Memories seared into the mind

September 11, 2006|By Mikael Elsila

Iwas an eyewitness to 9/11. I was living in Brooklyn and I commuted to work by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. On my way to work, I heard a passerby say that the World Trade Center was on fire. I scrambled up to the bridge and saw flames coming out of one of the towers and thick, black smoke. I could also see what looked like a gaping hole. It was around 9:30 a.m.

My mind couldn't grasp the fact that steel and glass were on fire. I started walking toward the flames. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were streaming at me in the opposite direction. Some were crying.

I made it to the corner of Church and Chambers. There were hundreds of people staring up at the burning towers. I remember being hypnotized by the sight: You couldn't take your eyes off it. I clearly remember seeing a small shape fall out of one of the towers. It fell quickly, as if it were heavy. Hours later, I realized that I had probably seen a person jump to his death.

I soon got an intuition that I had better get out of there. A slow panic was spreading, and many people started hurrying north on Church, myself included. I caught the A train at Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. I found out that a short time later, the towers collapsed. I had left the scene at the right time.

Once at my job, I called my parents in Michigan and told them I was all right - they hadn't heard the news yet. I called my girlfriend (now my wife) and woke her up and told her I was all right; she didn't know what had happened. Soon after, all the phones went dead.

I worked normally for a few hours, following the news on the Internet. Gradually, I learned what happened. Soon, everyone at work was dismissed.

I knew that the subways had been shut down. I could easily walk the 1 1/2 hours home to Brooklyn, but I heard all of the bridges were closed. So I walked instead to my girlfriend's apartment on the Upper West Side.

We burst into tears when we saw each other. I spent the next two weeks at her apartment, not wanting to go back to Brooklyn. Every day we could smell acrid smoke, the smell of burning plastic and office supplies, even though we were about 100 blocks away from the twin towers.

Two weeks later, I went back to Brooklyn. Soldiers toting machine guns greeted me at the Brooklyn Bridge. My apartment was covered in a fine white powder: I had left the windows open, and dust from the towers had come in. The neighborhood was ashy, and it stank.

The weeks after: more soldiers guarding Penn Station. Jet fighters flying low passes around Manhattan. People gasping when ordinary planes flew low approaches overheard. Daily fear and the acceptance of it.

There was a strong need for people to be together. Almost every day, I went to Union Square, where hundreds of people had set up memorials for their loved ones, missing and presumed dead.

People gathered spontaneously, set up flowers and thousands of candles, placed photographs and poems, engaged in political arguments and played music.

Many months later, I visited Ground Zero for the first time. It was just a bunch of blocked-off streets, some fencing and the rumble of construction equipment. There was no place to get a perspective. What I remember most was the smell, like burning plastic. It burned my lungs. It hurt to be there.

Mikael Elsila lives in Philadelphia and works in New York City.

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