9/11 - Larry Kirwan Brings It Home
Despite the ever escalating hype surrounding the 5th anniversary of 9/11 that otherwise makes me want to avoid all television, radio and newpapers this week (do we really need Giant Supermarkets to tell us with a full page newspaper ad to "Remember 9/11"), Larry Kirwan's personal remembrance of that day and his take on it cuts through the media din like a breath of fresh air. Kirwan is an Irish-born New Yorker who leads the band Black 47; in addition to being a singer, songwriter, and musician, Kirwan is also a poet, author, and radio host. The following is reprinted by permission from his newsletter of 9/06/06.
It will be five years on Monday since the Twin Towers were attacked. What changes have overcome us! It's not that we haven't recovered from the shock. Still, there is a rip in the fabric of our society that has yet to be repaired. I've often wondered why. All I can figure is that when those three thousand people departed the city, they took with them a measure of our hopes and dreams. They were vibrant souls, full of confidence in themselves and their country. It's nauseating and beyond disgraceful how their memory continues to be twisted for cheap political gain. They deserve better as do the many thousands with respiratory ailments who rushed to their rescue. Despite all the heartbreak and loss, the event is slowly receding into myth. I wrote a newsletter soon after describing what it was like in the city on the day. Unfortunately, I've mislaid it. This is an extract from Green Suede Shoes that I based on the original newsletter. Perhaps, in some small way, it will help cut through the ratings-driven hoopla of television coverage and the shilling of cheap, flag waving politicians from both major parties, and for a few moments resurrect the essence of these sorely missed people.
"I can't overestimate what a beautiful day it was. Clear blue and with just the barest hint of fall in the air. January is New Year for much of the world, but the first two weeks after Labor Day signal the beginning for New York. People come back from the shore and the mountains full of new resolutions and, for whatever reason, there was even more hope in the air than usual. Maybe there was even time for the Mets to turn it around.
I was reading about the Amazin's at breakfast when I heard it coming in the distance. For the first moments, I paid it no heed, far more interested in Mike Piazza's batting average. But the sound grew exponentially until it was roaring towards my back. I ducked my head onto the table, sure the plane, missile, whatever, would come right through the walls; then with a whoosh it passed over. Before I could even question what it was, I heard the most sickening thud - very unlike the screech and tearing of plane crashes in movies - more like that of a sledgehammer connecting with thick concrete. Then a silence, much the same as when a shot has been fired and the echoes have finally ceased. I ran up onto the roof of my building. The door was ajar; some of my upstairs neighbors were there already. At first I saw nothing. I hardly knew what to expect anyway. I followed the outstretched arm of a neighbor. It was, indeed, hard to take in the sight, much less process it: a gaping hole about two thirds of the way up the Westward tower of the World Trade Center, ugly black smoke pouring out, and within, small tongues of flame licking away at the darkness.
No one spoke. It was too much. We live just north of Canal Street and the view of the Trades had always been spectacular. I don't know why it sprang to mind, but my first sight of them was towards the end of the movie Carnal Knowledge, when Jack and Artie are having their last conversation. But that was just an instant flash. Suddenly, everyone was talking and shouting and you could hear the cries echoing from the surrounding rooftops. It was an accident of course. How could the bloody pilot have gone so off course and hit one of our lovely Towers? The utter stupidity of it all! Hadn't he ever seen the old pictures of the plane crash into the Empire State?
And then the second plane hit the Eastward Tower. We didn't see it and the sound was muted, for the plane came from the South and was blocked from our view. But we felt the impact; the Tower itself seemed to buckle from the shock. There were no flames from our angle, just another gaping, smoky hole and then a confetti of glass and paper exploded outwards and seemed to hang in the air around the two buildings. It finally dawned on us all, we were being attacked, but by whom? I ran downstairs for a pair of old binoculars and trained these on the Eastward building. Large black pieces of debris were sailing right through the glassy confetti. I instinctively knew that bodies were hurtling down too but, on no account, did I wish to see them. Luckily a neighbor asked for a look. Better him than me, I thought, as I handed them over.
He never got to use them for a cloud of brown smoke and dust erupted; the building shuddered, then wavered and collapsed to the ground in an almost orderly, but totally surreal, manner. It was hard to trust the eyes, but this was no mirage. The building had disintegrated downwards in a couple of awful seconds and a great cloud of smoke and dust arose, to my mind, almost like a shroud. People were now yelling and screaming from all the rooftops. A number of women around me cried hysterically, while the men cursed loudly. It was as if time stood still during those awful seconds while comprehension sought to reassert itself. The general consensus was that the tower had been blown up by bombs previously placed in the basement. The dread feeling, though generally unspoken, was that these unidentified bombers were invincible and could now do as they wished with the city.
I stayed on the roof for another couple of minutes trying to piece together conflicting thoughts and emotions, but everything seemed utterly changed, and I don't mean just the purely physical. The Westward building was still standing but it looked violated. I got the distinct, sickening feeling that the gaping hole in that tower was like an ugly smoking wound that would never be healed. Now a general panic swept across the rooftops and the screams merged in with the howl of many sirens heading south on Broadway. The loudest scream, though silent, was "what's coming next?"
I took back my binoculars and trained them on the standing tower; it seemed so close and we on the rooftops particularly vulnerable, being less than a mile away. I had no hope; it was just a matter of time until the second tower fell, and I didn't think for a moment that the orderly collapse of its sister would be repeated. No, this one would surely explode outwards and shower us with the glassy confetti, the dark beams and God knows what else. Many others felt the same way and there was an exodus off the rooftops. I ran downstairs, just in time to turn on the TV and watch the second Tower disintegrate in the same sickeningly neat manner.
It's very hard to put into words the feeling of vulnerability in the next hours as rumors swept the city: new planes were headed in for more attacks, the tunnels had been booby trapped, the "bombs" that had brought down the Trades contained biological and germ warfare devices, etc. And then soon after, two screaming air force jets banked over the city, causing widespread panic, before they were identified. Where the hell had they been, we screamed back skywards? But there was no reply, nor has there been a satisfactory one to this day.
I headed down to Canal Street and decided to walk towards the WTC area, knowing that it would soon be blocked off. People were streaming up Broadway, dazed and glassy-eyed, some formally dressed, some in casual attire, but most dusted over with a fine white powder. After five or six blocks, however, the smoke and dust became too dense and I was forced to halt. With my back against a wall, I watched emergency vehicles speed down Broadway, shoving the escapees up onto the sidewalk. All was chaos, but there was remarkably little panic. Just shock - silent for the most part – with no hysteria or tears, only a dazed bitter uncertainty. One man stood out. An African-American, his shirt had either been blown off or removed. He must have been about 6'4" and was covered from head to toe with that same fine white dust with which we would all soon be familiar. He was moving up Broadway with a purposeful stride. I looked in his eyes as he passed me. There was no shock or fear there, just a fierce, but calm, determination to get home, get out of that area, get back to some kind of sanity. I watched him until he faded off into the smoky distance of Broadway. He took a large measure of our past with him".
All the best,
For someone with so much on his plate, Kirwan is unusually accessible, and in his email reply to my request, noted that all of his email response has not been so positive, "I just got a scathing one in calling me a Commie bastard who tramples all over the country that adopted me. Jesus, there's so much hatred out there."
While the media fascination with 9/11 is somewhat to be expected (it's what media does, mostly), the pyschic wound seems just as fresh today as it did on 9/12/01 and using 9/11 to sell movie tickets, books, magazines, newspapers, and advertising on radio and television seems just as wrong as politicians using it to further whatever political adjenda. With all that in mind, it is absolutely true that the world changed that day and all of our lives are different now, and I thank Larry Kirwan for sharing the view from his perspective. Photos are courtesy of Black 47.
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