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River of tears

Steven Schnur

September 20, 2001

When will this weeping end, I wonder, when will the river of tears run dry, the aching heart find relief, this national mourning run its course?

When will the sight of exhausted rescue workers and anguished fire fighters, of families seeking loved ones, of flickering candles, no longer sear my eyes?

When will the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner cease to clog my throat?

When will the image of our flag upon a heap of twisted steel, in the hand of an orphaned child, upon the coffin of a fallen policeman no longer fill my heart with grief?

An uncontrollable sadness shadows me, a perpetual mourning for those in mourning, as well as an overwhelming gratitude for the selfless courage of so many volunteers.

Simple expressions of appreciation—words of thanks uttered by a president or mayor, by the flag-waving throngs lining the approaches to ground zero, by the numberless bereft in search of the missing, by rescue workers grateful for a place to rest, a bite to eat, the comfort of comrades—evoke the same unending tears.

There are no strangers among the victims, only brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons. Every death is a personal blow, every posted photo a missing friend. Within hours of the World Trade Center attack America became a single grieving family.

Who could have predicted that the deaths of unknown bond traders and bus boys, pastry chefs and police officers, flight attendants and fire fighters would wound us all so deeply?

In an instantaneous coalescing of national spirit, we weep for them all, understanding perhaps for the first time, what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, "In the faces of men and women I see God."

Like him, we pass from hospital to hospital, ministering to the sick and dying, indifferent to their former allegiances, sensible only of our shared humanity. To Whitman, every fallen Civil War soldier was a comrade, every son his son, every drop of battlefield blood his blood.

The reporters fanning out through Manhattan and across the nation are Whitman's heirs, believers in this shared brotherhood, recovering the countless tales of the disaster's aftermath, writing our national elegy. "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," Whitman said, a poem, a song, a prayer.

The first time we witnessed the stupefying, reason-resistant image of a jetliner penetrating a skyscraper, it seemed a bit of video wizardry, the sort of iconic collision that Hollywood thrives on, the unthinkable rendered all too real before our disbelieving eyes.

But in the days that followed we came to know the exact human costs of that awful convergence: who sat beside those imploding windows, who crowded together at the rear of the suicide-piloted planes, who was consumed in the blinding orange fireball, who crushed beneath the mountain of collapsed glass, concrete, and steel.

Some 6,000 innocent victims*, and we know virtually every name. More terrible still, we can picture ourselves sitting at those desks, huddled in those doomed planes, standing unwittingly on those streets, and we weep for our own cruel and untimely death.

There are no strangers among the victims, only brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons.

What exceeds my capacity for imagination, what shoulders me into a realm of the horrible that all but unseats my reason, is the image of those forced by the inferno to leap to their deaths a hundred stories below, clusters of desperate innocents trailing flames, piercing every witnessing heart with unending torment. "The birds are on fire!" a six-year-old fleeing the devastation remarked. My heart stops, my eyes cloud. Can anyone fathom the merciless choice, trapped in a shattered window frame, a holocaust behind, oblivion ahead? How can one not weep when men and women become flaming souls, plunging into the hard palm of a grieving God? The other deaths, the instantaneous ones caused by collision, explosion, or collapse seem almost benevolent by comparison, those victims spared a decision beyond the reach of human emotion or intellect. There can be no consolation in the shadow of so terrible a reality, only the haunting stillness of a relieving death.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,
The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.
--Whitman, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

Three days after the towers had been reduced to smoldering rubble a friend was called into her daughter's second grade class to help with an art project. As the children fashioned globes of papier maché the conversation turned to recent events. "My daddy was there," one seven-year-old girl said proudly. "He has an office on the top of the World Trade Center."

"And how is your daddy?" my friend asked alarmed.

"My mommy says he's still at the office but we can't talk to him because the phones aren't working."

And again tears, this time for a little girl unnamed, a father unmet, a widow forced by a faceless malignity to confront life alone and in her deep grief find a way to tell her daughter that Daddy is never coming home. I weep for them as though I know them, love them, have become them.

When will the weeping end? Not until all the husbands have been restored to their wives, the mothers to their children, the fallen heroes to their grieving comrades. Not until the shattered have been made whole. Not until compassion dies.

Note: For many months after 9/11 there was no clear death count at Ground Zero because few intact bodies were found. Attempts to match DNA with recovered body parts continue to this day.The current estimate of people killed at Ground Zero is 2,606 inside the Twin Towers and surrounding area. More than 6,000 others were injured. Fatalities still grow now, 20 years later, as rescuers and volunteers who worked in the toxic air at Ground Zero continue to die from related cancers, gastrointestinal, and respiratory illnesses.

In addition to the two hijacked planes that struck New York, two others headed for Washington D.C. One struck the Pentagon where 125 were killed and many injured. The other appeared headed for the Capitol building. Passengers on that plane, learning about Ground Zero from cell phone calls, banded together to regain control of the flight deck. As a result the plane failed to reach its target. It crashed instead in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, which is now the site of a national memorial.

264 passengers and 19 hijackers died on the four planes. There were no survivors.

© Steven Schnur

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