9/11 was followed by a day of ghostly silence

Part II


Sept. 12 — I woke up early because of the deadly quiet outside; there were no screaming sirens, no car horns, nothing — I wondered about that silence and worried that this was a very bad sign — that it meant that there were no survivors being transported to the hospitals in the neighborhood.

From my windows, facing south, I could see the black smoke rising downtown and then blowing to New Jersey — the pictures of burning hell continued on my television set. That day most of Manhattan was closed, such as the subways, the bridges, the tunnels, the schools, universities and the stock exchange. It was advised that non-essential personnel should stay home that day and consider the day a so-called “snow day,” meaning that the day off would not count as a vacation day. We were also advised to make the day as normal as was possible for each of us in our own way. I took the advice and bought potting soil to repot all my plants that needed attention after a dry and dusty summer on our wide window sills. Repotting the plants was a life-affirming activity that made particularly good sense on that day as I was watching the horror of what was once a bustling downtown on my television set.  

Throughout the day, I heard the police cars and ambulances going to the hospitals near me. Later I found out that they mostly carried firemen and cops who had been working downtown at the burning pile of collapsed buildings and needed treatment for eye and respiratory injuries.  

After they had been treated and had received dry socks, they went back downtown. At some point that evening I sat before the television set and watched the collapse of another building, World Trade Center Five. The building had become unstable and was blown up on purpose — this time nobody was hurt.

That night a terrific thunderstorm with lightning and endless echoes of thunderclaps and rumbles woke me up — when I saw lightning right above the disaster area, my heart stood still for a short moment — it looked too much like yet another attack, this time with serious explosives added. Then the wind shifted again, and I could smell the acrid smoke of the burning buildings downtown. 


Sept. 13 — On Thursday, New Yorkers went back to work. In the office I found most of my co-workers, almost everyone had made it back, even Mona, one of the secretaries who had walked home all the way to the Bronx. She had not arrived there until past six in the evening. Being together in a normal location was comforting, but we were not very effective as workers. Yet, being together on this weekday was a sign of normalcy in a very abnormal time.

At some point, after we had been together in a meeting and had talked about the horror of the previous days, I sat vacantly looking out my window, facing north, when I noticed small orange particles drifting in front of me. Some were actually floating up on puffs of air, and the more I looked, the more of these small orange puffs came floating by my window. Initially I explained to myself that these were small pieces of burning paper that were blown all over the city from the burning buildings. 

And then I saw the miracle of what these small orange puffs really were — what appeared as small burning pieces of paper were actually delicate butterflies, monarchs, that live during the summer in North America and migrate south to Mexico in the fall. As a form of life on Earth, they are one of the most fragile of beings, yet, here they were fluttering through smoke and ashes of burning steel and concrete to the sun and beyond.


However hard we tried, our workday did not become a “normal” one — by noon we heard of a bomb scare in Grand Central Terminal, then there was a rumor about a bomb in our building and then we heard of similar scares all over New York City. At midday, the streets were once again full of people walking home. My walk home took me along Lexington Avenue and past The Old Print Shop where the owners had created a display window full of etchings and prints depicting New York scenes. 

One aquatint, called “Bronx Nocturne,” caught my eye, because it depicts the skyline at night, a crescent moon hanging over the buildings while here and there some apartment windows are lit in an otherwise slumbering city. The scene is one of dark beauty and quiet — a scene of peace. I bought the print to remember a time in New York that was so absolutely normal and now seemed to be gone forever.


Sia Arnason has a master’s degree in geriatric social work. She was employed as co-director of the Institute on Law and Rights of Older Adults at the Brookdale Center on Aging of Hunter College, working at the Grace Building on 42nd street, at the time of 9/11. She wrote about that event a day or two after it happened, for her family in the Netherlands. She came across the essay while cleaning out her files earlier this year, and offered to share it with The Millerton News.