By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!!