My father's account
My father wrote this shortly after 9/11. He was prescient in many ways...
I decided to write up a brief account of our experiences at the World Trade Center to simplify the task of keeping every one up-to-date. For some reason I found it necessary to talk about my reaction to the events. It's probably therapeutic.
My wife and I just returned home to Rome from the USA the 28th September with our 7 year old daughter, who has missed 2 weeks of school. We had been planning to return the 11th from NYC and were staying in the Marriott World Trade Center hotel, across the street from my in-laws where Chris, my oldest son had been staying. When the first plane stuck, my wife was in the shower and 7-year-old daughter asleep in bed.
I heard a loud noise, looked out the window, which gave on the plaza between the Twin Towers, and saw a huge amount of debris descending (most of it appeared to be paper and small bits of metal). I saw a woman walking slowly in the plaza, then turning to look up, and suddenly beginning to run away at top speed. (I could not see where the plane had struck). I yelled "it's a bomb, let's go". We got everyone ready and left everything in the room, all of which was destroyed when the hotel collapsed. It took us about 15-16 minutes to exit the hotel. We at first descended by the stairs to the Plaza exit, but couldn't go out given the debris that was falling. This was very fortunate because we went back up to the mezzanine where we ran into Chris and my brother-in-law who had come searching for us. If we had not met they might have decided to climb to our room on the 11th floor. Again with great good luck (or brilliant timing) together we managed to cross West Street in front of the hotel before the second plane hit the south tower scattering debris into the street.
The noise made by the plane and the panic of the crowd at that moment are things I shall never be able to put out of my mind. In the confusion I lost contact with my family and decided to bring up the rear just in case someone had been left behind. I knew my solidly built; 6 foot 5 inch brother-in-law would grab my daughter if she had stayed with her mother (as he did).
We took temporary refuge in the in-laws' apartments (which are side by side on the same floor) mesmerized by the horrific scene framed in the picture windows of the two towers wildly burning. We were sickened each time we witnessed the unthinkable and unimaginable last acts of the desperate souls jammed at the windows. I decided to take my morning shower in order to avoid seeing any more. For electing to remain in a building 200 yards from 2 burning ¼ mile high towers I have been nominated by my friend Larry for this year's Darwin Award.
When the South Tower started to collapse my son Chris ran in barefoot exhorting us to leave immediately, which we did as the black cloud from the collapsing tower filled the windows. At this point we headed for the basement with Chris, my daughter, my 8 year niece and my sister-in-law, who was 2 weeks from her due date and "seriously pregnant, and their large dog which followed us all that day. My brother-in-law who had gone out with his tape recorder and a roll of quarters to do his "journalist thing" caught up with us in the basement covered with ash and soot from head to toe. In the basement we were joined by many people and the air began to run out. I remembered the scenes from old submarine movies and counseled the kids to be still and breathe lightly!
Fortunately some firemen arrived to save the day by showing us the way to a delicatessen where the air was much more plentiful. We stocked up on water; I alone drank 3 bottles of Evian trying to clear my throat of ash and cinders. Chris was kindly given a pair of oven mitts to wear on his feet.
We were then told to evacuate, as the North Tower was moving. As we evacuated the store an enormous noise overwhelmed us as the north tower collapsed spewing debris everywhere. I remember grabbing my daughter and taking shelter with her behind a parapet; Sandra remembers her running away and being restrained by a man in a suit.
We were quickly enveloped in a great black cloud that entirely obscured our vision. We all closed our eyes tightly to keep out cinders and debris since we could see nothing anyway. My daughter and my niece were very brave. She continued to hold my hand and breathe through the wet rags we had all been kindly given in the delicatessen. When the cloud began to dissipate we began to make our way to the esplanade where eventually my sister-in-laws' pregnancy assured us of a priority evacuation by boat first to Jersey City and then to a National Guard base.
Finally late in the day we went by bus to Newark where we caught the last train to Trenton where my brother-in-law met us. We spent a couple of days with my sister and her husband who were such wonderful hosts. On arriving at their house they invited us to make ourselves at home. We responded by taking off our filthy clothes, which we feared might be contaminated with asbestos. We took showers and I for one put one an old two-toned, pink and purple tracksuit for the next 24 hours. We also visited several times with my other sister who coincidentally had spent the night across from my sister in-laws' and had been admitted to Rutgers Hospital in Newark for smoke inhalation. She is OK but they confiscated her clothes fearing contamination by anthrax or whatever.
New Jersey being New Jersey we started shopping the next day to replace the 13 bags, 3 computers, and countless other things we had lost at the hotel. Sandra the second day suggested that we return to New York to begin the task of replacing Italian and US passports and airline tickets. I said no way and we stayed 3 more days in a hotel in Lambertville NJ on the banks of the Delaware River. I wasn't ready to confront New York so soon. (As an old Boston Red Sox fan I have trouble with New York under the most ideal conditions!). Chris, my oldest son, also agreed to stay with us for a few days, which was a great comfort to all of us.
Once the shock began to dissipate, I began to experience a feeling of depression, which has been gradually lifting. I slept reasonably well, although my wife has only now begun to sleep. Our daughter initially didn't seem much affected by the events, but she now has begun expressing more and more thoughts and feelings about her experiences.
For example, she wanted to take the train home to Rome. Two nights ago she dreamed she went to school and found that all the children were Afghanis. She didn't want to board a NYC taxi driven by a Sikh! Children, it seems, react more slowly.
In any case, after several days repose I did agree to spend a night in New York so that we could start the process of replacing the Italian passports. Then we left for a few days in Newport before returning to New York to replace the US passports, tickets, and take a plane to Rome (on Yom Kippur). I found that it is very helpful to return to your roots when a crisis strikes.
We were very lucky and it is hard to accept that so very many were not. I find it best not to dwell too much upon some things that happened that day.
I must say that I am impressed by the reaction of the American people and their leaders so far to these events. The year I was born tens of thousands of Japanese were "interned"(thrown into concentration camps) in California and elsewhere after the Japanese killed 1/3 as many American military men at Pearl Harbor. This action, spearheaded I recall by Earl Warren then Attorney General of California, led not only to years of imprisonment for the Nisei but also to the loss of many farms and valuable property due to the inability of their owners to pay the real estate taxes due (from which many non-Japanese Americans presumably profited). So far we see the President and the mayor of NYC visiting Muslim places of worship and exhorting Americans not to punish innocent Arab Americans or Muslims. Maybe there is a thing such as progress after all!!
What I most hope is that Bin Laden's dearest wish that these events lead to a Holy War not be fulfilled. There are people in the West who seem to view these events as proof that a struggle between the West and "medieval Islamic culture' is inevitable. I know many Arabs and Muslims and I feel sure that none of them would last long in a Bin Laden type Islamic state. They also feel the same way. The Islamic states are politically and militarily weak and on the losing end of a number of geo-political quarrels in different parts of the world. The conflict in Palestine is the one on everyone's mind, and it certainly has been a major contributor to the growth of Arab and Islamic radicalism since at least the time of Gamel Nasser. They are also, however, fighting the Russians in Chechnya and the Indians in Kashmir. In each case they are fighting to hold territory or to expel non-Muslim forces, which have annexed in the recent or more distant past Muslim territories and people. (The Czarist occupation of Chechnya goes back to the 1830's, I believe). In the Balkans their problems have become well known, but here the West has supported them, with unfortunately very mixed results.
These struggles have and are continuing to radicalize a small minority of Arab and Muslim people with the results I witnessed in New York and countless others have witnessed in the Middle East, Russia, and India and Kashmir. The task of the West is to protect itself against future acts of terrorism and to hunt down and put out of action the terrorists to the extent possible, while avoiding an exacerbation of the serious conflicts that stand at the root of the problem.
What I find so anomalous is that the USA is so heavily involved in this problem in certain areas. In Kashmir and Chechnya our involvement has been tangential at most.
However, the argument that it is somehow in the American national interest to bankroll and support the gradual displacement of the Palestinian people from their native soil has always been a sore point with me. Parenthetically how many Americans are aware of the billions in military and economic aid given to Israel every year or of the $10 billion in credits granted in the 1980's to help absorb Russian refuges on the condition that Israel not use the money for building new settlements? This is no time to "appease terrorists". However it is time for the USA to define its national interests and to begin to insist on their defense. I'm hoping that the Administration's initiative to push for some kind of Palestinian state will have some real content and survive the exigencies of maintaining a disparate coalition during the present struggle.
One of my French cousins, spent time in Afghanistan during the war against the Russian occupiers working with a French Catholic relief group distributing money to the Mujaheddin mainly for humanitarian purposes. I had a long telephone conversation with him recently and he presented a quite different take on the problem. He first pointed out, as have others that the CIA had supported the most extreme groups during the Russian war (including Bin Laden), which have since turned against us. His group only gave money to the "moderates" in the Afghan resistance (chiefly those associated with the recently assassinated leader Massoud). Thus he argues that we have reaped what we have sowed. (I personally have difficulty hearing this, even though it may be true). More importantly he maintained that there can be no solution to the problem without a radical change in the attitude of the rich countries towards the poor. The current policy is not working, as he put it, therefore we must reinvent what we have been doing.
For him poverty is the key problem and the West must respond with generosity to the needs of the poor.
My friend Mohammed, an Algerian who works here in Rome for the International fund for Agricultural Development (an organ of the UN), seconds Leonard in emphasizing the importance of fighting poverty. The civil war in Algeria between the fundamentalists and the Government has already claimed around 200,000 lives. Mohammed says that young recruits into the Islamic forces are motivated in part by cash payments in an economy where there are no jobs. They are then heavily indoctrinated and often sent out on terror missions drugged up as was the case of the original assassins in Persia, the followers of "The Old Man of the Mountain" In Black Africa where Mohammed has spent the last 12 years, he sees fundamentalists with lots of money (presumably coming from the
Gulf) building mosques, medinas, and religious schools where a very aggressive and extreme brand of Islam is taught. The results are not far to find. I saw a TV program on Italian TV Saturday, which showed a recent religious riot in Joss in Nigeria where Muslim fanatics massacred an estimated 3000 Christians. These things are occurring more and more frequently in Nigeria and other African countries with mixed populations, such as Sudan.
I am normally skeptical that economic assistance provided by outsiders can be particularly helpful in alleviating poverty. Those of you who know me well know that I am a dyed in the wool Republican who cast his first vote for Barry Goldwater (although with trepidation). I tend to react instinctively against the idea that poverty determines bad behavior and I feel that in any case the poverty of the Third World is first and foremost due to their late start, non-market culture, and a legacy of terrible, corrupt, and socialistic governments. However, we can certainly afford to provide much more aid to the Third World; development aid has been falling as a percentage of GDP for decades (especially in America). The history of foreign aid is not replete with many success stories; so much has ended up in Switzerland or in wasteful infrastructure investments, which have principally served to provide an opportunity for graft or at best support the "big man's" ego, .It may now be necessary, however, to make a bigger and more serious effort.
Perhaps it would be wiser to direct the aid more to education (being careful to see that girls get their fair share) than to economic projects and cash grants.
Certainly an easy and very useful first step would be to dismantle quotas and tariffs against Third World imports. Speaking last week at the Labour Party conference in England Tony Blair singled out freer trade as something that should be pushed to help the third world. Indeed this is probably the most single effective policy available, but will require that a tremendous political battle be waged against those interests- especially organized labor and import competing businesses and farm lobbies- which will suffer economically from free trade with poor countries. Freer trade in agricultural products, textiles, and other manufactured goods will not only benefit the Western economies as a whole, but will make much more likely that the inflow of Western cash will go to the businessmen and workers who are engaging in productive activity.
What is made particularly clear by the events of the last few weeks is that the balance of military power in the world has been changing for some time. There have been instances in the past in which powerful countries have dealt successfully with powerful, organized groups of desperadoes. The Romans did a pretty good job controlling piracy in the Mediterranean in their day. Britain managed eventually to suppress piracy in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. It, however, took the French colonization of Algeria and the Maghreb in the 1830's to deal finally with the Barbary pirates who had been the scourge of the Mediterranean for centuries.
However in their struggle against piracy, neither Rome, nor London, nor Paris ever suffered anything like that which Bin Laden visited on New York September 11th. I try to imagine from time to time what would have it been like if he had used chemical or nuclear weapons. That is likely to be a possibility in the future. The crushing victory in the Gulf War over Iraq may have given the West and the USA particularly a false sense of security. Bin Laden killed at least 50 times as many Americans in 30 minutes than Sadaam did in the Gulf War (the "mother of all wars"). (I think this is true. Combat deaths in the American ranks were something like 127, I remember). Unfortunately the balance of power is shifting against powerful states in their contest with terrorists, and we must treat the poor and downtrodden much better than we have for our own survival if for no other reason.
The problem is technology and the likelihood that we will see more of it. 500 years ago a band of 19 marauders couldn't hope to kill 7000 people. There are certainly technological fixes, which will help, but I see no possibility that the balance of power can be turned back to the disadvantage of those who would attack civilian populations. If some of you have some ideas, send them on!
Anyway this has taken much longer than I had imagined. It's a beautiful fall morning in Rome. "Le ottobrate romane" (our Indian summer days) have been particularly wonderful this year. It's still summer here.