Friday, September 11, 2009

Moments before Death: Will 9/11 Forever Define this Generation?

I do not mean to be morbid this morning. I am sorry to those I may offend. However, there are a few things I am trying to work through.

Today is Friday. Friday is the day when despite all that has transpired during the previous days that week, I begin to feel a little upbeat. I begin to feel encouraged, and I look forward to spending at least a couple of days with my family.

But this Friday just happens to be September 11, and the commemorations of that fateful day in 2001 work to conjure up images of dread, of panic, of helplessness, that dog me, that I cannot seem to shake, and I thought that perhaps by writing about it, I could put these images behind me and find a certain peace of mind. Writing it out has always worked for me in the past.

When I was a young private in the army, I was assigned to a detail charged with guarding an army helicopter crash site. By the time I arrived at the site, the fire had been for the most part extinguished, and the area had been cordoned off. However, because the wreckage was still too hot for anyone to approach it, the bodies remained inside.

So that night I stood vigil beside the still smoking aircraft. And the longer I sat, the darker the night got, the keener my vision seemed. At first I thought I could make out the vague outline of the charred remains of soldiers still strapped into their seat, their weapons standing upright between their legs, and their faces twisted into grimaces of panic, grimaces wrought by the macabre assurance of imminent death.

But the reports said that the bodies had been burned beyond recovery, that the fire had burned so hot, that even much of the metal parts had melted away. Did I imagine the soldiers sitting there?

But I did not imagine the smell which permeated the site. When I had arrived, I immediately recognized the smell of burning aircraft fuel. I recognized the smell of burning timber. But there was one peculiar smell that I did not recognize, that stood out above the rest. Finally, after sitting there for hours attempting to discern the origin of the smell, I asked the detail sergeant, a Vietnam vet.

He looked at me briefly, and the told me in a matter-of-fact manner, “Flesh, son. That’s what human flesh smells like when it burns.” I was horrified.

For years afterward, during each and every funeral I attended, the real or imagined images of the charred remains of those soldiers, sitting erect, their weapons at the ready, would return. And I would be enveloped by a miasma imagined but no less real, and the putrid smell of charred flesh would fill my lungs. My throat would close, and I would reach for breath in short, quick gasps until finally, unable to breathe, I would rush from the service in a panic.

And then on this day in 2001, as I watched the news coverage of the catastrophe, as each station played the scene over and over again from every available angle, I thought first of the soldiers in that crash and then of the people in each plane.

How must they have felt when they knew death was imminent? How must they have felt in that last moment before impact? Did they resign themselves to death? Did they say a short, hopeful prayer for deliverance? Or were they seized by a feeling of dread, of panic, ten times, maybe one hundred times greater than I have ever felt? Perhaps, a thousand times?

Later I watched a documentary that followed firefighters at the scene as they attempted to rescue victims trapped within the towers. During the filming, slight, yet steady, dull thuds could be heard in the background—thump…thump…thump. Finally someone, I think it was the cameraman, inquired as to the source of the noise. A fireman gave him the same look my sergeant gave me and informed him that the slight, yet steady, dull thuds he heard were people hurling themselves from the upper floors of the building. And the sound continued like rain—thump…thump...thump.

It was almost as if the occupants were given two untenable options—death by fire or death by impact. I have read that often if a person falls from a very high height, they are often dead even before impact. Is it wrong to hope that this is true, that indeed this was the case?

For me, these horrific images, the images of 9/11, are the images that replaced that of the downed helicopter and the charred bodies and the smell of burning flesh.

Every generation is marked by an incredible event. This event often defines that generation. I certainly hope that this is not the event that defines my generation. The election of a president of color could have been that defining event, but his election has been sullied by a resurgence of and recommitment to old traditions of ignorance and bigotry. I certainly hope something wonderful and miraculous occurs soon, something that replace these images of the moments before death, maybe imagined but none the less real.

3 comments:

macon d said...

Thank you for this post. It brought back some necessary things for me.

And yes, the idea that this event could define this generation . . . I'm with you, hoping that something amazingly positive, and positively amazing, comes along to replace it.

Regina said...

Awesome post. I agree that the election of the first black president has been sullied by bigotry, racism, ignorance and sheer stupidity. However that does not make the event any less ground breaking.
I pray that the youth of this generation sees this election as an inspiration and a war cry to be upwardly mobile and to accomplish awesome things in their life time!

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

In the days after 9/11, my husband and I flew to NYC to volunteer on a first response team at Ground Zero. The smell is something I will never forget, and the memory still haunts me.

Like Regina, my prayer is that this generation will be marked by something different. I agree that the election of our first black president is being sullied by some loud idiots. My hope is that there will be a backlash against this, especially from the youth. I hope that the younger generation will see this kind of behavior as detestable, and fight against it.

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