A Clear Blue Sky: Remembering 9/11 in New York City


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Five years after the attacks on September 11th 2001, British Poet Simon Armitage published ‘Out of the Blue’ The poem recounts the experience of an English trader, stuck in the North Tower upon it being struck by American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:46 AM on the 11th.  An extract from the poem is tragically explicit in describing the horror as people, realising they had no way to escape, jumped to their deaths as a result of the terrorist attacks.

A bird goes by.
The depth is appalling. Appalling
that others like me
should be wind-milling, wheeling, spiralling, falling.

I was two-years-old on 9/11. I have no memory of what happened. I was spared witnessing the horror in real time. But that does not make it any less heart wrenching to think about. 3000 people just going about their day. 3000 people who would be killed. Further senseless loss of life in a political and religious dispute between the West and Islamic Fundamentalists.

On my recent trip to New York, we dedicated the final morning to visiting Ground Zero, the site of the attacks, now the home of a memorial and museum. The memorial, two large fountains where both towers once stood, has the name of every one of the victims inscribed along its side. The sound of the rushing water over the bustle of the New York traffic makes it seem almost separate to the rest of the city, an experience that only possibly compares to when I have visited Auschwitz in the past. No one spoke. We simply witnessed how New York looked to remember each person who has died.

The photo below shows a White Rose on the name of one of the victims, a tradition for the Museum to do so on that victim’s birthday.

Credit: Henry Shah

Inside the museum, the exhibition begins with an image of the New York skyline and the World Trade Center titled ‘A Clear Blue Sky’. Our audio tour, narrated by New York native and celebrated actor Robert De Niro, highlighted this as the beauty of the City. How it could look calm and busy at the same time. The photo was taken some 15 minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower. The image is painful, a sign of promise and freedom before the carnage.

Among the tributes to the dead and remains taken from the disaster was an even more intimate experience. The Museum provides almost stage-by-stage raw and thought provoking displays of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon and the hijack of Flight 93, where the passengers fought back against their captors, crashing the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvannia. Within this display were newspapers from the the morning of September 11th, littered with coverage of the upcoming race for the New York Mayor. No hint or indication of the horror that was to follow.

Credit: Henry Shah

One World Trade Center: The Main Building on the rebuilt World Trade Center Complex

Then there were the recordings. The heartfelt messages that loved ones on the planes and in the towers left for friends and family. Sean Rooney called his wife nonchalantly whilst in his office in the South Tower just after Flight 11 had hit the North Tower. He told her that the South Tower was secure and would be returning to his office. When United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, Mr Rooney stayed on the phone with his wife as he tried to find an escape route. As he realised that he would not escape he spoke to his wife, Beverly Eckert, about their life together. Mrs Eckert, who became a notable activist in the 9/11 Commission after the attacks, spoke candidly of her last moments with her husband. The memorial etches these words on to the wall.

I didn’t want to go to sleep because as long as I was awake, it was still a day that I’d shared with Sean.

Mrs Eckert, an inspiring figure before her 2009 death in a plane accident, continued to honour her husband’s life. She was crucial in setting up the 9/11 Family Steering Committee that oversaw the 9/11 Commission’s investigation into the attacks. Mrs Eckert also declined a $1.8 million dollar compensation claim from the 9/11 victims fund, believing that it was ‘a tacit acknowledgement by Congress that it tampered with our civil justice system in an unprecedented way’. Her manifesto, published in 2003, looked to sue the airlines and the US Government for its failure to protect their citizens from the senseless terror attacks.

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Beverly Eckert, along with the citizens of New York are perfect examples of how people and a community can respond to terror and violence. The creation of the 9/11 memorial is not only only testament to their strength and will, but further adds to the legacy of their city and it’s invincibility. It has been almost two decades since the attacks, but the memorial and exhibition remains endearing to the city, a must see for anyone who cares not only about the culture of New York, but it’s humanity. In such a diverse city, it is somewhat apt that the most vivid memory of my trip is Ground Zero, where New York cried but where it now stands determined.


MA History Student

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