September 27, 2001
Notes from Charles Linn, AIA
The first paragraph of this article is an apology. This account
of where I was the week when the World Trade Center was attacked
and subsequently collapsed cannot ever compare to the hundreds
of thousands of tales of witness and escape by those who were
there. The recollections told over the last few weeks and
that will be recounted in print, on tape, and in lore passed
down for generations make my own experiences seem unimportant.
My own story is that of a New Yorker who was isolated from
this tragedy, separated by the Atlantic ocean, almost half
a world away. I am grateful to be permitted to tell it.
I was on vacation in Venice on September 11. That is extremely
unusual for me. As I have grown older I have begun to avoid
travel because I fear that while I am away something will
go wrong and I will be unable to do anything about it. Venice
was exceptionally warm on that late summer afternoon. The
air was full of the hazy golden light that reflects off the
green sea and the ochre and pink-covered stucco buildings
with their orange tile roofs. I was having an espresso at
one of those outdoor cafes on the Piazza San Marco, where
the nostalgia charge is 7,500 lire per person, and is added
to one's first round of drinks. That gets one waiters in white
Ike jackets over black trousers and a five-piece string orchestra
that plays Strauss for those who have confused Venice with
Vienna, and "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," for
those who wish they were in Paris.
The service was lousy. Almost all of the help in the place
was loitering around a table of six Americans, who were each
chattering earnestly into their cell phones. I figured that
the waiters were waiting to break into a chorus of "Happy
Birthday" at some opportune moment. I was trying to get
the attention of one of them when someone else approached
a man and woman at the table next to us and said, "They
say another plane has crashed. This one hit the Pentagon."
I interrupted and asked him to repeat what he said. "Haven't
you heard? Two hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade
Center this morning."
Frankly, I didn't believe it and it made me angry that another
Internet hoax was running amok around the globe. But considering
the air of apprehension around the place, it seemed worth
One of the waiters gave me directions to a hotel just off
the Square, and I found its dark bar crammed with dozens of
silent wide-eyed Americans, their faces illuminated by the
light of a small television cutting through a veil of blue
cigarette smoke. I felt like I was in "Cabaret,"
listening to rumors spread about the Nazis, except that now
the cell phone had replaced the shortwave radio. There was
only one barman, and he was busy. People were getting crocked.
They were crying and trying to figure out how they would get
It was only 11:30 a.m. in New York, and CNN's video feeds
were lagging behind the news conferences, making it seem as
if estimates of the damage were being exaggerated. I was still
in denial. I could see that the towers had been hit but I
didn't believe Mayor Guilani's statement that the towers had
collapsed. They were still standing, burning, but standing.
I could see them! There was a lot of smoke to be sure, but.
. .then a new feed showed the radio antenna tumble as the
tower pancaked beneath it. There was no doubt. Another new
feed showed the Pentagon burning.
After a couple of hours, the coverage had made me feel numb
and nauseated. I made my way back across the Piazza, strangely
deserted at the dinner hour, to the Number 6 Water Taxi which
took me across the lagoon to my own hotel, a small inn in
Malamocco, a village about midway between the ends of the
slender island of Lido. I had a few more drinks with the barman
there, while in fractured English we discussed how I would
get home, then watched in stunned silence the only coverage
my hotel's television offered-CNN's, accompanied by Italian
When the station finally discontinued coverage at two o'clock
in the morning, they ran a video loop of smoke shooting out
of the first tower, the second plane driving through the second
tower, and the final collapses over the theme music from "Gone
with the Wind." Imposing a reference to the story of
the ruination of a way of life supported by slavery onto fresh
images of the destruction of the symbols of our current way
of life 150 years later, and the deaths of what would no doubt
be thousands of people, struck me as cynical and mean. I'm
not sure now that the Italian producers responsible grasped
the cultural significance of this implication. But, maybe
they did. One does get, from time to time, the feeling that
some Europeans hate us.
I awoke at the crack of dawn and took the bus back to the
ferry terminal so I could grab the International
Herald Tribune, the Daily
Mail, and any other English-language newspapers I could
find before they sold out. I never wanted to get my hands
on a paper so badly in my life, and this became a ritual for
the rest of my stay. The papers were printed in Rome or Barcelona
and sent in by plane and rail, so the news was always far
behind television. But holding a paper in my hands made what
had happened tangible. In the photos I could pick out places
I had been and things I had seen. The papers I picked up there
still litter the floor of my office cubicle in America, where
I sit writing this story several weeks later.
Over the next few days, I did what little I could. Evenings
found me back at the same hotel bar in Venice where I watched
CNN in English. I found an Internet cafe near St. Mark's Basilica
where I could send email, and found it possible to make sporadic
communications with New York using a phone card. I tried to
write something profound. But the sense of isolation from
my fellow workers at the magazine and my neighbors in New
York was torturous. I knew there was work to do. I knew that
probably friends had died, but I didn't know which of them.
Venice was no longer a wonderful place to be. I wanted to
be home. It seemed very strange not to be able to do anything
to help. It made me angry that I could not fly home at will.
That old fear I harbor, that if I go away something at home
will go wrong, haunted me. The people at the hotel, who kindly
negotiated with Alitalia for my new ticket, couldn't comprehend
my sense of urgency. "We no know when you go. Maybe tomorrow,
maybe next week." The shrug of the shoulders. "Why
you worry?" It was hard not to feel I was being held
under house arrest by a benevolent dictatorship.
I got out September 17th, days after I was supposed to leave.
My plane approached Newark on a southbound descent path that
took us parallel to Manhattan, west of the island. Where I
had watched the towers anchoring New York from planes perhaps
a hundred times before, a faint column of light smoke illuminated
by emergency lights was still rising. The pile of rubble was
tiny compared to what I had expected.
I didn't understand at first, but all of the energy, every
kilowatt of electricity and gallon of fuel that had been used
to hoist the millions of tons of concrete and steel into place
when the towers were built had been released as heat, gas,
and matter in the few minutes it took them to collapse. The
power unleashed by the towers' implosion was little different
than a runaway nuclear chain reaction, the banging of neurons
into molecules of fissile which shatters the bonds that hold
it together, releasing energy, and in turn an exponentially
greater number of neutrons to break apart yet more fissile.
The collapse of the towers had freed to the heavens the building
blocks of life: carbon, oxygen, silica, hydrogen, heat, and
the souls of thousands.
In the hours before I knew of the catastrophe, I lit a few
candles as I walked through St. Mark's, unaware of the events
that were unfolding in the States. As all people do, I wondered
at the beauty of this place, not just in its size, its gold-leaf
mosaic-covered domes, the complexity of its craftsmanship,
but in its defiance of all of the forces that have worked
against it for hundreds of years. It has resisted warring
nations, corrupt popes, the capricious fancies of a few hundred
years' worth of doges, a few plagues, Mussolini, and dozens
of modern Italian governments. Its millions of mosaic floor
tiles are settled in every direction like frozen waves, as
if the church is sitting over thousands of tiny drains, each
intent on sucking the building into the landfill beneath it.
I found myself wondering how this Byzantine creation, built
without the benefit of calculators, concrete, and steel survived
all of these things.
Sometimes what we consider to be invincible is, in fact,
fragile. And what appears to be fragile is stronger than we
to "From the Field"