In Search of a Safe Harbor

After September 11, would we ever be free from terror?

Ten years ago my husband and I embarked on a year-long adventure at sea with our four sons. One leg of our journey took us to Albany, New York, where we docked our boat at a marina on the Hudson River. We'd planned to be in New York City by then, but we'd made a spontaneous decision to take a road trip to Boston for the weekend instead.

The morning after we returned to our boat, a jumbo jet flew directly overhead, unbeknownst to us, and minutes later crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Had we made it to the marina we'd planned to dock at in New York City, we would surely have had a front row seat to the entire catastrophe. The marina itself became a morgue for the bodies they extricated from the rubble.

I've always viewed our decision to go to Boston as one of God's tender mercies toward our family. When we finally pulled into the New York harbor three weeks later, Ground Zero was still smoldering, and the trauma of 9-11 was as pungent and breathtaking as the ash and odor that lingered in the air.

On our first trek into the city, we stood on a corner within full view of the twisted steel. Handmade posters pleading for any information about people still missing remained plastered on every surface. An inch of debris covered stacks of jeans that lay neatly folded in a Gap whose storefront windows had been blown out in the blast. The air smelled like an incinerator.

Time stood still. People moved slower. There was an odd hush in a place and at a time when the street would have been a cacophony of humanity on any other normal day. As we stood there, not tourists but living historians, I realized I was shoulder to shoulder with a woman who was crying.

"This must be very hard for you," I said. "I'm so sorry." She stared at the wreckage and said, "This is my first time back since I left work on 9-11."

She likely had friends whose bodies had been scattered to the wind in the aftermath of those terrible plane crashes. The shards that clung to every surface weren't just dust and broken glass, they were bone fragments too. We were standing in a graveyard, not a street corner.

To make matters worse, one day after arriving in New York City, we visited NBC Studios. The next day they announced that they had received a letter laced with anthrax. A new terror seemed to lurk at every turn.

We struggled to know how to help our kids process the events that were unfolding before us. Every fiber of our beings wanted to sail far, far away from America as fast as our boat could carry us. And yet there was no safe harbor that could shield us from the reality that the world as we knew it had changed. Ten years later, there's still no safe harbor in this world.

September 06, 2011 at 4:24 PM

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