As we arrive at the 5th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, it seems that this might be the moment to share with everyone just where I was, and what I was doing on that fateful morning. Having watched several of the recent documentaries on the events of that day, and all that led up to those events, it is so difficult to not reflect on everything, yet again. 8:46 A.M. and 9:03 A.M.! It is so hard to believe that those damn planes struck the Towers only 17-minutes apart! I have to say that I found the "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC" documentaries to be the most riveting and informative. Like the assassination of President Kennedy, I am afraid that 9/11 is a day which I will never ever forget as long as I live. To the right, I want to share with everyone this spectacular photo by the great Joel Meyerowitz from his collection, which appears in his new book, "AFTERMATH." This image, the North Tower in ruins, is the one which will stay with me forever. I remember the first time I saw film of this portion of the ruins, and recall thinking to myself that, 'this is just like the final scene in the original "PLANET OF THE APES" when Taylor(Charlton Heston) comes upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty on the beach. How well I remember the forceful words he then uttered. Seeing the ruins of the World Trade Center felt the exact same way to me, except it was real, so very, very real!!!|
And now, here we are, it is 2011, and it is the 10th anniversary!
Suddenly, here we are, and it is 2021, and it is the 20th anniversary!
And so, here's my personal story.....
During the years between 1999-2002, I had been traveling a great deal between New York City and Caracas, Venezuela because of my romance and relationship with actress, Caridad Canelón. Normally, I would always fly on American Airlines, the direct flights from JFK Airport to the airport at Maiquetía, located on the northernmost coast of beautiful Venezuela. However, on this particular trip, I had been the beneficiary of the largesse of a good friend, Larry Weissman, who happened to have a ton of extra frequent flyer miles on Delta, and had offered me a trip. How could I refuse? And so, I was a Delta passenger. The only annoyance of this was that one has to fly through Atlanta. This means beginning by flying from New York's La Guardia airport. After having done so much commuting between New York and Caracas, I pretty much knew everything about how the American Airlines flight schedule, on any given morning when returning to New York, would work. There were always three flights out before 9 A.M., they headed to Miami; to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and direct to JFK in New York. However, the Delta flight leaves a bit later, around 10 A.M.! At that hour, things are a little less hectic at the airport, and one feels that they can relax a bit more.
How well I remember my initial arrival at this airport in May of '99, and seeing the beautiful and very artistically tiled floor, designed by the great Venezuelan artist, Carlos Cruz-Díez. His work immediately reminded me of the great Israeli artist, Yaacov Agam. As they were apparently born within one year of each other, I suppose this would be a case of cosmic parallel development. For me, to arrive at any airport and immediately see signs of the national culture, this is a wonderful thing, truly wonderful!
After going through all the normal pre-9/11 security and check-in procedures, plus immigration, we all boarded the plane, and prepared to depart. Everything seemed to be perfectly normal. There are two runways at Maiquetía, and though Caracas should always be considered as one of South America's major cities, it is never as though there are huge lines of jet aircraft waiting to take-off, or to land. So, when we pushed off from the gate, it seemed that we would be in the air shortly. After rolling towards the runway, we slowly came to a stop. To me, it seemed to be a bit strange, because the skies were clear, perfect flying weather. But, one never knows, and strange things have happened to me at this airport. After waiting quietly for 10-15 minutes, the pilot came on the speaker system to announce that we were being held because of "air traffic problems in Atlanta." I wondered to myself if the weather was perhaps bad there, or if, for some reason, another plane was having some problems. While waiting for what seemed to be another 10-15 minutes, I decided to take a look at a fellow passenger's copy of "USA TODAY" so that I could see what the weather was like in Atlanta. I could see that the weather there was fine! So? What could possibly be wrong?
The next thing I knew, the pilot came on again to speak with us, and told us that we were still being held because of "air traffic problems in Atlanta." This time, the wait was not so long. He came back on again, and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are being told that all airplanes have been grounded in the U.S., and we must return to the gate. Please stay in the boarding area until we can determine just how we are going to handle everything." Well, at that point, I still had NO idea what was going on, nor what could have possibly happened. I had never heard of ALL aircraft being grounded in the U.S., never!!! And so, we all calmly deplaned. I knew no one personally on this flight. I did however see a fellow American, who worked as a consultant for one of the oil companies, and I couldn't help but notice that he was on his cell-phone. I was watching him, and suddenly, I saw the expression on his face sink. His complexion became completely ashen. I summoned the courage to go over to him, and to ask what he had heard. He told me that he had just been speaking with his brother in Atlanta. His brother worked for Delta Airlines, and had told him about the hijackings, and the catastrophic events in New York, and in Washington, D.C.! To show just how easily things can get distorted when there is a state of panic, his brother had been told that a total of 8 planes had been hijacked, and that several were still unaccounted for!!! Of course, we all now know that this was not the case.
I was pleasantly surprised at how calm and well behaved everyone was, especially the Americans. This was nice to see. I know how obnoxious Americans can be when things don't go as scheduled. You should also understand that, unlike airports that we have become used to in the U.S. and in Europe, there were no TVs in the waiting area, nor in this part of the terminal. So, we never saw any of the images of what had happened that morning. Whatever we learned was based on second-hand information. Since that time, now five years ago, it is important to note that the airport in Caracas has undergone some wondrous renovations, and things are certainly more modern.
Finally, Delta was able to get organized under these extraordinary conditions, and we all had to go back through immigration, and then head over to the Delta ticket counter where we were given vouchers for a future return flight. We had no idea just how long air service would be disrupted to and from the United States. We were then told that we were going to be put on a large bus with our luggage, driven back to Caracas and dropped off at the Hotel Euro-Building, which is one of Caracas' finer hotels. The drive into Caracas, which by then I knew so very well, seemed to take longer than ever. What a strange feeling it was, to know that something terrible, an unprecedented event, had taken place, was taking place, and not knowing its magnitude nor being able to help. Not knowing if any family members, friends, or acquaintances had been affected. So, when we finally arrived at the Euro-Building, got off the bus, and collected our luggage, we walked into the lobby, and there was a large flat-panel TV hanging down from the ceiling. And there, right in front of my eyes, was the first time that I saw what had happened to the "Twin Towers" of the World Trade Center. Like so many Americans, I felt as though I was watching a bad "disaster movie" with cheap special effects.....something that just could not possibly be real. How could two jet-liners fly into the 'twin towers'? Who could have done such a thing?
Once there was some time, I phoned Caridad, and was picked-up shortly thereafter by her dear son, Luis Daniel. It seemed like I spent the following several days existing in a fog, in a state of shock, glued to watching CNN/International, and gradually learning just what had actually happened. It was not to be believed. What a diabolical plan! But, no matter how disgustingly heartless it seemed, it was brilliantly conceived and carried out. The terrorists had caught the U.S. 'sleeping' in a false sense of security. As we later learned, the signs were all there, the various agencies had, in fact, monitored strange behaviors and curious activities across the country, and yet, because one agency or branch of government could not communicate well with another, we all paid the consequences. Like everyone else, I could only shake my head in disbelief. My friends in Caracas were uniformly wonderful to me, and they all expressed their sympathies and compassion for New York City and its people. Having been a New Yorker since 1970, I had learned one thing. It would take a lot more than this to crush the spirit of this proud and most unique city. I knew that we would mourn respectfully, rebound, rebuild, and begin again. This is our way. While watching the news, I was uplifted by the incredible stories of personal bravery and heroism. Some people are just capable of doing remarkable things under the most extraordinary conditions. Our firefighters, our policemen, and just ordinary citizens will forever have my admiration. I am certain that I could not have been so courageous, nor selfless. Having watched the recent documentaries, some even twice, I still marvel, in sadness and in horror, at the eerie chain of events. How could we have allowed this to happen?
When we were finally allowed to fly home, I remember being back at the Maiquetía airport in Caracas and, having some time to spare, I decided to go down the corridor and speak with some of the people from American Airlines in an attempt to try and learn just what happened to the three flights that left for the U.S. prior to 9 A.M. on 9/11. I learned that two of the flights had to land in Miami, and one might have gone to Dallas. When I boarded my Delta flight I recognized one of the flight attendants from the 9/11 flight, on which I had originally been scheduled to leave. I cautiously went up to speak with him. I asked him if the pilot had actually known more about the events than he had told us that morning. I was told that the pilot was only repeating what he was being told. The flight crew knew nothing until they were in the terminal. It was interesting to learn this. I would like to believe that he was telling me the truth.
My personal feelings and opinions about those issues and what we, as a nation, have done since, seem wholly inappropriate to express here. I just thought that some of you might find it interesting to read my personal story of that day. How I wish that we could change so many things! So, where was I? In brief, sitting on the runway in Caracas, Venezuela, waiting to try to fly home to New York, with a stop in Atlanta!!! That's where I was that day!
My heart goes out to all the families who lost loved ones on that awful day. Bless you all!!! To the spirits of all the passengers and the crew, who were on board United Flt. #93 that day, what amazingly brave and heroic people you must have been.
And now, 20 years later, here is the beautiful tribute "HEROES: THE STORY OF FLIGHT 93." It is impossible to watch this without one's eyes welling-up with tears. Those 40 people, and their families, everyone left behind are just such extraordinary human beings.
On September 11th, 2006, I walked over to my neighborhood firehouse, and thanked all the firemen for everything they did and tried to do on that day five years ago, but also for everything that they do on daily basis, much of which goes unnoticed, here in New York. What fantastically brave and courageous people they are! It's hard to explain, but my eyes have welled-up with tears countless times during this day.
Addendum: Today is September 11th, 2021, and we, as a people, as a nation have arrived at the 20 year anniversary of this most horrid event. To mark the approaching day, Netflix released its documentary in 5 parts: TURNING POINT(9/11 And The War on Terror) and, I watched all of it. The reaction of my emotions remains the same, tears well-up in my eyes when I see the faces of the victims, hear the voices of their surviving loved ones, see the faces of our first responders, hear and see the faces of their surviving loved ones. It all becomes too much and I am taken right back to what I felt 20 years ago. I don't know that I can say that I think that this documentary is 'better' than the one by "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC," but I'm glad that I saw it. It's so important to never forget this day and what it means. I still ask myself, "Have we learned our lessons well?" Judging by the recent events, my answer would still be, "No!"
However, with that stated, the crucial thing is that we never again allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep, thinking that everything is O.K. and that we can't be touched. That would be fatal, and the key to enabling something like that to happen all over again! So, be aware, be ever vigilant, because you never know.