Surprising Myself

More than twenty five years ago I read Dean Koontz's Twilight Eyes. It was a book about a group of  "Goblins"; creatures that had the appearance of humans and lived human lives but had an insatiable desire for bloodshed and human suffering (much like the popular media, but that's another post).  When disaster was imminent the Goblins could be found milling about waiting to feed off the human's emotions of horror and terror resulting from the destruction that was often caused by one of them.  Slim, the book's main character, is able to recognize these evil beings and wages war against them (much like Nick Burkhardt on the TV show Grimm), 

One morning, more than a decade ago, I had a vivid dream with a similar theme.  Though I've since forgotten many of the details, what happened in that hypnopompic state between sleep and waking is something I'll always remember.  I was in a crowd of people.  Some wandered aimlessly, others strode forward with great purpose.  I was confused, I didn't know what was going on and with a great sense of relief I began to wake up.  As my brain swam into consciousness I heard a woman's voice that seemed to be neither within the dream nor from waking world.  She said very clearly, "Something really awful is going to happen."

I rose from my bed and got ready for work like  any other Tuesday in 2001 and despite the fact that it would be only be minutes before something really awful did happen, I forgot about the dream until much later on in the day.  It returned to me when I turned the TV on later that evening and saw the dazed and horrified faces of the people of  New York.  It wasn't long before I turned the TV off.  

By now you've realized that it was September 11th, 2001.  I hope you won't think badly of me for turning away from the news but I'm a rather sensitive person and the day had been filled with disbelief, shock and sadness as I'm sure you remember.

Empathy is a good thing but I find my capacity for empathy often overwhelms me.  Perhaps I have an over active imagination, but I find it very easy to put myself in someone's place, to feel what they are feeling, the fear, the horror and the sorrow.  As a result I avoid excessive news coverage and most violent or disturbing movies and TV shows.  I don't need those thoughts and sensational images in my brain. 

Because of this my knowledge of 9/11 was less detailed than many people's.  Most of my experience was filtered through others, through groups of people who dealt with their surprise and dismay by talking about it with friends. During the planning stages of our trip to New York, one of the ladies suggested we visit "Ground Zero" and I privately decided if they wanted to go, I'd go have a coffee somewhere and wait while they did their tour.  I was afraid that I'd be overwhelmed by sadness, that I would embarrass myself by crying and sniffling around the site and feel depressed for the rest of the day.  Imagine my surprise a few months later when I went online and booked a tour for the six of us.  Tour guides were either "...9/11 survivors, workers who assisted in the recovery efforts, lower Manhattan residents or family members that lost loved ones."  

I'm not sure what made me change my mind.  Perhaps it was the knowledge that I would not be presented with a sensationalized media version of the events, that I would hear one person's tale - in their own words.

When I finally visited the World Trade Centre in August 2012, we were blessed to have Vic Guarnera as our guide; the Manager of Security Systems for the World Trade Centre on that fateful day.  He was like a kindly grandfather,  incredibly well spoken and knowledgeable.  I'm sure he'd given this speech dozens of times over the past decade yet he was very engaging.  I was charmed by his authoritative voice with its strong New York accent.

Vic handed headsets out to us and asked if anyone had lost a loved one in the tragedy.  Out of the dozen or so in the group, one woman raised her hand. She was an instructor from Columbia University and had brought a group of foreign students on the tour.

Our first stop was in front of the detailed bronze murals that cover the walls of FDNY 10 House across from the Memorial.

After leading us through the maze of construction and security and into the memorial site, Vic held up a large photograph of the twin towers taken shortly after the first one was hit, showing smoke billowing out of the skyscraper.

Vic had been part of World Trade Centre Security in 1993 when a bomb had exploded in the Centre's public parking garage.  He'd been instrumental in the changes made to security and everyone had been confident that the towers were safe from future attacks.  

He described how shocking it was when the planes hit in 2001.  The structures would have been able to withstand the impact of a small plane perhaps lost in the fog, or a larger plane that had mechanical trouble and had ditched it's fuel.  They never  imagined a fully fuelled commercial airplane crashing through the building at close to 500 mph.  Vic's words were steady, measured and technical; the exact time of the events, the tower structure, the weight of the fuel, the speed of the planes.  He gave us time to walk around the park and instructed us to meet him not far from the waterfalls in ten minutes.  As I walked  towards the memorial fountains, over my headset I could hear the sound of him sniffing back tears.

We took a few photographs and though I hadn't lost anyone in the tragedy, I was surprised to find myself drawn to a spot where a family name was engraved into the granite.  When Vic called us back together our group gathered around him, standing in the shade of nearby trees or perching on concrete seating.

Vic had been on the 35th floor of the North Tower when it was struck between floors 93 and 99.  He headed immediately to the Security Command Centre in the South Tower,  and in command mode he put his team in motion.  One woman was in a panic, she need to get to her children and Vic encouraged her to go home. Vic gave instructions to his crew and he returned to the north tower lobby, herding people out the main door.  A Fire Fighter soon came in and requested he send people out through the concourse below the building.  

When the news of the second plane came over the radio Vic could not comprehend what was happening.  The South Tower was saying they'd been hit.  A second plane?  He wondered if they were so traumatized they were just repeating what had just happened at the North Tower.  He walked outside the building and couldn't believe his eyes.  His first thought as he looked at the south tower, now engulfed in smoke, was that they were going to have to rebuild 32 floors.  He spoke to a fellow commander as he bent down pick up the helmet of Father Judge, the FDNY Chaplain, not knowing at the time that the Chaplain had been killed by a falling body.  

Through Vic's story it was easy to feel the closeness and the caring relationship that he had with his co-workers and what a family they really were.  Each loss he told us of was heartbreaking, yet he continued doing his job, helping others leave while he stayed behind.  Though he was risking his own life, he never mentioned this fact.   As he continued his tale, his voice continued strong and unwavering.  Tears had been streaming down my cheeks almost since the beginning of Vic's story and as I looked around me, many faces reflected my own.  

The two men continued to stand outside the tower surrounded by debris, when suddenly, they heard the tremendous noise of metal screeching and straining.  Vic shouted "Let's get the hell out of here!" and they ran.  They didn't get far before they were overtaken by clouds of dust and falling debris.  Vic described his struggle as every bit of daylight disappeared and he was knocked to the ground.  Though his instinct was to get up and run, he couldn't see his hand in front of his face.  He moved forward carefully through pitch black surroundings, and though he tried to cover his mouth, to keep a little pocket of air, there was little to be had.  There was no choice but to breath in the dust saturated air until it finally settled.

I can't remember the details of the rest of Vic's story. I did fumble for my iPhone during the talk, thinking I might be able to somehow record it, but as I began to put my phone to my earpiece I realized it probably wouldn't work and I would likely be a lose-lose situation,  getting a bad recording and not be able to hear him properly.  I chose to live in the moment instead of saving it for later and slipped my phone back into my purse.

We had some time to look around the park a little more.  Though I'm sure they meant no disrespect, after hearing of Vic's experience it seemed a bit ghoulish to see people posing with wide smiles in front of the Memorial fountains.

Rebuilding in the form of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Centre site.
We gathered one last time as a group, to ask our questions and thank Vic for sharing his story with us.  When someone inquired about his health we were happy to hear that he was fine but despite the fact that it seemed obvious that people were getting ill from the exposure to toxic chemicals from the incident and the recover process, not enough people had died yet to make a correlation.  There would be little government help or money until there was statistical basis.  

Vic thanked us for coming and shared his thoughts on the bravery and courage of the men and women that were part of that tragic day.  He left us with this quote from an unknown source:

"All gave some..." he began.  His voice broke and he paused.  His eyes filled with tears and his strong voice trembled as he finished, "...some gave all."

Note June 2015:  While doing some research for a writing assignment I came across this submission by Vic Guarnera detailing his 9/11 experience


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