Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

9/11

Policemen and firemen run away from the huge dust cloud caused as the World Trade Center's Tower One collapses after terrorists crashed two hijacked planes into the twin towers, September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo: Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images)

My Memories of 9/11 and the Fool's Errand of Destroying Terrorism With Violence

New York has not been the same since the events of September 11, 2001. Twenty years after that dreadful day, the echoes of the tragedy persist.

César Chelala

A fateful day

I remember vividly the terrible day when our lives—and our world—changed forever. What promised to be a peaceful September morning turned into a nightmare. As usual, that day—a beautiful diaphanous day with a very clear sky—my wife and I woke up about 7 am. We had breakfast and she left for work on Long Island, about 45 minutes from home. I was planning to have a working lunch at the United Nations headquarters.

Experience has shown that violence begets violence and intolerance breeds intolerance.

I was listening to the radio in my apartment, a few blocks from Ground Zero, when the plane hit the first tower. I could hear the cries from the street below, "Oh, no, no, no!" "Oh, my God!" I ran downstairs just in time to see the second tower crumble like a sandcastle. It was 9:59 A.M. I joined others rushing to the spot when a large group of people came running back shouting: "Go back, go back, for God's sake, go back!" We rushed back only to discover later that it was a false alarm—that there would be no more attacks on the towers after the second plane hit. Without fully understanding the significance of events, I felt that a relatively peaceful way of life had been replaced by a darker, more sinister one. A great sadness came over me.

Soon after, we learned the details of what had happened and heard stories and saw pictures of those who had thrown themselves voluntarily to their certain death rather than remain trapped inside an inferno. Richard Drew, who photographed one of the iconic images of that fateful day, the "Falling Man," the lonely image of a man falling to his death with one of the towers in the background said recently that for him it was the image of the Unknown Soldier. An estimated seven percent of those killed in the attack on September 11 did so by jumping into the void from their offices.

We also heard heartbreaking stories about people we knew who were killed that day. One, the son of friends, had just enough time to call his brother and say, "Please tell Mom and Dad that I love them a lot, as I love you," before the line went dead. To this day his parents have not regained their joie de vivre. Or the employee of a large company who had left the Towers, then called his wife to say he was fine after the first tower had been hit, and then returned to retrieve documents from his desk and died when the fire ravaged his office.

Lack of communication

After the second attack on the Towers, I tried to contact my wife at work. It was impossible to communicate by phone with her. I learned, however, that I could call the Borough of Queens, where a medical colleague, Dr. Juan Rivolta lived. I wanted to see if I could communicate with my wife through him. I summarized what had happened. He thought I was joking, but changed his attitude when he heard the desperation in my voice and finally was convinced when I told him to turn on the TV.

Juan was able to communicate with my wife and told me that she was safe. When we spoke later that day, she explained that soon after arriving at her college, someone had called the office so they turned on the TV and were able to witness the horror of the events taking place. Since virtually all roads leading to New York City were closed, my wife stayed at a colleague's house for the next three days.

A life-saving dog

It seems impossible that anyone trapped inside the towers could have survived. Yet that is what happened to 20 people, including some firefighters and police officers and an administrative secretary of the Port Authority, Genelle Guzman-McMillan. As Matthew Shaer tells it in New York magazine, Genelle followed a group of colleagues to the smoke-filled stairway. As they descended, Genelle was certain that she would survive and could go down and meet her boyfriend, as they had planned. However, when the building collapsed, she suddenly lost her balance and was dragged to the ground floor, surrounded by tons of cement and steel. Finally, she stopped and felt something soft and warm under her—it was a dead person. She remained silent for 27 hours, praying and asking God for her life. A German Labrador named Trakr found her.

The shock people experienced as a result of the attacks perhaps mirrored the shock that Americans felt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Such was the state of fear that the noise of aircraft crossing the sky was enough to frighten New Yorkers. Such fears led to unexpected reactions. A friend, an art teacher at a university in New York, told me recently, "Although I am a total agnostic, I must confess that after the attacks I felt something strange as if my house had been invaded by ghosts whose steps I seemed to hear at night. I was so frightened that I asked a Buddhist priest to exorcize my apartment and assure me that I was not going crazy."

A final reflection

Will we ever be able to eliminate terrorism? Twenty years after the attack on the World Trade Center Towers, terrorist groups still exist and cast a dark shadow over the world. Experience has shown that violence begets violence and intolerance breeds intolerance. To pretend that military force by itself will solve the problems besieging countries in conflict is a fool's errand. Unless a new approach to preventing terrorist acts is used, we will continue to live under the threat of terror.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant, co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

US Urged to End Drone Strikes After Pentagon Says Killing 10 Afghan Civilians Was 'Horrible Mistake'

"That was not a 'mistake,'" said journalist Anand Giridharadas. "War crimes are not oopsies."

Brett Wilkins ·


40+ NYC Activists Arrested for Protests Against Banks Fueling Climate Emergency

"We're sending a message loud and clear that the little action that politicians and greenwashing CEOs have taken so far does not begin to deal with the magnitude of this crisis."

Jessica Corbett ·


FDA Panel Recommends Pfizer Booster Shots for People 65+ and Especially Vulnerable

The scientific advisory committee voted down a recommendation for other adults.

Common Dreams staff ·


'What Betrayal Looks Like': UN Report Says World on Track for 2.7°C of Warming by 2100

"Whatever our so-called 'leaders' are doing," said Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, "they are doing it wrong."

Jake Johnson ·


Critics Warn Biden That 30% Methane Reduction by 2030 Not Good Enough

Following the new U.S.-E.U. pledge, climate campaigners called for an urgent end to fossil fuel extraction and major reforms of agricultural practices.

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo