Monday, 28 December 2015

Processing a tragedy

The lockdown in Brussels last month reminded me of the days following the 9/11 attacks in New York.

I'm home in the US for the holidays, and over the weekend I discovered a treasure trove of old videos from high school and college in my parents' basement.

Among the VHS copies of my public access sketch comedy show in high school (don't worry I won't embarrass anyone by posting those videos!) I came across some footage I shot during the 9/11 attacks in New York City. I had completely forgotten about it.

I was living in the NYU dorm at Hayden Hall, on Washington Square Park, at the time. After I saw the second plane hit the tower, I ran up to my dorm and grabbed my camcorder. Our dorm was the tallest building in the immediate area and had a complete view of the twin towers from the rooms (you can see the view at mark 1:35 in the video). 

It's interesting for me to come across this video now, because my recent experience being in Brussels during the lockdown, and in Paris during the climate summit, reminded me so much of the days following the 9/11 attacks.

The footage shows the towers during the attacks, and then the streets in the hours following the attacks. Everyone seems to be in a stunned silence. Then it shows an impromptu vigil organised in Washington Square Park on the night of September 11th. The next day, it shows me and my friends making food on the West Side Highway for the rescue workers - a rather futile gesture, but people just wanted to do something to help. 

Finally it shows a peace rally in Union Square Park on the evening of September 12th. You can see how the stunned silence of the first night turned into angst and fear by the second night, and thoughts about what comes next as a consequence of the attacks.

Watching this, I also thought about how if this happened today, all these people would be recording video with their cell phones. Instead people are living in the moment, and I'm the only one recording video.

Some other interesting bits of the footage:

0:00   Both towers are still standing. People are gathered on the corner of W 4th street and Washington Square West talking about what's just happened. It appears people still think it could have been an accident.

1:00   The view from my window. One tower has fallen, the second (which was actually the first to be hit) still stands.

1:35   The view from another window. Both towers have fallen, the smoke cloud rises from the ruins like a volcanic eruption. Me and others in the room are discussing what to do if the smoke starts coming uptown.

2:25   The streets in the West Village shortly after the towers fell. Everyone is kind of wandering aimlessly in a stunned silence. There is no traffic.

3:05   The NYU sports complex (I can't remember the name of it), which had been converted into a 'refugee center' to house and feed all the students that had been evacuated from NYU dorms further downtown. I remember that some people couldn't go back to their rooms for several weeks, and had to survive with whatever clothes and personal belongings they had grabbed during the evacuation.

4:56   People are becoming increasingly concerned about the smoke coming from the pit, people are wearing face masks. I remember our dorm advisor told us to put towels under the door and close the windows.

5:38   A man spontaneously stops to pray outside a church.

5:51   Just hours after the attacks, someone has already splattered paint on a Muslim-owned business, 'Zamir Furs'. People are congregated around it, shaking their heads.

6:32   People gather in Washington Square Park for a candlelight vigil. Some start singing Amazing Grace.

8:27   People have already started putting up photos and information about missing people on the fencing outside the Washington Square Arch.

9:30   The next day, people have lined up along the West Side Highway to applaud and yell 'thank you' to the rescue workers coming up and down from the WTC site.

11:42   People have set up tables to make food for the rescue workers. We joined in. People just wanted to feel like they were helping somehow.

12:23   The constant whir of helicopters and military jets overhead. This was a constant presence in the weeks after 9/11, and the skies over Brussels last month reminded me very much of this time.

12:50   Union Square, the night of September 12th. People are demonstrating for peace, mindful of the war that is coming. There are signs pleading for people not to see Islam as the enemy.

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