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The tragedy from abroad

Notes from Charles Linn, AIA
Senior Editor

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.

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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 checking out.

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 home.

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 voiceover.

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 imagine.

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