9/11: Survivor's story awakens feelings

This year in the midst of coronavirus and my personal agony I also lived through the testament of a 9/11 survivor, which I have read and reread a few times.

Gazing out at the altered skyline from a perch in Brooklyn, August 14 (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
Gazing out at the altered skyline from a perch in Brooklyn, August 14
(photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
A 9/11 survivor writes, “September 11, 2001 became a day that would change my life in many ways, and this was the point that I entered a new direction for my life.”
Since the horrific tragedy of 9/11 pierced my life and that of my late wife, Rita, in such an emphatic manner, I have been looking for a survivor who would tell me more about his/her experience. This year in the midst of coronavirus and my personal agony I also lived through the testament of a 9/11 survivor, which I have read and reread a few times.
The survivor did not take the regular commuter train on the morning of 9/11 because of a local election where the vote was cast. Transferring to the subway, the survivor recalled the turmoil on the arrival at the World Trade Center station. Passengers were trying to leave the station through the regular exits; most couldn’t.
“There was one exit on the north end of the station platform that led directly out onto the street. We lined up, single file, to escape the station through that exit.”
The reality hit home.
“When I got to the street at the top of the stairs, I could not believe what I was seeing. The street was strewn with metal, concrete, pieces of broken glass and other debris that had fallen from the upper floors of Tower One.”
 Then it happened.
“When I looked up to the north face of the building toward the top of the 110-story building, I saw a gaping hole in the shape of an airplane.”
The survivor’s office was a number of floors down on 73rd floor of the north face from where the first plane had hit. Just after the survivor contacted his family, at 9:59 a.m., the building where he was shook.
“I had never experienced a significant earthquake, but this felt like one. That shaking was the South Tower collapsing down in 10 seconds and causing a massive dust cloud that engulfed the entire lower Manhattan and drifted for miles. Within a few minutes the street outside the office windows became pitch black from this dust cloud and an odor from the debris penetrated the windows.”
MY WIFE and I were lucky. Our youngest son and his wife and one-year-old son were out of the USA on 9/11. How fortunate they were because where they worked, was next to the Twin Towers, which fell on buildings around, crushing them as if they were tiny toys.
Why does 9/11 2001 sear me so deeply? My wife and I were 250 kilometers away in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In great fear and trepidation, we could only watch on television what was the greatest peacetime tragedy in American history. If we tired of being viewers, we could turn on the Internet or the radio. However, something happened to me, personally, in the wake of the terrible sadness on the part of America and the whole world. We saw on TV what people on the upper floors were doing.
“I walked,” the survivor wrote, “constantly looking back to the building [where the survivor had an office] to observe what was happening to the building, muttering to myself, ‘My friends are up there.’ As I looked, I saw among the papers flying out, larger images coming out of the building and free-falling to the ground. I realized that those were people trapped in the building who had to decide how to end their lives.” (The estimate is that over 200 people jumped or fell from the towers that day).
His back was toward the Towers so he did not see the second plane hit. A powerful moment for me as I read the survivor’s words dealing with another building collapse.
“At 10:28 we felt a repeat shaking, earthquake-like, and experienced another dust cloud effect visible through the windows.” Then it occurred. “That was when Tower One collapsed in a similar number of seconds [as the first one].” The realization of the fate of his close associates who worked in Tower One hit the survivor.
“That was the building where my office was, where my colleagues and friends were that morning. I could not handle it and became very overcome with emotion.”
Reading this testimony, I begin to understand better why 9/11 had such an impact on my wife and me.
A GLOVED hand rests on names of those who perished, at New York City’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The Tribute in Light will not be illuminated this year on the anniversary of the attacks due to corona restrictions. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)A GLOVED hand rests on names of those who perished, at New York City’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The Tribute in Light will not be illuminated this year on the anniversary of the attacks due to corona restrictions. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
HOW DOES one deal with a “holocaust” so immense when it was not the “Holocaust” that we Jews endured as a people? As it turned out for me, it was taking action and conducting tefillot (prayer) in my synagogue. This began with a meeting of the local clergy, ministers, priests and rabbis. We discussed fervently and openly what we, as the religious leaders of the city and adjacent small towns, should undertake to provide hope that would soothe the inhabitants of our particular area. Interestingly, the first group we wanted to touch were the college students in the area. To me, this meant that those involved in academic studies to build a future career should understand what had crashed into their lives.
As it happened, a former member of my congregation, Arthur Magida, had been asked by the Belief Network to prepare a statement that would be broadcast throughout the USA. His words were powerful.
Moreover, he had sent it to me for my own renewal. His words moved my wife and me as we mourned. What impacted on me so was that Magida, as you will see, provided a structure for people of all faiths to deal with those dark and trying days.
“Engage in ‘tikkun olam,’ says Judaism – repair the world. Make it a good world, an honorable world, a decent world. A world worthy of its Creator, who had such high hopes for it.”
Magida then began to deal with the tragedy that had occurred.
“Don’t inflict injury through act or deed to any sentient creature. Engage in good conduct, right conduct, blessed conduct. Recognize the specialness of all of us, our worth, our decency.”
There is a uniqueness in each of us that Magida wanted to emphasize so that we will better recognize who we are. “And now something indecent has happened and it strikes at the very core, not just of our nation, but at something deeper and more fragile than that; at our sense of who we are and what we are and how we are to live our lives. We try to repair the world and it collapses down on us. “
Like the prophets of old, he calls out.
“What can we do at such moments? Be kind and remember that we are not saintly, but impervious to calls for rage and revenge.”
Magida suggested a path on which to tread and in that calamitous time of 9/11 we needed to hear suggestions with clarity.
“Try to be loyal to the best part of ourselves... the remembrance that we harbor goodness and decency.”
He concluded comparing briefly the structural and human loss.
“More has been taken from us than two landmarks and yet-to-be counted lives; lacking such remembrance will scourge our humanity and our decency, which are too invaluable to be added to the notches already on the gun handles of those responsible for Tuesday’s frightful carnage.”
Immediately after receiving his poignant statement of sadness and hope, I asked my secretary to email it to all my congregants, members of Temple Israel. Two services in our synagogue were moving because they were linked with Jewish prayer and the tenets of Judaism. The first was the Shabbat service on the Friday night after 9/11. The world was certainly reeling; people were not sure what would be. At our regular Kabbalat Shabbat service, some 25 people normally might be in attendance.
I understood that this Shabbat it would be different. I asked the custodian to bring out 100 chairs as an addition to 75 seats in the chapel. The service had not begun; it had to be delayed since our congregants and others poured in and over 300 were present – adults, teenagers and some small children. No one was turned away – how necessary, I felt for them to be present.
When the service began, I asked everyone to rise and the cantor led us in the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Since our synagogue, like most, has an American flag proudly displayed, we all turned and looked at it. Some saluted, some put their hands over their heart, some of the American war veterans brought their caps and wore them for the service and some people cried – women and men. Those moments were parallel to what was transpiring in our city where almost every block had an American flag flying.
 The cantor led the service beautifully with his powerful and cultured voice – feeling patriotism with all of us, since he was a Russian immigrant who had become an American citizen. The mayor of Scranton was present because he was married to a member of the congregation. I had told him in advance that I would ask him to say a few words which he did by emphasizing that “many of my friends, American Jewish patriots, have served in war time and peace time to protect their nation. Now they and all of us must work hard to rebuild not just the buildings but to heal the wounds which this attack had caused.”
When I took the pulpit, I first asked everyone to rise and recite kaddish for the nephew of a doctor in our congregation. In his 30s, the young man had been killed in the Pentagon where he worked. Many people have forgotten that Washington DC was a major target, but the only place the first plane was able to hit was the Pentagon. A plane that the assailants first took over and then the passengers overpowered them, was headed for the White House. The passengers triumphed over these terrorists. Sadly, the plane went down and everyone aboard was killed. I read from president George Bush’s address to the nation the night of 9/11. Then I added a few of my own thoughts.
“I feel today that we are one nation, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, black and white and brown. We are one nation indivisible, united in our fear and outrage, our compassion and resolve from now on September 11 will be a second Memorial Day in honor of our civilian casualties of war.” I talked about our need to support our president and to reach out our hands to bring comfort and assistance to those who had lost loved ones. In the next month $760 million were donated to assist families who had suffered personal loss.
“Each of us is a reservoir of hope and strength,” I stressed. “Surely we all saw hope in the firefighters who stood in burning debris, with boots melting, trying so hard to find more survivors.
“That hope should be a part of all our lives. We must do what we can to help, v’im lo achshav amatai (if not now, when)?” Then I asked everyone present to rise and we offered a prayer for America and for all of us. As we stood, we sang Hatikvah as we looked proudly at the Israeli flag.
ANOTHER MOMENT strikes me about 9/11 as the High Holy Days 5781 approach.
For the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the membership had been notified that a young man who had grown up in the congregation and had celebrated his bar mitzvah in the main sanctuary would be present. Why? He was on his way to work in the Twin Towers when he was caught in a traffic jam so he was not able to reach the buildings that day. He was the synagogue’s own personal survivor.
A packed synagogue welcomed him with “Havenu Shalom Alechem” as he was called to the Torah. He chanted the berachot before and after the portion read by the cantor. Then I shared with him the words of Birkat HaGomel, which he recited with deep fervor. We all answered in the traditional way after his prayer was made. On the bima (platform) we hugged and kissed him and such was the case when he returned to his seat.
I have no idea what the young man whom we honored that morning has done since then, but the survivor, whose words we can read, has been involved with the 9/11 community. When 9/11 Tribute Museum opened, the survivor became a docent and guide in 2007; since the opening of the Museum on the site of the Twin Towers, the survivor leads tours retelling the story. The survivor wrote me that this has helped the healing of his soul.
“Because I survived, I want to tell the story of what happened that day, and the stories of those people who lost their lives just trying to do the things they did on a normal day so the murder of those people will not be in vain.”
The survivor concludes on this positive note.
“I also want to show that people who survived can move on and can make positive contributions to society in thankfulness.”
Dedicated to the memory of my loving wife, Rita, with whom I shared 58 years in many parts of the world, even Oklahoma. The strength of her love saved me on several occasions.