01 September 2011

I Was There When the Sky Fell 當日我在場

The No.2 train slowed to a halt. Inside the subway car, the overhead florescent lights went out for a moment and flickered back to life. The middle-aged Caucasian man standing next to me heaved an impatient sigh, bemoaning the frequent interruptions of an antiquated transport system. Suddenly the train doors parted and the crackling PA system issued a dispassionate instruction: An emergency has been reported in Lower Manhattan, all passengers must exit now.


14th Street, where I got off the subway train

I climbed two flights of stairs and came out of the 14th Street station. It was one of those beautiful September mornings in New York. Cloudless blue skies and a few falling leaves. I looked to the south and there it was, the reason why my train had stopped: plumes of heavy smoke were billowing out of the World Trade Center. 

I walked into a nearby Citibank branch to find out what had happened. “Some fool flew their plane right into the building, sweetheart,” the heavyset African American woman paraphrased what she had heard from the radio. In my head I had this image of a spoiled brat flying daddy's biplane and accidentally slamming it into a building.

Now what am I supposed to do with my plane ticket? I grumbled to myself as I tried to call Mei Lin to cancel our lunch. My friend and I were supposed to meet up on Wall Street after I finished my errand at the American Airlines ticketing office at the WTC. But my cell phone had no signal. It wasn’t my day.


An image etched into our collective psyche 

By the time I walked out of the bank onto the streets, one of the Twin Towers was gone and the other one was burning furiously. Convinced that it was just the angle that put one tower behind the other, I walked from one side of Seventh Avenue to the other to get a different vantage point. That’s when I noticed that every car as far as the eye could see had stopped, and the drivers were all standing in the middle of the streets listening to the car radio.


Approximately an hour ago, two commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. The South Tower has collapsed, casualties unknown at this point. The sombre newscaster at WCBS announced.


I realized how wrong the bank teller and I both were: this was no accident. If I were in a Hollywood disaster movie, that would be the moment when the soundtrack came on and the brass instruments beat out a heavy chord. I looked around and saw people crowding around at every public phone, for cell phones were as good as dead. I rushed back into the bank and asked to use its land line. The Hispanic woman waiting in front of me stared unseeing at a blank wall, mouthing ay-dios-mio, ay-dios-mio non-stop.

20 minutes later I finally got to call Mei Lin, but I couldn’t get through to her. By the time I came back out on the streets again, the North Tower had also fallen. The World Trade Center was gone, destroyed, erased from the skyline.

There were simultaneous attacks on Washington D.C. and the Pentagon. The car radio continued to deliver bad news, and the situation got worse with each report.

There were now gaggles of people on the streets, steadily walking to the north and away from the suddenly unrecognizable Lower Manhattan. My survival instinct kicked in and I made a quick detour to a corner store where I bought two bottles of water and a few Snickers bars. And I began walking north, like everyone else.


The worst headline imaginable

*                 *                   *

In spring 2001, I accepted an offer from a reputable New York law firm for an associate position, not bad for a Canadian law school grad whose knowledge of American law was limited to a course in U.S. constitutional law. On September 9, I arrived in the Big Apple to spend two weeks looking for a place to live. On the second day of my apartment hunt, my broker found me a one-bedroom in a pre-war walk-up, not bad for a budding lawyer with massive student loans.

I was to sign the lease three days later, on September 13, at the broker’s office in midtown Manhattan. Having accomplished my mission well ahead of schedule, I had no reason to hang around in New York and risk over-staying my welcome. At the time I was crashing rent-free at my friend Mei Lin’s apartment in Queens, and so I decided to fly back to Toronto a week early.

Since every major airlines had an office at the World Trade Center, I thought it was only appropriate to pay a visit to the famous skyscrapers – designed by Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki (山崎實) and known for their stunning symmetry and understated grace – first thing Tuesday morning to change my flight reservation. And since Mei Lin’s office was just across the street, I figured I would take her out to lunch to thank her for her hospitality.

That series of unremarkable decisions was what put me on the southbound No.2 train at 9:00am on that fateful day. If only I had left my friend’s apartment half an hour earlier, I might have been buried under 220 floors of concrete and steel, and my name might have been inscribed around the edges of the 9-11 Memorial along with the names of the other 2,975 victims. The extra 30 minutes of snoozing on my alarm clock had probably saved my life.

The 21st Street apartment I signed



                 *                    *


I continued my trek up Sixth Avenue. There were now thousands in the Great Migration to the north, some were sobbing but no one made a sound. Silence was the security blanket that wrapped around us and kept us sane until we found shelter. 

Mei Lin’s apartment was on the other side of the East River and so my only option was my other friends Ivan and Sarah, who lived in the Upper East Side on 82nd Street and York Avenue. But that was 70 blocks away, or approximately five miles northeast of where I was. 

I had just passed Madison Square Park when I spotted a northbound city bus on the corner of 24th Street taking passengers. I ran toward it and became one of the 60 or so lucky souls on board a bus designed to carry half that number. Some of the people who couldn’t get on became agitated and started to pounce on both sides of the bus, causing it to rock from side to side. The more aggressive ones tried to climb on top of the vehicle. I was scared out of my wits, for right in front of my eyes common sense had clicked off and lawlessness had taken over. An old woman finally cried from her seat, “let’s go, please, let’s go!” Then the bus started moving slowly, heading north, avoiding pedestrians. 

Along the way, traffic lights became irrelevant, as did all the banks, furniture shops, pizza joints and other traces of civilization. When we reached the 42nd Street intersection, a pair of police officers stopped us in our tracks. There is a bomb in Grand Central Station -- everyone get off the bus right now! They kept repeating those same words. The B-word set off an immediate stampede and everyone started to push their way off the bus and run for their lives. I ran as fast as I could, away from where the bomb was supposed to be, all the while hunkering down and holding on to my bag. It was a false alarm, but the evacuation left empty baby-strollers and shoes all over the streets. Right there and then I knew America was at war, and I was one of the city’s 8,000,000 refugees.


This ain't Damascus


Two hours later I arrived at Ivan and Sarah’s building. The security guard was long gone and I took the elevator straight up to their apartment. I rang the doorbell and Ivan, who didn’t even know I was in town, answered the door. “Come on in,” my friend urged, pulling me inside. On a day like this, a surprise visit from an unannounced guest needed no explanation or apology. 

Later that afternoon, another friend of the couple's showed up at the door and together we turned their Upper East Side apartment into a makeshift refugee camp for stranded visitors. All day, the four of us did nothing but watched CNN, alternating between gruesome footage of the plane crashes and gut-wrenching pleas from families searching for loved ones. 

All night, we felt the rumble of heavy dump trucks going up and down the island carrying debris from Ground Zero. We didn’t talk much, for one of us would start to cry each time we attempted a conversation. 48 hours went by just like that. 

By the end of the week, I decided to take a 12-hour train ride back to Toronto instead of waiting indefinitely for the airports to reopen. But on September 13, the day before I left the city, I did the unexpected. I kept the appointment with my broker and signed a two-year lease when all of his other clients had backed out and walked away. Three weeks later, I returned from Toronto and moved into my small one-bedroom apartment, the place I would call home for the next five years.

The Wailing Wall

It is said that everyone remembers where they were on September 11 and every New Yorker has a 9/11 story to tell. I have told mine to friends and family dozens of times, an account of events that requires no embellishment. I wasn't covered in ash while running away from the collapsing towers, nor did I witness trapped office workers jump out of the windows and pulverize in front of my eyes. 14th Street was still a way from the Twin Towers. But none of that changes the simple fact that 9/11 was the single most terrifying experience I ever had.

 It is also said that once bitten, twice shy. Even today, ten years after the day that changed the world forever, every loud bang or ambulance siren I hear raises the specter of another terrorist attack. It makes my heart skip a beat. And each time I take off my shoes at airport security, lose interest in a history book after realizing it was written before 2001 or find myself taking the office fire drills much more seriously, I am reminded of the sweeping and permanent impact the event has on our daily lives. 

But if September 11 was the scariest day of my life, then September 12 would very well be my proudest. Say what you will about the Americans, but I have never seen a more united and compassionate people than those I encountered in the weeks and months following the attacks. From Harlem to Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights to the South Bronx, there were donations of every kind: money, blood, food, clothing and toys for the thousands of children orphaned by the attacks. Sanity and civility were restored almost immediately, and the early moments of panic and despair quickly gave way to kindness, gumption and hope. It was New York's finest hour and being a part of it filled me with complicated joy and infinite pride. That's why I decided to sign the lease and move to the city ten years ago. I did that despite -- and because of -- what I experienced when terror hit. And it remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com

36 comments:

  1. Had my friend been on the tube 30 minutes earlier in 2005, he would have been blown up by the terrorist bombing that took place in London. Life is precious and it’s a good thing that we cannot know the future. What a sad and horrible experience for you, and the rest of the world, to go through. It not only changed your life, but life for the rest of us all over the world. I remember going to work that morning, when I heard of the attacks on the radio. I raced into the school building and immediately put the television on. My thoughts then went to how I was going to help my rather young students deal with what they had seen and would continued to see on television for days to come. Having family in the US at that time also added to my anxiety that day too, even if they were living in far off Texas, because no one knew what, if anything, would come next. I often wonder how people can be so evil, and capable of doing such evil things. Sad, really.

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  2. "11 Sept 2001, I was there too hovering in the sky !" That day, my whole family was heading to Toronto via the transit of America for my youngest sis wedding to be held on 15 Sept 2001. Just wondering why still not be landed at the America airport with almost ten hours flight. Announcemnt from the captain said all the America aiports forbade all flights from landing at the country and we were going to land at Osaka !... Although safe landing at Osaka, my whole family hardly believed that such a tragedy happend & we were almost there when the attacks taken off. Worrying so much when we will get into Canada. "Are we going to miss the wedding ceremony ?" My mom kept asking me this question and I could only say "I don't know ?" After two days stayed at Osaka, we finally got into the flight and just one day ahead before the ceremony, we had arrived... Ten years now ! How could the world possibily forget the scene and so do my family.... This year, my sis, sis in-law with my two little nieces will be back to HK for their ten year Anniversay !


    Jean

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  3. Have been waiting for you to post this article for 10 years...

    Andrew

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  4. Unexpectedly woke up early in the morning, I headed to a lounge in Warren Hall on Columbia campus with my coffee and bagel. I still vividly remember how a beautiful day it was. I was sitting down and watching TV to catch early news before class started. Then the scene was showing that an air plain just flew into the World Trade building....the moment surreal to say the least...

    Laurie

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  5. Where were you on 6/4/1989? Hk people showed unity n integrity just like New Yorkers did on 9/11 Freedom/democracy is still the dream of lots of people !

    Isabella

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  6. Thanks for sharing, Don. It must be hard explaining something like that to children, something so ugly and so horrific.

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  7. Jean,

    It must be an incredible experience flying on 9/11. Incidentally, I will be flying from Paris back to Hong Kong on the day of the 10th anniversary.

    Jason

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  8. Thanks, Andrew. I hope my story meant something to you.

    Jason

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  9. So you were in New York that day too, Laurie!

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  10. Isabella,

    I was indeed in Hong Kong on June 4, 1989. I was watching the events unfold on the evening news, not knowing what it really meant. On June 5, I saw tens of thousands gathering at Victoria Park, right across the street from my parents' Tin Hau apartment. That's when it started to sink in.

    Jason

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  11. I was on my way to a closing at Shearman & Sterling. There I was, in a cab, clutching my box of closing docs and afraid I was going to miss it (I missed my alarm - stayed up partying at Lot 61 the night before). I remember walking into their offices and I heard people sobbing. That's when it sank in...

    Yvette

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  12. Yvette,

    Thanks for sharing for 9/11 story. I wish I could be there in New York tomorrow for the 10th anniversary commemoration.

    Jason

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  13. Jason,

    9/11 is terrorism of the highest order in history of mankind. No words can describe the tragic feelings and experiences of those who went through the ordeal, succumbed or lost loved ones on that fateful day - friends, colleagues or family members. Today is the 10th year anniversary, let's pray and hope that we can join hands to build a safer world with ability and capability to counter terrorism of any scale.

    Martie

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  14. Yes, Indeed ! Jason, Safe journey too !


    Jean

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  15. Jason, thanks for sharing. It is an unforgettable memory that no one likes to remember. I have never been to New York before, but actually I was watching the whole tragedy on TV at home in Hong Kong 10 years ago. I can still remember at around 8:50pm the breaking news popped up and I realized that a plane just crashed into the North Tower, and about 15 minutes later I exactly saw the second one crashed into the South Tower! In the following few hours, I was just going back and forth between the TV in the living room and the desktop computer in the study room, and of course I saw both towers collapsed...

    In the years after, I have been trying to catch all documentary films on 9/11, including the stories about the sacrificial achievement of the firefighters, paramedics and police officers, and their bereaved wives and their kids who were about to be born at the time of the tragedy...

    On the 10th anniversary commemoration, let's hope there will no longer be such kind of terrorism that only shows the weakliness of the cowards, and I hope one day I can go to see myself the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and One World Trade Center.

    Andrew

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  16. Andrew,

    I will be in New York in a few weeks. I'll be sure to pay respect at the Memorial and post pictures on Facebook.

    Jason

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  17. Jason,thank you very much for sharing your experience. I will never forget what happened on 11/09/2001. I was in Madrid having special training at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before starting one new position in international cooperation in Dakar (Senegal). The participants were supposed to meet the Spanish Ambassadors of our countries of assignment, who were also having their annual meeting at the same venue. They cancelled our event for having their urgent meeting. After the seminar, the participants quickly rushed towards the Foreign Affairs Ministry hostel to watch CNN news.

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  18. Thanks for sharing your story, Jason. It is hard to believe that ten years have past since that day. Another commenter posted about the documentaries that were made about what happened and while they serve their purpose for telling future generations about what happened, I personally cannot watch them.

    These documentaries remind me too much of what happened and how I felt being there. I don't want to relive those emotions or relive that fear. The different scenarios that are already present in my mind, as well as the minds of others, about "what if I didn't do this..." "what if I did this first..." For me, you, and millions of other Americans, this is a day that will be forever etched into our memories, much like when Challenger exploded, JFK was assassinated or (if you are old enough) when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

    It is important to learn about the past so our (world) history does not die. Sharing these stories are important. As long as people remember and tell the story, the past and its victims will not be forgotten.

    Eric

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  19. Thanks for sharing Jason.
    I was ironing in my house in Brussels at 14.50, watching CNN reporting about the first plane. I also thought it was a horrible accident, but then came the second plane live and I realized what was happening. I called my mother in Cairo, but State TV was not mentioning anything. Called my husband at work, he did not believe me. Then I started praying that it was neither a muslim nor an Arab who did that horrible act, but how disappointed I was. I felt ashamed, betrayed and that my religion was again (Thinking of the terror attack in Luxor in 97, I was working for the Japanese Embassy back then, They had 9 victims and I had to see the bodies, meet the families) hijacked by those who use my religion for their own purposes.
    I started searching for American friends on the internet, wrote letters to American neighbors. It took me month to be able to say in public again that am muslim without worrying about what people who say. Never went to a mosque since then, neither in Belgium nor in Germany, It did change my world in a different way. The question I can never answer myself, is why those who are so well educated, use their knowledge money, take themselves and ll those innocent people with them to death, in the name of Allah, rather than using all their sources and knowledge to help improve and develop their own countries, help other human beings or promote Islam in a peaceful way.

    It is still difficult for me to explain to my children that our religion is a beautiful and peaceful one, because although they are only 12 & 11 they know all about 9/11, Bin Laden, Taliban and all what happened since then.

    Noha

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  20. i have never been in NY for my whole life, but as a translator for the international finance news page in a Hong Kong newspaper, i witnessed the second plane crashing to the WTC through CNN... normally we should have finished all the articles to be published the next morning by then, but the chief editor on that night ordered to change the contents of front page headlines and i also needed to help collecting real-time market data, reactions in crude oil price, gold price, forex, European stock markets... and even long after we finished our work for that day because we had to meet the deadline for the printing machine, we stayed in the newsroom, watching at CNN, BBC, CNBC... and after i went home, i kept watching live coverage until 4 or 5 am. The event caused me to try to find out more about the conflicts in the Middle East and other related political and religious topics.

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  21. nice to meet you Noha. as someone who have faith in one God too, i can only pray that we could really understand and can live out the way God would like us to live, and believe that at the end of the day we will be judged by God based on what we did and that God will show us what is the right and wrong and justice will be done...

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  22. Noha,

    Thanks for sharing your views and experiences from the perspective of a Muslim -- they are most insightful and thought-provoking. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be blamed for a crime committed by a small group of extremists who have nothing to do with you other than the religion you share. The 9/11 attacks did more harm to the Muslim community around the world than any other event in history. And so as heinous and cowardice were the attacks, they were also extremely selfish.

    Jason

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  23. fschubert959,

    Thanks for your comment. I didnt know you are a reporter/translator for a local newspaper. I know the hardship of working for a daily publication -- I used to watch my Dad chained to his desk trying to meet his daily deadlines!

    I sometimes think that here in Asia, 9/11 doesn't mean quite as much as it does in the U.S. People in Asia -- especially the Chinese -- generally consider terrorism an "American problem." Do you agree?

    Jason

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  24. Were you really in New York then ? I knew you were working there for some years but I had no idea you were there on that very day and so close to the entire nightmare.

    This is a highly engaging article, and a highly moving one. I have felt like sobbing on reading certain lines. Somehow the more I read this piece of yours, the more I thought it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be happening to a fresh graduand like you then. It sounds too nightmarish and movie-like. But I know you are the last person to exaggerate, or “lie” blatantly. I just can’t place you in that setting. A friend has once told me that the time when the Third World War breaks out will be when that is a global famine or refugee migration, when all have lost their senses and survive on animal instinct. And that will be a tragedy to the human race, to civilization!

    Every time I see an ambulance now it would remind me of my own ride (14 years ago and on a few occasions afterwards) and every sight of a wheelchair would nearly bring tears into my eyes and a gripping urge to help the person to push it. If only you know how difficult it is for one to wheel it itself while half paralyzed on the wheelchair).

    Christine

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  25. Dear Jason,

    Thank you for sharing your story about your experience. I agree, everybody remembers what they were doing on that gruesome day of September 11.

    I for one have a similar story. I was in NY and Boston right before the attack. I was there for a week long work related training, and I was suppose to fly back to the west coast on Sept 11. However, few days before the attack, my grandmother who was visiting my family in LA was scheduled to fly back to Japan on September 11. Since she wanted to see me before she flew back home, she asked me to change my flight and move my flight day by 1 day - September 10th. At first I was very reluctant to do so, as I wanted to spend the extra day after my training sightseeing and shopping in NYC. But I later agreed to come back a day earlier because after all this was my 80 year old grandmother wanting to see me! And that was the best decision I have ever made in my life. If I haven't changed my flight, I probably would have been on that plane that crashed into one of the towers. It's funny how a small thing you do in life can completely alter the outcome of your life. Needless to say, my grandmother was my guardian angel and it wasn't my time to go yet. My grandmother passed away a year later, but I still do think about what would have happened if I have selfishly stayed a day later in NYC.

    This is something I can never forget. God bless to all the family members who have lost their loved ones in this tragedy.

    Love,
    AB

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  26. Jason, that is certainly the case. afterall, the attack did not take place at their homeland. but those incidents in Xinjiang the past few years indicate that terrorism is not only American's problem. But the whole issue is complicated and no easy comparison should be drawn between the 911 attacks and those in the Northwestern China. i am certainly not as committed to the fourth pillar of civil society as your dad because i just spent less than four years in total in the journalist career after graduation with a journalism degree.

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  27. Jason,

    So you were there too.
    I was walking out of Union Square at 8:45am to get to the office on 19th. It didn't make sense to me, the sheer horrific potential of it. As I walked south against the crowd moving north, I too stopped to listen to car radios, stepped into the bar to listen to Peter Jennings on ABC.
    I had to get back to Little Italy to find my roommates, and we hunkered down for the evening.

    It was our moment for our generation, like how JFK's assassination was for the previous generation. I'll never forget it. The human potential to cause devastation, the human potential to soothe and heal. All in one day.

    You were on your way to the WTC, only running late. It makes one think of fate. Then you decided to live and work here. How did you find you years in NYC?

    Thanks for your story, I guess we're all connected. like the oceans.

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  28. Thanks, Christine. Physically I actually wasn't that close to Ground Zero. 14th Street is still a few dozen blocks away from the WTC and I would be amiss if I made it sound like I was closer to death than I actually was.

    Jason

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  29. Thanks for sharing your 9/11 story, AB!

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  30. fschubert959,

    I always consider journalism the most noble occupation in society. I have tremendous respect for journalists like yourself. Perhaps that's why I became a writer in the first place.

    Jason

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  31. Thanks for your comment, Lily. You said it very well: we witnessed the best and the worst of humanity all in one day.

    I genuinely enjoyed my years in New York. You can read about it in my book -- there is an essay titled "I Heart NY."

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  32. Granted, Jason, but I think the lasting impact is on our mind and heart as to how civilized homo sapiens could be doing something like this, the aggression was barbaric to say the least, the survival instinct just reduced one to a mere animal again (no disrespect). I take my hat off to those who evacuated from the Twin Tower in the orderly manner (and did you watch on the news this morning as to how they align the names on the fountain where the towers have stood, how one victim has stayed back to accompanied the other because the other couldn't go any further and eventually they both perish before help could reach them) We are seeing the best and the worst of human kind in this historic nightmare. And I read on one of my friend's wall that there was a picture taken of some folks sunbathing on the other side while watching (or exclaiming) the fumes and fire mushrooming into the sky, and the photo has not been published for 6 six years after the event, and the motive of the photographer in not publishing that, and the portrayal he was trying to cast on the "innocent bystander", so to speak. I think we are witnessing many many facets of humankind in that, but I'd rather NEVER EVER witness another multi-dimensional episode in my life, especially if it manifests itself in a Third World War or the like. It is really really disturbing.

    Christine

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  33. BTW, you already had a very close countenance with death once in HK, and for goodness' sake let it be the last.

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  34. Jason,

    Somehow was re-reading this intriguing piece and everyone's comment / experience again. I think just their comments is enough to bring tears to one's eyes as we recall the dark impact that's engraved inside us if we have actually been at the scene of the attack. And AB's, and experience, somehow suddenly reminded me of the movie "Sliding Doors", and maybe even "The Priest" if we ponder on the mentality of the hijacker / terrorist. I do question sometimes whether each and everyone of them do harbour such a deep hatred of everything American or whether they are just obeying orders (or whatever code they abide by). For a split second I suddenly feel pity for them if it is indeed the latter case.

    I was thinking about your article as I was going home last night and a book came to mind too as I viewed the high rise outside the cab, Andy McNab's "Bravo Two Zero". Have you ever read that? Go for it if you haven't or I can arrange one to be sent to your office or where you teach English if you couldn't get it. Let me know.

    Let's hope I put a stop to my wandering thoughts. Otherwise the chain of comments on this article of yours is never ever going to end

    Christine

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  35. 12 years already, those 911 orphans has all grown up.....

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  36. I just want to say : 時光飛逝、仿如昨日!Luckily I am still alive !

    Jean

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