It was a horror that arrived literally out of blue skies. Much of the West Side heard the whine of the first jet as it rocketed down over the Hudson – too close, too loud, too low – and veered into the city. Walking to the subway, we turned our heads, craned our necks. What we saw next was unimaginable, even by the most ornate and gruesome of Hollywood imaginations – and it brought pain and loss on an inconceivable scale.
The TV and the newspapers called it an attack on America, which was true, but, in the moment, irrelevant: It was an attack on us. We didn’t experience it through the mediation of CNN, but on sidewalks or rooftops or terraces or parks – if we were lucky enough not to be in the midst of it. The bursting, pulsing fireballs, and the smoke billowing off over the Woolworth Building toward Brooklyn, held a terrible beauty – until we realized that, yes, those were people jumping from the towers. Our neighbors were dying, and we were watching; it’s hard, days later, to remember this without fighting away tears.
“Daddy, is it real?” a son asked a father, seeing the towers aflame on TV. “That can’t happen in my house, right?” What a hard question to answer, now. The week progressed from shock and amazement to a deep grief for our neighbors under the rubble and their families.
Still, the terrorists – people who understand nothing about us, by the way – dealt a blow to something else: our cynicism. Throughout the week, there was a sense of civic nobility, exemplified by the heroism of the firefighters, climbing the stairs against the human current toward what they knew was an inferno. That’s one of the stories of last week. There is a city full of others.