One Died, One Lived

9:11
By Misha Schubert


I stood in the hall, watching the screen in the auditorium. News channels were retailing a forlorn hope that the plane crash into the World Trade Center might have been an accident. There was talk of a pilot being blinded by the early morning sun. “Nope”, came the voice beside me. “Terrorism”. Steeled by five years living in Israel, my friend Caryn knew it instantly. Unprepared by a carefree Australian upbringing, I struggled to grasp it. These things just did not happen in the safety of western democracies, let alone on home soil for the globe’s dominant superpower.

Even in the initial rush of disbelief, we knew the world had changed. Over the course of a decade, driven by the events that terrible day, we in the west would head into two protracted foreign wars, rewrite our laws to hand vast new powers to the authorities, transform our security screening and grapple with a fear of cultures hostile to our own.

Moments earlier the first reports had blipped up on the web. But this had to be seen in rolling footage. How would those terrified survivors escape the blazing death trap?
And then the thought the terrorists wanted us all to have: where else would they strike? The fear rose in my throat and chest.

Suddenly the day’s mission seemed so irrelevant. We were meant to be covering an electoral primary. How pedestrian and naive that felt now.

I wanted to cover the attacks, to try and make sense of it for an Australian audience back home that would soon be ripped from its slumber. I contacted my newspaper, and would later do radio crosses for commercial radio.

Amidst the news monitoring, there was a hasty e-mail. “I am safe but America is crazy”, read the subject line to family and friends back home. I feared my boyfriend and parents would be sick with panic. I wanted to allay their fears about me – even as mine rose about a former housemate who worked near the World Trade Center.

As it turned out, that dread was misplaced. On any other day, Chuck would have been at his desk in the shadow of the towers as they buckled. But he was fine – by a fluke of luck he had worked all night at the law firm then gone home to Brooklyn to sleep.

Sadly my relief was premature. In those first hazy hours, I had assumed another friend was safe in his midtown office. He was not. That fateful day he was in the North Tower, working as a contractor for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor.

The realization hit later. He did not answer his phone. He could not. Andrew Knox, a childhood friend from Australia, had died in the suffocating smoke that followed the first plane slamming through the tower and combusting in a fireball. He was 29 years old.

In an e-mail to the Knox family, his boss would recount one final call: “We had Andrew on speakerphone at first, and then we heard all of the screams and him yelling “we are all going to die” as they ran up the last flights of stairs to the roof. I picked up the phone and asked where he was. No reply except for the background noise. I kept asking and finally he said that they had reached the roof. He said they could not see and something about the smoke. He had calmed himself down by this time, but the screaming behind him continued. Then I heard Andrew’s co-workers say, “Andrew I cannot breathe any more”, and Andrew replied “I cannot breathe either”.

For months afterwards, the thought of him in those moments lingered in my head.

It was one of the many paradoxes of 9/11. An American friend who should have been at his desk below the towers was safe. But a mate from halfway around the world – whose office was in midtown – was dead.

A New Yorker who had lived her whole life in the city puzzled that she did not know anyone personally who had died in the attacks. But there I was – a foreigner who had lived there barely more than a month – in mourning.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found it hard to shake the pall. The city was plastered with flyers of the missing. I worked on class assignments by day and did live crosses for radio by night. Work was shrouded by the wait for news of Andrew’s body. I helped a friend take his toothbrush to register a DNA sample at the Park Avenue Armory, so that his family might be able to reclaim him. We sat on the floor of his apartment reading notes he had scribbled about his hopes and dreams – ones he would never now fulfill.

This week a plaque will be dedicated to Andrew in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, perched above a harbor of breathtaking beauty in a land of sunshine and freedom. It seems not nearly enough, but it is a small rejoinder to a doctrine of hatred, extremism and fear.

 

Misha Schubert is the National Political Editor, The Sunday Age, Canberra, Australia. This article was originally written for The Uptown Chronicle.

 

11 September 2011

 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta