“It’s suddenly critically important to keep that kernel of humanness. It’s not optional anymore. There’s something that keeps human beings human and we’d better understand it and share it.”—Rosemary
We conclude our focus on Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses with a couple of excerpts from the book. (For more excerpts click here.)
One of the organizing concepts of Until the Fires Stopped Burning are the “zones of sadness,” which distinguish the different ways people experienced and were affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center. From the section on Zone 1, those who were most immediately affected:
Nothing matches the immediacy of experience in the first zone of sadness. It was in that zone stretching from inside the towers to approximately Chambers Street to the north and Wall Street and the end of Battery Park to the south, to the Hudson River to the west and the East River to the east that survivors actually encountered death. This zone is approximate, for many within a few blocks of the World Trade Center had their view obscured by other buildings, and some at quite a distance witnessed death directly. (People standing on the shoreline of Hoboken, for example, reported seeing people jump, though they could not see them hit the ground.) What matters most about the experience in this first zone, however, is that there was nothing symbolic in what people saw, heard, and felt. It took no act of imagination to enter into the direct experience of the disaster. For everyone close to the violence of the World Trade Center disaster it was shocking, abrupt, extreme, scary, completely out of context, and it almost always had a lasting effect. None of the survivors discussed in this chapter had any physical injuries as a result of their experiences that day, though it is often forgotten that quite a few people close to the burning and then collapsing towers, especially first responders and the thousands of people escaping from the inside, suffered injuries. But they carried with them a different kind of pain and stories worth probing in some detail. It is from within the human experiences of survivors, and perhaps only in that context, that one can hope to understand the disaster.
In the conclusion, Charles Strozier draws on the account of a survivor struggling to come to grips with the event of September 11 and to move on from them:
Authentic hope is always qualified. Otherwise, it is mere optimism, which is false in its very nature because it assumes a rosy future. Rosemary said:
I mean I don’t know. I don’t know. For myself, I feel like I’ve walked into such a new reality. Not that it wasn’t there before, but just nothing ever made me look at it and I’m standing here looking at it. And it’s really hard to look at. And I don’t know what to do about it. And right now I don’t feel like I have a whole lot of strength to do anything. But I’m hoping that it doesn’t last too long ‘cause I really have to do something. I have three grandchildren and a lot of kids that I care about, a lot of kids.
That thought of her grandchildren brought Rosemary to her most important general formulation: “It’s suddenly critically important to keep that kernel of humanness. It’s not optional anymore. There’s something that keeps human beings human and we’d better understand it and share it.”