The Chronicle Review

'It Was Not a Dream'

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August 07, 2011

On September 10, 2001, I drew my students' attention to an intriguing set of passages from the Book of Isaiah. These verses imply that God has a plan for humanity. An awful plan.

Humanity, for its part, understands nothing of this. I translated as follows:

14:24 Indeed, as I thought it, so it will be
And that which I have planned, it will come to pass
14:27 Over all of the nations For Yahweh of Hosts has planned And who can annul it?

Elsewhere the text reads:

6:9 Hear much and misunderstand!See much and fail to comprehend!

That there is a God who has schemes and designs—of this I remain skeptical. As for humanity's lack of comprehension, I concur.

On September 11, 2001, at around a quarter to 9, I wake up, attend to the coffeemaker, and then hear the sound of a whistling plane engine that is somehow crescendoing. I ask my wife a few seconds before a shadow darkens the room:

"Hey, Polly, does that sound strange to—"

I am interrupted by the loudest thud I have ever heard, as if a huge mallet has struck a drumhead stretched across the circumference of the moon. This is followed by two sounds in quick succession.

The first is the squawk and flapping of an immense flock of birds. My guess is that every pigeon in the neighborhood had been roosting on ledges of buildings around the World Trade Center. They evacuated in haste when this missile blew past them or perhaps in response to the impact itself.

The second sound gathers in volume just as the first is diminishing. It is the collective, synchronized sigh of every person in Lower Manhattan who sees or hears the crash.

It registers as Uhhhhhhhhhhhh! and rises in pitch. The scream is disturbingly musical, in 10,000-part harmony. I am reminded of the final scene of the Saint-Saëns opera Samson and Delilah. The blinded hero pulls down the city gate. The entire cast lets loose a shriek—part awe, part terror, part melody.

Bolting down nine flights of stairs; jumping the bottom three of each landing. Out into the sunlight. Is there any neighborhood in New York where the sunlight tickles you more gently than Tribeca?

The corner of Greenwich and Chambers. Everyone is standing still, arms folded across their chests, looking up into a hole in the North Tower.

The word I keep hearing is "Cessna." A Cessna hit the tower. Maybe it isn't so bad then. I gaze up, squinting. The hole is some five to 10 stories high. A Cessna? Could a Cessna do that?

That hole is not spewing smoke. It is a void, black and tranquil. (I don't realize that the plane's momentum has carried it to the other side of the building, where a fire is raging.)

I am hopeful. It's scarcely 9 in the morning. The building must be empty. Everyone's probably OK.

Up nine flights of stairs, as fast as I can run (I am afraid to take the elevator). I tell my wife who is eight months pregnant to call her parents in Italy. This might be on the news tonight. Wouldn't want to worry them. I am going up to the roof.

There on the roof is the Sister of the Famous Actress, her dog, and her boyfriend. The three of us are working the Cessna paradigm. There might even be some casual chitchat. Crazy place, New York. And then ...

"What the f___ was that?"

The building shakes. We all lurch and lose our balance—a truly horrifying experience when it happens on a roof. The dog completely loses his composure. I feel intense heat scald my face (or is that false memory?).

This time there is no sound. Just a huge plume of fire maybe 20 stories high. It appears and disappears. On. Off. Quiet and fast.

"We're getting out of here—take your medicine," I command my wife.

"I want to stay. I don't feel well."

"This isn't right. First the Cessna, then that bomb."

The door has been left ajar and in comes our neighbor, Tak. He is a filmmaker from Japan who idolizes Kurosawa (a month later he spends hours interrogating me about the birds). He implores us: "Get out! The building go like this." He makes a whistling noise. His left hand mimics a big structure collapsing violently on the back of the right hand. That settles it.

"Hurry, get your medicine. Let's go. Let's take the stairs."

"I can't make it on the stairs."

"Oh, right."

The lobby is swarming with crying children. They have been evacuated from the public school across the street. Six-year-olds.

Out of nowhere appears Dan. Nebbishy graphic artist. Always tells me stories about picking up women in the laundry room. He has draped, incongruously, a red bandanna around his head.

"You want to go in?" he asks.

"Go in where?"

"To save those people."

"Are you crazy?"

He finds a more courageous specimen. They set off one way. My wife and I head in the other direction, but not before a firetruck glides by. Not speeding. No sirens wailing. It gives the impression of a routine run.

Walking up Greenwich Street. Three of us are fleeing north, away from the flaming towers. Me, Polly, and a woman muttering in a Spanish accent something about Jesus.

Hundreds of people are walking south, toward the flaming towers. Many are holding cameras. The Jesus woman scolds them, "Get out of here! You're all going to die. There's nothing to see. You're all going to die."

To my in-laws' vacant apartment in the West Village. It's the block pictured on the famous album cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Thirty-eight years after that photo was taken, two Japanese women sit weeping and hugging each other on the stoop of a building just over Dylan's girlfriend's left shoulder. Two days later, candles and flowers will carpet the stairs.

In the apartment, I order my wife to go bed and not to watch television (the bad news will freak out the baby). I turn on 1010 WINS. Reported: People are being led out of the Trade Center in handcuffs. Smaller explosions in the North Tower. A van packed with explosives at the base of the George Washington Bridge.

And then for the second time in an hour, the earth shakes. The reporter is play-by-playing the apocalypse. The South Tower has collapsed.

On the morning of September 12, I wake up. Initially, I am happy. It was all a dream. The TV assures me it was not a dream.

I go back downtown to get my wife's medicine from our apartment. My driver's license gets me past the first few checkpoints. I spend $50 on bags of ice and give them to the police. I hope it's helpful.

Walking south down Greenwich, I glimpse something that can't be real. A skyscraping pile of upside-down steel and glass. A thousand flaming trapezoids. The sun glistens off the twisted metal. A blinding nimbus. I stop walking.

"I was on top of that s___ yesterday. Can you get me past the checkpoint?" asks the kid standing next to me wearing a bandanna designed like the flag of Puerto Rico. He is holding a shovel. He and his friends came down from the Bronx to look for survivors. They worked through the night and saved people. Then the cops pushed them all the way back to Canal Street. Only the ironworkers are allowed to help now.

We get to the next checkpoint. My plea about the medicine gets me through, but his shovel disqualifies him.

At Greenwich and Reade, debris, paper, shoes, everywhere. Unbreathable. Total confusion.

A checkpoint no one can pass. My entrance is 20 feet behind the barrier. The police are sweating and surly. They don't care about anyone's cat stuck in the building. No one gets by.

Suddenly, I see one of my neighbors behind the blue sawhorse. He is wearing a yellow hard hat adorned with patriotic flags and decals. He is, it turns out, a retired ironworker.

"Bix, Bix, over here!" I hand him my keys. "Could you please bring down the medicine on the table? And my eyeglasses?"

The child was born seven weeks later. We named him Cyrus. In the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is denoted as the messiah.

Jacques Berlinerblau is director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and a contributor to The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog. His book How to Be Secular: A Field Guide for Religious Moderates, Atheists and Agnostics is scheduled to be published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  • SHELDON SOLOMON
  • STEVEN PINKER
  • ALEX GOUREVITCH
  • TERRY EAGLETON
  • SCOTT ATTRAN
  • VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
  • MARTHA NUSSBAUM
  • TODD GITLIN
  • LAWRENCE WESCHLER
  • MARJORIE PERLOFF
  • RICHARD SENNETT
  • BARBARA FREDERICKSON
  • OMID SAFI

Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.