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Sanctuaries of Peace

No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. –Elie Wiesel

Remembering what we experienced on September 11, 2001, can be very difficult.  But sharing our memories and reflections of that day and its aftermath can help us give and gain a fresh perspective on our blessings as we foster peace in our lives.  Below are narrative fragments of what friends shared with me.

1.

David woke up the second he let go of his hang glider, moments before it crashed into an imaginary sea-side high-rise.  His eerily calm dream had turned into a nightmare that morning.  Shaken and very tired, he ran late to work at Dow Jones on the 57th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.  When he came out of the Fulton Street subway station in Downtown Manhattan, countless pieces of paper fluttered onto the streets from above.  The scene reminded him briefly of a traditional New York ticker-tape parade, except now the paper fell out of broken windows around a big, jagged hole that exhaled black smoke nonstop high in the North Tower.  Dazed and desperate people were everywhere.  “People were spilling toward me like a million ants.  Women were looking for people to hug so they could cry.  People were really scared.  I think I went into shock.”

2.

That morning, Nik paced back and forth in his Manhattan’s East Village apartment.  Upset for no tangible reason, he considered calling in sick to work when the first huge explosion rattled his windows and everything inside.  He remembers running in the blast’s direction, strangely unafraid.  From his window, he could see the North Tower burning a mile away.  Not yet aware of what caused the damage or that it was part of an ongoing terrorist attack, his first thought was the grim realization that “at least one hundred people must’ve died on impact.”

3.

Yoshiko was walking toward her desk at Shizuoka Bank on the North Tower’s 80th floor when the first plane crashed into her building, 14 stories above her.  Only two days earlier, she had flown above the “beautiful” twin towers on her way back from Chicago, where she had attended the inauguration ceremony of that city’s Shinnyo-en Buddhist Temple.  Now at work, fear gripped her as her building leaned back dangerously before righting itself.  Her then-boyfriend Larry phoned her almost immediately, but their call got cut off after only a few seconds.  Following her bank’s earthquake protocol, she grabbed a flashlight, put on a helmet, a mask and two birthday gifts from the day before: a shoulder bag and a scarf.  With three co-workers and many others, she began her 80-story descent.  On her way down Yoshiko saw many faces— fearful, wounded, ghostly, selfless—and heard many voices that still echo in her mind today.  Foremost among them are those of young firefighters encouraging each other in their perplexing ascent up the same flooded stairwells, the same haze of smoke, dust, fatigue and uncertainty she struggled to escape from.

When she finally reached the first floor, it was dark and sprinklers rained down endlessly, but she could now hear and see the chaos in the courtyard outside, which now looked unrecognizable.  She had contact lenses on and was surprised that the dust in the air didn’t seem to get in them and make her eyes hurt—she would’ve been nearly blind without them.  The ground was covered with inches of pulverized and solid debris still falling but not yet thick enough to hide the splayed bodies of people who had fled the flames above by jumping to their sudden end.  Motionless, ghastly images she’d seen long ago of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima came flooding back to her.  Soon enough, loud “distinctive” thuds on the ground outside would startle her back into her fight to survive “the longest day of my life.”

For safety reasons, police directed her and others to exit through the basement mall that connected both towers.  The main corridor was lit and she found her co-workers there.  Suddenly, “a tremendous rumbling” began to shake the ground, the way she imagined a huge avalanche would.  “The sound was very loud and grew louder every second.  The ground started to tremble and then shake violently.  It was shortly after 10 a.m. and the South Tower,” she later learned, “was collapsing.”  The mall turned into a moonless night and a “huge, powerful wind” blew out all the store windows, enveloping everything with dust and pulverized glass.  Yoshiko had crouched defensively when the commotion began but the gust blew her several feet away.  Still in crouched position, she felt no pain and opened her eyes, bewildered.  They did not hurt but she could not see anything.  Neither could she hear, smell or breathe well.  “For a split second I thought perhaps I was in heaven.  There was this almost peaceful quality about everything.  But my heart was racing a mile a minute so I knew I was still alive.”  She used her scarf to filter her breathing.  (Later, she discovered that part of her birthday bag was scorched and riddled with tiny glass shrapnel, but she had no visible wounds—it protected her.)

 Using sound and feel for guidance, Yoshiko tottered.  In the dense gloom, she found a barefoot woman who needed her help to walk on the glass-covered ground.  Soon, she would also find two of her co-workers, one of whom had an injured leg and also needed to lean on her to ambulate.  The voice of a rescue worker would soon reach them and guide them out through the mall’s north exit.  Once in the chaos outside, she and her co-workers soon became separated again (all ultimately found safety).  The devastation was unbearable.  Yoshiko recalls moving forward without ever looking back, stopping only to make two brief calls, one to her family in Japan and another to her best friend in Manhattan who spread the news of her survival to other loved ones, including Larry, her future husband, who collapsed momentarily from relief when she finally arrived at his home in Edgewater, New Jersey, hours later, entirely covered in dust from the now-destroyed towers.

Yoshiko calls her survival “a miracle.”  It taught her not to take her life, anyone’s life, for granted.  She believes her Buddhist faith, her loved ones and the anonymous many who inspired and helped her that day—and beyond—contributed invaluably to it.  To this day, she takes comfort in the spiritual support she felt that day when in the midst of terrible panic she began to chant the Sandai (a Shinnyo-en Buddhist supplication which her friends and family echoed with her in mind, she later learned, as they followed the news from Japan and all over the U.S.).  This year holds special meaning to her: It is the tenth anniversary of her survival; she and Larry are happily married; and, following her unexpected pregnancy at age 45, she gave birth to their only child, Thomas, this past January.

4.

The events on the East Coast happened when most people in Hawaii were asleep.  Todd’s mom awakened him to the news as soon as she heard it.  After that, he recalls his day becoming a frantic blur of activity at the Honolulu newspaper where he worked.  9-11 would dominate his newspaper’s headlines for months, but that day also touched Todd personally because his ex-girlfriend worked in Downtown Manhattan and he could not get through to her.  She would later surface safe and sound, but two alumni from his high school (Punahou School) would not.

5.

When Qasim arrived home from high school in Lahore, Pakistan, he found his mother and three younger siblings worried sick in front of the TV.  Years earlier, his dad had migrated to New York City where he now worked as a contractor.  Only days earlier he had told the family that he was working at a building in the City’s West Village.  Now, Qasim and his family worried over how close his dad had been to the fallen towers.  For the next interminable 48 hours, they would hear nothing about his dad’s status.  During that time, his family barely ate.  His neighbors would visit to comfort them.  When they finally received a call from dad, the family felt they could breathe again.  Qasim remembers emerging from those days of fear and uncertainty relieved for his dad but also “sad for all the other fathers that didn’t make it.”  His Imam guided him and his peers in prayers for the 9-11 victims and their denunciation of terrorism as a sacrilegious aberration that misrepresents Islam, “a religion of peace” that teaches that “saving or hurting one human life is like doing the same to all of humanity.”

6.

W lived with his sister in Hong Kong at the time, but his mother and then stepfather lived in Midtown Manhattan.  In fact, his stepfather worked for a health insurance company on the 9th floor of one of the towers.  His stepfather was able to evacuate physically unharmed but, according to W, “he was never the same after that.”  When W moved to New York a year later, he learned firsthand how the mere sound of planes flying overhead made his stepfather cringe and how frequently nightmares haunted his sleep. 

7.

Denise’s work at the psychiatric ward of a San Francisco hospital did not help her cope with that day’s brand of madness.  Learning of selfless acts by rescue workers and ordinary people and attending a spiritual consolation service that weekend at her local Shinnyo-en Buddhist temple did.  Watching Her Holiness Shinso Ito lead the service moved and comforted her as did a reverend’s firm but gentle admonition to “learn to have harmony” by “educating ourselves about each other” instead of letting our ignorance prolong a cycle of hate.

8.

At Ground Zero two days post 9-11, Mariko remembers “many people who wanted to help” in all aspects of the aftermath.  As a Japanese TV reporter, her job was to interview relatives and friends of the missing.  At first, she struggled to get started, but once she did she soon found that “many people wanted to talk.”  Some expressed overwhelming grief and ire, others peaceful resignation.  “There were parents who had lost their children,” Mariko explains, “but they didn’t want retaliation because they didn’t want anybody to have the same feeling.”  Mariko did follow-up reports on some of her interviewees, documenting their healing process over time as they got involved in helping their communities, setting up educational grants, charities and other social projects.  The wisdom and compassion they seemed to have gained from their terrible losses admittedly baffled her; they would also inspire and help her later when she needed to recover from months of emotionally draining work.

9.

Hope’s mid-September move from the Bronx to Queens was delayed by a few weeks.   Once it happened, she and her husband noticed that their neighborhood wasn’t the only thing that changed.  Many New Yorkers had become hyper-defensive and vigilant toward real and imagined threats.  Signs saying “America, love it or leave it!” began to appear on neighborhood windows.  Hope herself became hyper-sensitive to the intolerance for dissent and Muslims, perceiving it as an encroaching threat to her freedom and the peace of the children she and her husband planned to have.  They would soon move again, this time to Italy, where they lived for the next eight years and had two beautiful children, Francesco and Rosa.  Having returned in 2010, she sees that “there’s been a lot of healing in New York” and feels “grateful that Americans did not let fear and hatred win.”        

10.

Irene remembers the smell of smoke from Ground Zero wafting north and permeating every recess of her Upper East Side apartment.  Waking up to that smell, like millions of fellow New Yorkers, opened her eyes to a reality of a wounded country at war, a pervasive reality for many around the world that no longer seemed foreign.  But for her, the heroes of 9-11, the fallen and the living, have offered all of us more than their lives.  With their selfless actions, they have given us an indelible, deeply moving lesson on what it really means to do selflessly for others: to protect and save lives, not take them.  Irene believes that lesson is about the universal goodness in all of us and the inner peace we can foster when we treat ourselves and each other as “sanctuaries of peace.”