Every generation has “Where were you when this happened?” events. I still remember where I was when I heard about the Challenger disaster and the death of Princess Diana. In the latter case I had returned to the house with my girlfriend when my mother came to the top of the stairs and told us of the tragedy. I remember among the surprise and sadness that I felt I also experienced a sense of self -transcendence, for I recognized that I would always remember this moment. That’s the way these moments are: they wear their self-importance, their gravitas, on their sleeve.
Events like these help unify a people and give them a common narrative. While some of these events are wonderful moments (e.g. the moon landing) it seems that a disproportionate number are tragedies. None of these events in the West unifies us more powerfully in our current age than the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 was a tragedy and an evil act of unprecedented scope for the West. Yesterday I gained a new appreciation for the extent to which wonderful moments came through this particular tragedy.
It all started when I received an email from J_Riv recommending I watch a twelve minute documentary on a little known aspect of 9/11 called the “Boatlift”. It was an extraordinary event of self-mobilization where people caring for people undertook a massive evacuation of Manhattan. And the result was the largest aquatic evacuation in human history.
I’ll admit that as I watched the film with the hindsight of history I didn’t have the sense of urgency about the event that one would have had at Dunkirk where there was an imminent threat. But then I brought myself back to that morning as I reminded myself of the obvious: people living on Manhattan didn’t know that. For all they knew, the entire island was going to be destroyed in a massive aerial assault. With that thought I put myself back to that morning. I woke up, turned on the TV, and saw live footage of billows of smoke pouring out of the Twin Towers. Then the collapse. America was under attack. The Pentagon was hit. Another plane down in Pennsylvania. Reports that Denver may be under assault. A Korean airliner enroute to Anchorage that was believed to be highjacked and was forced to land in Whitehorse, Yukon. All North American airspace shut down.
It was frightening to be following all of this in benign, boring Vancouver. Now imagine that you have a boat in New Jersey and you’re taking it right into Ground Zero. After all, Ground Zero wasn’t merely a span of a few city blocks. At that time it was the entire island. For all they knew, those brave souls were on a suicide mission. And still they came.
In retrospect they may not have saved the citizens of New York from an aerial bombardment. But they did save them from untold health complications due to the breathing of the toxic fumes created by the Towers’ collapse. And in doing so they added a truly wonderful moment to the unifying tragedy of our age.
Check out the film here: