Friday, September 11, 2009


Three years ago today, on September 11, 2006, the historian and documentary filmmaker Ric Burns told me, in an interview, the following about 9/11:

“People will say it’s incredible, how this seismic event on the threshold of the 21st century marked the difference between one epoch and another.We were strangely, blissfully unaware of how we occurred to others in the world. I can’t think of another moment in history that has that quality of literally ripping open the surface of things.”

Early this morning, a friend sent me a copy of the email I'd sent to him nearly eight years ago today, on the morning after 9/11. I was working as the Executive Editor of CIO Insight magazine at the time, a publication I co-founded and which was headquartered in the Madison Square Park neighborhood of Manhattan. Here's an excerpt of that email, in memoriam:

Marcia Stepanek
09/12/2001 07:59 AM

To: "Keith"
Subject: Re: glad

Thanks, Keith. Really appreciate your concern and thanks for getting to Larry. Phones were totally knocked out; I finally convinced an emergency operator to connect me, and I finally got through to Larry last night at around 10:30 or so...

This morning, the city around the World Trade Center looks like Beirut; thick, muddy, sickly white dust covers the streets as far north as my office, on 28th Street. I'm about a half-mile north of the towers—far enough to have always seen the towers poking up through the clouds, a landmark—and yet close enough now, still, to feel very strange and angered by their absence and yet thankful, too, to be separate. The city has closed itself off south of 14th Street. It has, mostly, stopped: there are few cabs or cars out on the streets this morning and even fewer pedestrians.

No newspapers yet. I just got here. The building is closed, mostly. I'm here for anyone who straggles in but the city has no movement this morning, save for the tiny delis and coffee shops that are open across the street. I'm always amazed at the resourcefulness of New Yorkers but especially so this morning: the towers are gone, people are dead. My arts editor has a nephew who was a firefighter who was buried in the rubble—and oatmeal is still being served by the Mexican who owns the "Jewish deli" across the street, free of charge today.

...Yesterday, people in my building watched as the second plane hit; they were up on the 13th floor roof deck having their coffee and a smoke, as usual, when someone saw black smoke against the deep blue, perfect sky. You can see a lot from up there—the WTC through the buildings to the South, the Empire State to the North and the Flatiron Building a few blocks to the West. Some people started crying; others on the terrace raced inside, afraid suddenly of the Empire State.

After the planes hit, people started going outside, all over the city. Masses of people, quiet, were simply standing in the streets in some places, looking up, waiting for subways to start up again, waiting for a few sparse cabs to get off the island—waiting, as if expecting some sort of announcement that would make it all right to go back to work, or to go home, or to move forward. There was no sense of panic, just eerily peaceful throngs; one cab driver simply pulled over, curbside on Lexington, parked (!), and got out for a smoke; I saw a guy dressed for the office sitting on his briefcase near the Citibank subway station around 52nd and Lex, just looking around at everyone else in the act of stopping...

...The city shut down Central Park. I tried to cut across it for home but there were people in uniforms, asking me to go around. Along Central Park West, the churches and synagogues had card tables set up outside, serving water and offering to make calls. I saw a pin-striped businessman, his shirt torn, tie askew, his wingtips covered with white, thick mud and dust, walking north along Central Park West, his eyes locked forward, walking home the long way from the financial district as if coming home from war..."

—By Marcia Stepanek

PHOTO: 9/11 WTC evacuee/Liberty icon from diner near Ground Zero:
Courtesy PRI's The World's Flickr photostream; 9/11 Museum in Caen

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Blogger Matthew Marotta said...

I am curious as to who is the "we" that Mr. Burns was referring to when he wrote "We were strangely, blissfully unaware of how we occurred to others in the world." Ok. How about moving forward, "we" stop equating America with the self-satisfied and willfully ignorant.

September 14, 2009 at 3:37 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Ric Burns was referring to Americans, and specifically to native New Yorkers. He was speaking within the context of the eight-part, 14 1/2-hour American documentary he made on the history of New York City. The documentary originally consistent of seven parts. The eighth part, "The Center of the World (1946-2003), told the history of the World Trade Center and was produced following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

September 14, 2009 at 10:11 AM  

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