Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Years Ago

Elizabeth Zelvin

I can’t bring myself to write about mysteries today. Seven years ago, we who live in New York City experienced our own international terrorist thriller, and it was no fun at all. Apart from a few passing storms, we're having the same kind of fall weather as we did in 2001. September 11 was a beautiful day that year: crystal clear blue skies, sharply etched buildings, the trees in the park still shaggy and heavy-headed with green. In the weeks that followed, we who survived marveled at the heartbreakingly beautiful weather that went on and on as we struggled to get past the shock, mourn our losses, and figure out how to function in a world that had gone suddenly unsafe.

I heard the news at about the time the second plane hit. I had been running around the reservoir. I emerged from the park elated from my run, crossed Central Park West at 86th Street, and waved to the little guy who sells newspapers on the corner, who always greets me warmly even though I never buy a paper.

“An airplane has hit the World Trade towers!” he called out. “No, two planes!”

I’m sorry to say that at first, I underreacted.

“That’s terrible,” I responded politely as I continued to jog down 86th Street. I don’t ordinarily get caught up in disaster news. I’m not an avid follower of human tragedies and spectacular trials as televised and hashed over by commentators. And the reason I don’t buy the paper is that I prefer not to start my day with a dose of bad news. But as I gradually realized that normal traffic had stopped, that knots of people were huddled around the radios in cars parked on the street, I slowed down and finally stopped.

“What happened?” I asked. At last, I began to take in the magnitude of what we soon started calling 911, for the ironic convergence of the date and the numbers we dial for help in an emergency. This time, I was not a spectator. This was happening to me.

So deeply were people affected by the attacks that, to my relief, there was no exploitive rush to churn out books and movies on the topic. Five years later, novelists began writing their deeply felt 911 books, and special-effects-heavy disaster movies started to reappear. I know a couple of writers who thought they might never write again. To them, telling stories to entertain, especially stories of violence, seemed trivial and inappropriate in the circumstances.

I had a different reaction. I had not yet completed the first draft of what would become my first published mystery. At that time, I was involved with several songwriting groups, and song was the medium that came to me in which to grapple with the events of 911. I didn’t plan or choose it. The song came pouring through me on September 12 and was complete on September 13. I sang it the same day to fellow mental health professionals in a Red Cross van jouncing downtown to the respite centers where families were still hoping for news of survivors.

Here’s what I have to say about what happened in New York on September 11, 2001.

Two Tall Towers
(Click to hear the song)


Joyce said...

Beautiful tribute, Liz.

One of the saddest things to me is that after seven years, many people seem to have forgotten. The country has gone back to business as usual.

I live in Pittsburgh, but own property only three miles from where Flight 93 went down. I've been to the site where the plane went down. Even though dozens of people were milling around and reading the tributes left by other visitors, it was eerily quiet. There was a real reverence for the heroes who died that day.

Sheila Connolly said...

It has become one of our country's "where were you when" moments, like the day JFK was shot. I was writing, and listening to the local classical music station. The announcer said a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers; "some idiot in a small plane," I thought. Then came the second announcement, and I rushed to the television--and ended up watching Peter Jennings for three days straight. My husband was at a conference in Scotland, and for a day or so I was feeding news updates to the whole conference by phone.

It was a few days after the event that I realized my daughter had taken a picture of me when I was a chaperone for her class trip to NYC. We took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, and the picture shows me with the Towers behind me. It's still hard to look at it.

Pat Batta said...

Thank you for giving us a focal point for remembering this year. I've put my cry, written at the time, on It was too long to put in the comments here.

Sandra Parshall said...

I live in the DC area, but we didn't have the TV or a radio on when the attacks occurred, so the first I heard was when I got into the car to go to the library, turned on the radio, and heard talk of a terrorist attack on the Pentagon. We turned on the TV and discovered the full extent of the attacks.

I remember thinking, "Nothing will ever be the same again." And although it may seem that we're back to business as usual, our lives really have changed forever because we're now aware as a nation that not everybody loves America and wants to live here. Many people all over the world would like to wipe us from the face of the earth.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Beautiful, Liz. Yes, indeed, it changed an entire nation. Some ways good, some ways not. Thanks for sharing.

Julia Buckley said...

It's hard to think about that day, even now, and yet of course every time I wrote the date today I thought about it.

I remember how strange it was, living as close as we do to two Chicago airports, that the sky was empty and silent. Oddities like that were what made it feel that the world would never be the same again.