Content warning: imagery of 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It may seem strange to hear a professional genealogist say that she never used to be particularly interested in history, but that's the case for me. I had the privilege of studying with great teachers, but history was never my favorite subject in school. (Sorry, Mr. Z!) I think the problem was that I never saw myself in the history I was learning. I didn't feel any connection.
One day, all of that changed for me. Suddenly, the big events that shape this world were all too real. History wasn't something that had happened to faceless strangers in the past, and news wasn't something happening someplace far away to other people I couldn't really relate to.
On September 11, 2001, I had an up-close view of the events much of the rest of the world watched on television.
In this chapter of my life, I lived in Brooklyn and worked for a software startup in lower Manhattan. I was running late for work that day, so I was on the subway when both planes hit the World Trade Center. My first inkling that something was wrong came when quite a few people were heading into the subway at Bowling Green station at a time of day when most traffic should be flowing outward. Someone told me, "Don't bother. Turn around and go home. The World Trade Center's burning." As I came above ground, I saw a vicious dark-grey gash across the blue sky that I could see from the bottom of the canyon of buildings. People were crying and talking urgently into cell phones.
My workplace was on the 24th floor of 29 Broadway at the northwest corner of Morris Street, about 0.3 miles/0.5 km from the World Trade Center. As I entered my building, I still had no idea what was going on. Then I walked into our open-floor-plan office where I got my first view of the burning towers. I joined colleagues on the roof of our building. Here's an extract from my journal the next day:
From where we stood, we could see the clear outline of where the plane had entered the south tower. . . . We stood in stunned disbelief, watching as debris and the occasional person came flying from the wreckage. . . . We speculated about the integrity of the towers. The consensus was that they, or at least their skeleton, would remain standing. Despite the damage, the massive corner supports seemed to be holding.1
Not much later, I was back at my desk. Phone lines were jammed, but I had managed to reach my dad. Another extract from my journal:
I think I felt it before I saw it. There was a rumbling and I looked to the south tower. It began to shrink as one floor after another began to collapse onto the one below it. My building was shaking and I was scared to stay by the window, not sure that I was safe, even at this distance. I can't remember exactly what I said to my dad, but I shouted something like, "The World Trade Center just exploded! I have to get out of here!"
I slammed down the receiver, terrified, and ran toward the interior of the building. I didn't know what danger I might be in, but the only think I could think to do was to get away from those big windows. I grabbed a colleague's hand on the way by and we ran down the hall, hand in hand, till we stopped and held each other and shook and cried. . . .
When the shaking subsided, both ours and the building's, we went back to the production room with its huge windows on three sides. We could see nothing but thick grey through any of them. Someone was checking all the windows on our floor, ensuring that they were sealed tightly against the smoke and ash. . . .
Eventually the air began to clear and we could make out nearby buildings, then those across the river in Jersey. There was nothing to be seen, though, but black billowing smoke from the direction of the Word Trade Center. We were sure that the south tower was no more, as we had seen her begin to topple, but there was no way for us to see the gaping hole in the skyline that we could now only imagine. . . .
Then it happened again. We were calmer this time at the monstrous tremor. There was nothing to see; the column of black smoke which had replaced the south tower obstructed our view. But we knew what it had to be. Someone said, "There goes the other tower."
This time what we could see was the wall of smoke, roiling and inky black, that rolled down the streets and avenues of lower Manhattan, enveloping everything in its path. . . .
When the smoke sealed us in the second time, it was different. The first time had been evenly light grey. This one got darker and darker until it was black as night. It was as if someone had tossed a giant, thick, black blanket over our building.
It only stayed that dark for a few moments. Then it lightened and darked [sic] several times before eventually clearing enough for us to see out.
At this point all we could tell ourselves was that the worst had to be over. Both towers were gone. Someone went upstairs and brought down a radio so we could hear what was going on.2
Eventually, we decided that evacuation was better than sheltering in place. Outside our building, the grey-brown ash was several inches deep, and we covered our noses and mouths with trade-show t-shirts soaked in water to try to filter the smoke. Even when we reached Brooklyn, we could still smell it.
My life is clearly demarcated into "before 9/11" and "after 9/11" eras.
It's not easy to find silver linings in the events of that day, nor in so many of the things that happened in response to it, but I can name a few. Having the incredible privilege to walk away (relatively) unscathed made me appreciate just how glad I am to be alive. The amazing outpouring of support from friends and family in the aftermath was sweet balm. I was left with an overwhelming urge to do work that matters. And I learned how much history and the interconnections among all of us matter.
How did the events of the past shape the lives of your ancestors? And how are the repercussions of those events affecting your life today?
How are today's events impacting you and those around you? How are your responses to those events shaping the world that future generations will inhabit?
These are the kinds of questions I invite you to explore. If I may be of any assistance in that journey, please get in touch!
And please, tell your dear ones that you love them, and live today like you might not be here tomorrow!
Image credits: "New York City Tribute In Lights" by Jackie, licensed under CC By 2.0; Google.
1 Karin Lovisa Borgerson, "Journal," p. 73, manuscript, 2000-2002 (Brooklyn, New York); privately held by Karin L. Borgerson, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Seattle, Washington, 2018.
2 Borgerson, "Journal," 74-77.