Sept. 11, 2016, was a tough one for me, perhaps the toughest Sept. 11 since 2001. You see, I was privileged to meet and hear the story of Michael Hingson and his guide dog, Rozelle, who survived the World Trade Center bombing by walking down the steps from the 78th floor.
Now, I’ve heard stories from close friends who were in lower Manhattan, very near the site on that fateful day. And I’ve heard stories from close friends who were supposed to be in the towers on that day, but by some fluke they were not. And I knew people who did not survive the attacks. But this is the first time I heard a personal account from someone who was in the building when the first plane hit and survived.
It took me back to that day, that beautiful September day. I remember it like it was yesterday – the clear blue skies and the crisp air as I walked the half mile or so from the parking lot to my building. I remember sitting at my desk in Albany, at a job that I had just started in April, in my office with the enormous east-facing windows. Through those windows I witnessed the planes coming from Logan Airport as they reached the Hudson River and turned south.
Now obviously I didn’t know at the time that the planes were coming from Boston and I didn’t have any idea what was about to occur, but I do remember thinking it odd that the planes turned at the river instead of using the typical flight pattern that would take them a few miles west to the Albany airport.
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I remember my new boss coming to my desk to tell me what had just happened in New York City, some 150 miles away. I remember going next door to the deputy commissioner’s office, where a TV had been turned on and video of the plane flying into the building seemed to be playing on an infinite loop. I remember a state government that didn’t (at the time) close for anything – not blizzards, not power outages, not ice storms, not three feet of snow in a matter of hours on an April day – sending its workforce home mid-day.
But on that day, as hundreds and then thousands of workers poured onto the highway at the same time in what was usually a pretty cutthroat commute, it seemed like people couldn’t out-polite each other enough, slowing to allow cars to merge in front of them, giving each other a wide berth as we slowly migrated down the highway. In our shock and daze, no one darted from lane to lane, trying to get to the front of the line. No one cut anyone off. We were all in this together. We were all trying our best to take care of each other – friends, family and strangers alike.
As people streamed down the steps of a building on fire, where no one really knew what had happened or what they were walking into, Michael’s primary goal was to limit everyone’s fear, to keep them from panicking. As FDR said in his inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”And that was Michael Hingson’s message – we are all in this together. Choosing fear serves no one. Forming opinions, making judgments and decisions from a place of fear and hate brings out the worst in us. It certainly doesn’t make us great.
That day we all took care of each other, and for some time afterward.
And so today, 16 years later, I shake my head and wonder. What happened? How did we get to this place where every day we are surrounded by horrible vitriol? Where we wrap ourselves in the flag and stand unshakably self-righteous? Where we point fingers, unwilling to see the part that we played when something goes wrong? Where we are too busy composing our next argument to hear what the other person is saying?
But more important, I ask, how do we get out?
Charlene Swanson resides in Morrisville.