Woog's World: Reflecting on tragedy 50 miles from Westport that changed the world forever
Published 7:31 am, Saturday, September 13, 2014
One day -- Sept. 11, 2001 -- changed every American's life forever. We know it now -- and we sensed it then. Thirteen years after that fateful day, the memories are still strong. The emotions remain raw.
On Thursday, we remembered that awful day. Today, it's instructive to look back on my Sept. 14, 2001, "Woog's World" column. I wish I had been wrong when I wrote:
It was a bit past noon on Tuesday, the Tuesday that will change all of our lives forever.
Fifty miles from Westport, smoke billowed from what, just hours before, was the World Trade Center.
A number of Westporters once worked there. The twin towers were never particularly beautiful, but in their own way they were majestic. Whether driving past them on the New Jersey Turnpike, flying near them coming in to the airport, or taking out-of-town friends or relatives to the top, we took a certain amount of pride in them.
We're Westporters, but in a way we're also New Yorkers. The World Trade Center symbolized that, though we live in suburban Connecticut, we all feel in some way connected to the most exciting, glamorous, powerful city in the world.
And now that same city was under attack. From the largest McMansion to the most modest Westport home, men and women frantically tried to make contact with spouses, relatives and friends who work in downtown Manhattan.
Staples High School teenagers, who grew up thinking the worst thing that can happen is wearing the wrong shirt or shoes, were engaged in a similar quest.
Many of their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers work in New York. Many others knew loved ones who were flying that morning, or in Washington, or somewhere else that might possibly become the next city under siege.
Meanwhile, on Whitney Street, a pretty young woman dressed in her best late-summer clothes rode a bicycle down the road.
It was, after all, a beautiful day. Along the East Coast there was not a cloud n the sky -- not, that is, unless you count the clouds filled with flames, dust and debris erupting from the collapse of the World Trade Center.
It was a perfect day to ride a bicycle, unless of course you were terrified you had lost a loved one, were glued to a television set wherever you could find one, or were so overwhelmed by grief and rage and fright and confusion because you had no idea what was next for America that riding a bicycle was absolutely the furthest thing from your mind.
On the other hand, perhaps riding a bicycle was exactly the right reaction. Perhaps doing something so innocent, so routine, so life-affirming, was just was some of us should have been doing.
If tragedy teaches us anything, it is that human beings react to stress in a variety of ways. Who is to say that riding a bicycle is not the perfect way to tell Osama bin Laden, or whoever turns out to be responsible for these dastardly deeds, that America's spirit will not be broken?
But I could not have ridden a bicycle down the road on Tuesday. I sat, transfixed, devouring the television coverage of events that, in their own way, may turn out to be as transforming for this world as Pearl Harbor was nearly 60 years earlier.
I could not bear to watch what I was seeing, but neither could I tear myself away. Each time I saw the gaping holes in those two towers, every time I saw those enormous symbols of strength and power and (even in these economically shaky times) American prosperity crumble in upon themselves like a silly disaster movie, the scene was more surreal than the previous time.
Life will be equally surreal for all of us for a long time to come.
I wondered, as I watched the video shots of the jet planes slam into the World Trade Center over and over and over again, what must have been going through each passenger's mind.
Like many Westporters, I fly often. Like most, I grumble about the delays and crowded planes, but like them too I feel a secret, unspoken thrill every time the sky is clear, the air is blue and the scenery terrific. Tuesday was that kind of day.
For the rest of my life, I suspect, flying will never be the same. And the increased security we will face at every airport, on each plane, is only part of what I fear.
So much remains to be sorted out. We will hear, in the days to come, of Westporters who have lost family members and friends in the World Trade Center. We will hear too of those who have lost their jobs when their companies collapsed, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the terrorism.
We will drive along the New Jersey Turnpike, or stand on a particular street in Manhattan, perhaps even take out-of-town guests to gaze at the landmark we will come to call "the place the twin towers used to be."
Our casual grocery store and soccer sideline conversations will be filled with stories: Who was where when the terror first hit and what happened in the hours after.
Our newspapers and airwaves will be clogged with experts trying to explain -- though that will never be possible -- what it all means for us, in the short term and long term, as individuals and a society.
Our world has already changed, in ways that will take years, if not decades, to understand. We are nowhere close to comprehending the meaning of all this.
The world will go on, of course. Our planet will continue to spin; men and women will continue to commute to New York, and pretty women in Westport will continue to ride bicycles down Whitney Street.
At the same time, sadly, none of that will ever be the same.