young architect who used to work with me and who switched careers and moved to New York was in one of those towers! He jumped from the second floor and miraculously survived with a broken leg!! Another close friend lost an only daughter.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Madhu.. I read this last night and was blown away. Your colleague must be one of the very few survivors! Remember how we all went to give blood (the lines went around the block) and none of it was needed?

      One of my colleagues had actually been attending a class in one of the towers. After the first impact, even though the authorities told him to stay put, he got the hell out and didn’t look back. I think he may have been one of the few folks in the class to survive. He wouldn’t talk about it afterwards, though. (Not surprisingly).

  8. Beautiful tribute. Seeing photos of the world trade towers then and now always brings back the humbling thoughts and emotions.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Yes, Gracie, you’re right, it does! Vlad and I went through his photo archives to select the picture. Even though the one we chose is a bit dark (on my screen anyway) we felt as though the somber colors gave it the right tone…

      But you know what? Seeing those towers on the same page with the new one is surprisingly inspiring. I’m really glad they took ten years to figure out the design and didn’t just race to rebuild. I may be in the minority, but I think the new tower is graceful and lovely, and just perfect.

  9. Thanks, Johna, for a beautiful and powerful post.

  10. Johna Till Johnson

    Thanks, Out Walking and Composer. I really appreciate the time you took to read and comment.

  11. you’ve read my story, right?

    haven’t been to see the memorial yet – one of these days, one of these days. I’ve been glad to see that people I know think it’s been done well.

  12. Johna Till Johnson

    Oh my gosh, Bonnie, I hadn’t! Did just now.

    I love the fact that you used your Metrocard while running away–and that you told the woman to “just get on” the train.

    And I’m not kidding–the part about how the GOOD part is that “only” 130 people out of your 600 former colleagues were unaccounted for… and then the story of the woman who turned up okay… literally brought tears to my eyes. Yes, it’s strange to think of a loss of 20% of your colleagues as “good”.. but as you said, that meant 500 sighs of relief that day.

    I can only imagine how closely those families held their loved ones that night (or whenever they got them back).

    Everyone: Please read Bonnie’s post.

  13. so sad and heartfelt for the lives lost, thanks for taking the time to post..

  14. Beautiful and moving post, and we can all relate. We will never forget where we were or what we were doing on that fateful day. I agree New Yorkers were forever changed–they are more patient with each other and everyone else now. I love NY!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Marcia! Not sure “patient” is QUITE the right word–maybe “tolerant” or “understanding”? :-) I mean, try telling a New Yorker s/he has to wait 5 minutes to get something and you’ll still see plenty of eye rolling. But yes, we’re different… and NY is better for it.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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  16. Johna, you wrote this post in April 2012 and I read it today on 9/11/2012 – on the 11th anniversary – strange, isn’t it? I have visited your blog several times and never clicked on the other pages until today! I had been in NY, actually in the US, only for a few months and was just getting to know the city. I remember the posters going up all over the city and the sorrow. I have a TIME magazine with pictures of people jumping out of the windows – I guess it is a souvenior today! I could not venture out there for months and when I did finally visit the following winter, I saw the beams of steel like a cross that was in the midst of all the snow and rubble, and that cross is a part of the 9/11 museum now. Thanks for the beautiful post – sad and poignant, but means so much to everyone.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Shaanthz,

      Yes, it is strange!

      This year for some reason brings it all back more powerfully than ever. Maybe it’s because the weather this week has been exactly like then–cool, sunny, beautiful, with just a hint of fall.

      You write that you couldn’t venture out there for months…
      I actually went down the day after (11 years ago today, how odd) and the authorities hadn’t yet barricaded off the site—you could get quite close. I remember the glass window of a store–I think it was the Gap–filled with ash. All I could think of was Pompeii.

      Thanks for reading, and commenting. And writing–we love your blog.

      • Thanks Johna – you are right, maybe it was the clear sunny blue sky and beautiful day that brought back all the memories.
        I love your blog too – it is one of my favorite blogs – I love the writing and photography – I get to see so much around NY which I would never have seen otherwise. Thanks :)

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