I have never forgotten a piece Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal a year after the Twin Towers were destroyed. It was called The Fall After Sept. 11, and her words have haunted me every year this terrible day rolls around:
"The other day I walked by Saint Vincent's Hospital in downtown Manhattan and thought, as I always do when I walk by: This is where they waited for the wounded. The interns and nurses waited outside right here with gurneys for patients who didn't come. Because so few people were "wounded." The three thousand were dead. What happened to them? They were exploded into air. They became a cloud. We breathed them in."
The stories today will all repeat the same dull statistic: "nearly 3000" died in all of the attacks that day, in New York, the Pentagon, and Shanksville. The numbers were tallied, concentrating on New York, mostly because it was all so very televised, so endlessly replayable. Times of impact: 8:46 AM and 9:02 AM. Time the burning towers stood: 56 minutes and 102 minutes. Time they took to fall: 12 seconds. 2819 dead from 115 different nations. 343 Fireman/paramedics, 23 NYPD, 37 Port Authority officers. Official estimates of how many people leapt from the buildings vary from 50 to 200. That's just New York.
They weren't "nearly 3000." Not numbers. They were 2,977 of our citizens and neighbors and friends and families, who got up on a boring Tuesday morning, got dressed and went to work, who were murdered by 19 methodical madmen. They all have names, and faces, and stories, and lives they touched in life and in death.
One of the most famous and horrific photos taken that day was of a man who jumped out of a window of the North Tower. An AP photographer captured forever his last moment as he hung suspended in mid-air, now for eternity. It's come to be called "The Falling Man." He was anonymous for many years, until the image was finally identified as being of Jonathon Briley, a 43-year-old man who worked in the Windows On the World restaurant at the top of the building. His sister Gwendolyn was interviewed after being told that the iconic image was of her brother. She said,
"I never thought of the Falling Man as Jonathan. I thought of him as a man that just took his life in his hands for just one second.
"Did that person have so much faith that he knew that God would catch him - or was he so afraid to experience the end?"In 2010, Vice President Joseph Biden and his wife Jill spoke in New York City at Zuccotti Park. He read portions of the poem "The Builders" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
All are architects of Fate,
Working in these walls of Time;
Some with massive deeds and great,
Some with ornaments of rhyme.
Nothing useless is, or low;
Each thing in its place is best;
And what seems but idle show
Strengthens and supports the rest.
For the structure that we raise,
Time is with materials filled;
Our to-days and yesterdays
Are the blocks with which we build.
Truly shape and fashion these;
Leave no yawning gaps between;
Think not, because no man sees,
Such things will remain unseen.
In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods see everywhere.
Let us do our work as well,
Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house, where Gods may dwell,
Beautiful, entire, and clean.
Else our lives are incomplete,
Standing in these walls of Time,
Broken stairways, where the feet
Stumble as they seek to climb.
Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.
Thus alone can we attain
To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
And one boundless reach of sky.