Letter to the editor: A personal 9/11 experience
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Wiltshire is the father of history junior Matthew Wiltshire and was within 100 yards of the North Tower when it was hit on 9/11. Mark spoke at the 9/11 memorial service held Friday morning at the Student Center. These are his remarks.
I have been asked to speak to the school as one who was at the World Trade Center during the attack on 9/11. I want to remind you of those events and to say a few words about what, in my view, would be a respectful way of remembering those who died on that day.
When I think back, I see that 9/11 began for me at 12:17 p.m. on February 26, 1993. At that time, I sat at my desk on the 59th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, men who were motivated by the same terrorist ideology as those who attacked us on 9/11 tried to kill me and others by exploding a bomb along the south foundation of the North Tower.
The terrorists’ intent was to collapse the North Tower to the south, so as to bring down the South Tower as well. The ultimate objective was to kill the approximately 50,000 occupants of the towers and thousands of others who would have died in the field of debris. Although it failed in its intent, this first attack killed six people and injured more than 1,000.
On the morning of September 11th, as I disembarked from a small ferry that ran from Hoboken to the World Trade Center, I stood perhaps 100 yards from the North Tower, and watched flames billowing from its upper floors.
The tower had been hit by an airplane as I crossed the Hudson River. As I now watched, I thought of the more than 400 friends and colleagues who I knew would be attempting to escape from the middle floors of that building. I thought of my own two-hour decent, eight years before — when I had made my way through acrid black smoke that had at times blocked out all light, made breathing painful and swallowing impossible, when I had retreated back up flights of stairs and had helped others break through doors in search of breathable air and a safe passage down, and when, having found a working telephone, I called my wife to say “goodbye.”
As I thought about that, I also observed the people around me. The crowd was largely silent. The silence was interrupted in my memories only by the sounds of weeping, as people looked up and contemplated what must be happening on those floors so high in the sky.
Then the silence was further interrupted by what would become the defining auditory memory that I carry from that day. A high-pitched sound that at first I heard only half consciously as I continued to focus on what was happening before me. But at some point, the sound became sufficiently intrusive so as to wholly interrupt my focus on the tower. I had not heard the sound before that day, and have not heard it since.
When I try to describe it, I produce the sound of the vowel that we call the “long e”. At first, I whisper it softly, increasing the volume to a loud, high-pitched scream. The scream was at its loudest and almost at its end when it forced my thoughts away from the tower, and I turned to see the large jet with its engines open at full throttle barely above my head and just off my right shoulder. There was perhaps five seconds separating the turning of my head and the ghastly explosion of fire and debris and families that blew out the tower’s other side.
Over the years, I have said that, at that moment, I observed at first hand the profound change that occurred across America on that day. I have described the change as follows: before the second plane flew over our heads, people were silently contemplating or crying over a tragedy that was playing out before them. They had all probably done this in some fashion before when confronted by a great tragedy here or there in the world. The tragedy before them now was distinguished mostly by its immediacy, which focuses the mind.
However, within seconds of this second plane’s hitting its target, no one remained sitting, everyone was in some kind of either purposeful or merely reactive motion. Most were running. Many were yelling, most of which I don’t recall what.
But I will always remember the faces of people looking about, frantically searching the skies and the water around them, in deep, personal fear and screaming: “They’re attacking us!” Not “them.” Not “The World Trade Center”. But: “us!” People now understood that they were no longer observing a tragedy that invited silent weeping for others. People now understood that they — individually, personally, their friends, their families —stood at the center and as an object of the attack, and they scanned the world around them to see what else might be coming, and whether they, too, would die that day.
My own response after the second plane hit was to step behind a stone wall to gain protection from the crowd that was now rushing to escape northward, away from the attack and up the river. As the crowd thinned, I began my own walk north, a walk that was interrupted again and again by street crowds looking to the south and yelling “Look! Look!” In curiosity, I did look. But only once. One really doesn’t need to look more than once in one’s life at humans leaping to their deaths from 100 floors. But I was one of the lucky survivors I had colleagues who in their escape had walked through and over these same bodies, and their lives were changed that day.
The “profound change” that I say swept across America on the morning of Sept. 11 would have little lasting impact. We have largely returned to what some will call “normal.” For myself, I am glad that the intensity of the fears and the unfocused anger of that day have receded, that motion have abated. My nine year old daughter, having directly observed the smoke and debris rising from the fallen tower in which she knew her father to work and in which she assumed he had perished, was severely traumatized and would undergo a long period of counseling before, in her young words at the time, she would fulfill her wish to become “happy again, like I used to be.”
We should be thankful for the healing that has occurred for many people who were
injured physically, emotionally and spiritually that day.
Nevertheless, and this is the point that I want to leave you with, it is important that we learn from our experiences, that we glean truths that (unlike many of our emotions) do not fade with the passing days.
Following the events of 9/11, I finally asked myself “Who are these people who are so willing to sacrifice their own lives in the cause of the slaughter of innocents? What is their motivation?” Almost to the last man, the terrorists themselves are open and articulate in describing a shared, violent ideology.
I believe that there are two principle things that we can now do to show respect for those who have died, and for those who most surely will die in the future, at the hands of men motivated by that ideology. First, we need to seriously study and understand the motivations of their killers. This means that we need to understand the ideology that unites them. You cannot fight ideas that you have not taken the time to understand them. Second, while we rightly embrace people of all cultures and all religions who accept our friendship, we need to remain firm in our commitment to values that are under attack by this ideology, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion and
the separation between civil law and religious authority.
We need to remain firm in our commitment to such values, and stand ready to defend against those who wish to do us harm.