Lest We Forget the Other September Elevens

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

I remember various histories of September 11. For instance, September 11 2000 was the date of the s11 blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne (see post below) and September 11 1973 was a pivotal day for millions of people in Chile and for those supporting their progressive struggles. On that day a fascist military coup brought down the Allende government. Thousands of government supporters were subsequently murdered; rounded up, executed without trial, ‘disappeared’ or were tortured to death, in order to eliminate ‘communists’ and to foster mass terror and demoralisation. Thousands more were herded into concentration camps and gaols. I have met some of those tortured in Santiago stadium and count among my friends comrades who still bear the scars of those years and who went ‘underground’ to continue the struggle against the Pinochet regime. The many lessons of that September 11 have also changed my own life. From being a child of the communist movement at the time, through to a veteran of the class war today, the horrors of September 11 1973 have scarred me for life.

My memories of September 11 2001 fill me with a similar sadness to those of 1973. Watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre live on television, witnessing the horror of the fascistic aggression and considering the implications of their unthinkable and unspeakable violence, I was struck by the same nausea, the same heartache, the same experience of a counter-attack on my hopes and dreams, as hit me almost thirty years before. However, September 11 is not just a day of mourning, a reminder of fascism, terror and war. This day is also a reminder of how people react with extraordinary heroism when they are thrown face-to-face with the most fundamental questions of human existence. In my last blog post I used Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell to investigate the Queensland floods. In this post I want to recount Rebecca’s exploration of the events of September 11 2001. Rather than concentrating on the horrors of terrorism, or the global impacts of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, she looks at the extraordinary responses of many people in New York City. Here I relate some of the history of September 11 2001 which has been overshadowed by the hysteria, war and terror that followed.

Much of the coverage of what happened in New York on September 11 2001 has centred on the bravery and loss of emergency service workers. Yet, when asked who the rescue heroes were on September 11, New York emergency services policeman Mark DeMarco, who was at Ground Zero, explained; “The people who were in the towers, who actually initiated the rescue before the police or fire department got there. They initiated it, they started it, they were helping each other. Everybody was helping each other. To me they were the heroes”. He explains that as people evacuated the towers there wasn’t any running, there wasn’t any panic. And as witness after witness explains, even after the most unimaginable event possible, even after being showered with debris and immersed in mid-morning darkness, after the vision of two hundred and twenty floors, each an acre in size, coming down, after seeing commercial airliners become firebombs, after inhaling the terrible choking dust that would damage so many permanently, people for the most part got back up and tried to take care of each other.

The twenty-five thousand people in the towers that day aided each other in a calm evacuation. When the elevators in the towers stopped operating the stairways quickly filled with those attempting to leave. People were two abreast on every stair. There was no pushing, there was no trampling. People went down the stairs calmly only as fast as the slowest person in front of them. Zaheer Jaffery, a polio survivor from Pakistan, who worked on the sixty fifth floor, recalls the long slow journey down the stairs and how everyone would move aside to let the injured through, how people would say “No, no, you first”, you can go before me. Although people offered to carry him Zaheer refused assistance believing others needed it more than he did. One of those needing such help, John Abruzzo, a paraplegic accountant who worked on the sixty ninth floor of the north tower, was carried down all those flights of stairs to safety by ten of his co-workers in relays.

The majority of casualties in the towers were people trapped above the fires. Unlike in the Towering Inferno, a movie made the year after the World Trade Centre was completed, people were unable to escape from the top of the buildings, as the doors to the roof had been locked by management. So, while waiting for a rescue that never came, many of those trapped above the fires chose to spend their final moments expressing their love to their families, before the mobile network crashed. Elsewhere in the towers fewer would have died if the people in charge of the buildings had not urged workers to return to their offices. Since most workers ignored these directives, the Port Authority, the agency that ran the towers, had people with bullhorns telling everyone to go back to work. Many of those who heeded the calls to keep working would die as a result. As well, many fire fighters would die on-the-job after bravely entering a building thousands were fleeing. Sent up endless flights of stairs carrying heavy equipment and clad in thick protective outfits, some fire fighters were soon experiencing chest pains, some were lying prone, panting to recover from their ascent. They were given water by office workers who were leaving the buildings and who often implored the fire fighters to go with them. The fire fighter’s bosses had already determined it was impossible to fight the fires in the towers, so there was no need to carry their equipment and little need for them to be in the buildings at all. Three hundred and forty fire fighters died as the towers collapsed.

John Guilfoy, a young man who worked in the towers and had been a college athlete, recalls how after he got out of the building he and his co-workers were engulfed in thick smoke, so he tried to run as fast as he could to get away. However, since he was faster than his colleagues he slowed down and waited for them, “to make sure we didn’t lose each other”. A young immigrant from Pakistan, Usman Farman, recalls how he fell in the cloud of toxic smoke and then felt a Jewish man take his hand, rescuing him from the falling glass and debris. During the couple of hours before both towers collapsed many people acted in the most incredible ways, at times risking and sacrificing their own lives for others. Countless more took the hands of strangers, cradled the injured in their arms, nursed, consoled and protected each other.

When people emerged into the street they joined the thousands of others who took it upon themselves to direct traffic, help shepherd people along the safest routes, tend to the wounded and assist those in need. Many survivors who couldn’t get away from the area were welcomed into the homes of locals. None-the-less, in total a million people managed to evacuate themselves from Manhattan safely. As the streets filled with people, masses of them were caught on the southern tip of Manhattan between the destruction and the water’s edge. Hundreds of thousands of people needed to be rescued by water. This feat was achieved by a spontaneously assembled armada of boats, which conducted in a few hours an evacuation larger than the fabled ten-day Dunkirk rescue in World War Two. This massive effort was only part of the concentric circles of support that rapidly ringed the disaster site. As many left the city seeking safety, simultaneously there began a convergence on the site of tens of thousands of people hoping to help. As they did, many thousands more began to self-organise supply lines to assist them with money and whatever else was needed. The streets of New York were soon flooded with people desperate to give, to help, to find some way to matter and care.

Throughout September 11 and the days after, huge numbers of volunteers flocked into Manhattan and caregivers swarmed the city, in one of the largest disaster convergences in history. Many of these volunteers would remain in the area for months. A whole range of community organisations sprang into action, new organisations were formed and various forms of organisation were embraced by those in need and those acting in solidarity. Where-ever they could, people gathered together to cry, mourn, talk, argue, comfort and share. Restaurants, cooks and volunteers, who ended up working with food for days to months, converged in impromptu kitchens, canteens, and dining rooms; bodyworkers and counsellors converged to offer support; a group of bike messengers became couriers and delivery experts. Groups of singers and musicians strolled the city singing and playing songs. Overnight Union Square became a massive public forum, a place where strangers came to meet, discuss and debate, to be present in the common life of the city. It was largely a spontaneous gathering, but a group of young people and homeless people nurtured the common life there. They didn’t make it happen or control it, but they tended it like gardeners, weeding out invasive media, encouraging expression to bloom, providing supplies and support. Local resident Astra Taylor recalls that “there was a sense on the street on September 11 of calm, of trusting in the people around you, kind of being impressed with how intelligently the people around you were handling the circumstances. There was camaraderie, no hysterics, no panic”. For the next week “no one went to work and everyone talked to strangers”.

The tens of thousands of people helping each other on September 11 2001 did so with little knowledge of whether they were out of harm’s way or what dangers they may still face. As they began to take action, above them in the sky, the only effective defence against that day’s attacks was being organised. The United States military and intelligence systems are the most expensive and supposedly the most powerful in the world. This vast military/intelligence machine failed to provide any defence on September 11. When it was confirmed that the planes had been hijacked, the U.S. military had a couple of hours to protect their own headquarters, the Pentagon. Yet  it seems the only successful defence mounted that day was organised by the passengers of United Flight 93. After their plane was hijacked they made frantic calls to friends and loved ones. They learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers and they surmised that their plane was intended to be used as a bomb. In the limited time available, they gathered information, decided to thwart the hijacker’s aims and made collective decisions on various strategies to take back the plane. It was an astoundingly fast collaborative improvisation. The passengers of Flight 93 then staged a revolt against the hijackers that probably forced the plane into a crash landing.

At times it is easy to forget that the aftermath of the attacks on September 11 was not just war and terror. For millions of people around the world the days, months and years following September 11 2001 have also involved widespread struggles for peace, democracy and love. Many people in New York, as elsewhere, rapidly moved beyond terror, shock and awe. They decided to do something loving, peaceful and constructive, banded together, often with strangers, and made it happen. This week on September 11, in Chile, the anniversary of the fascist coup will see large demonstrations by the newly emboldened multitude as they struggle to overthrow the legacies of the Pinochet dictatorship. Along with everyone who is participating in similar activities across the globe, the people on the streets of Chile are building a future of other September Elevens – lest we forget.

Nick Southall

  1. bosun2rox says:

    Yes Nick- human’s are social beings who will help and nuture their own. They are driven by compassion, empathy and selflessness. Lest we forget.

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