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Surreal in Stockholm

Notes from William Weathersby, Jr. Contributing Editor

On September 11, I was traveling with five American journalists on a train from Malmo, Sweden to Stockholm when news of the terrorist attacks reached us. Cell phone holders in our train car began telling us in Swedish and English that America was under siege, Washington and New York on fire, and more hijacked planes were still in the air. "I am sorry to tell you that your Pentagon has been bombed," a courtly gentleman said in a calm voice. I was groggy from a nap and thought it was a vivid nightmare. One man began moaning about Nostradamus and the end of the world. Besides brief news snippets relayed from passengers equipped with global-reaching cell phones—before battery power and mainland circuitry ran out—there was no way to check the accuracy of the unbelievable news, or to contact loved ones back in New York. We could only sit silently and watch as the beautiful Swedish countryside streamed past the windows of the high-speed train, bleeding muted swatches of color.

Like all of us, I have been experiencing very surreal days of detachment, disbelief, and grief ever since. I keep returning to the events of that day, trying to force them into a clearer shape in my mind. I later learned that on that Tuesday morning my Record colleagues had been at 55 Water Street on the 37th floor for a reception and meeting that I would have attended had I been in town, and they had held unfathomable front-seat views of the explosions. Though traumatized, they all escaped immediate harm. (See Robert Ivy's From the Field.)

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Checking into the Nordic Light Hotel in Stockholm as darkness fell that night, a large flat-screen television parallel to the front desk was broadcasting CNN coverage of the collapse of the Twin Towers. Signing the hotel paperwork and handing over my American Express card seemed to be particularly absurd, if necessary, transactions as all eyes in the lobby were focused on the real-time coverage of history being made.

After trying to call friends and family in New York to no avail because of jammed circuits, family members reached in Virginia and Connecticut at last relayed accurate news of the disaster. Meanwhile, another friend remained grounded in Paris on business, while another was stuck at the suddenly grim Toronto Film Festival, with borders closed. It seems the globe stopped on its axis all week. My hosts in Sweden were kind to our contingent of American design writers, but they could see the pain in our eyes, which were brimming with tears each day as we tried to forge ahead with the travel itinerary.

On Saturday, September 15, I had a sickening feeling in my stomach as we landed at Newark Airport (on a 767), the scene of one of the hijackings. The skyline was without its signature balanced towers at the south, but the sunlight was as bright and enveloping as reportedly it was on the morning of the11th. In the passport area, there was a sign carved in stone that says Welcome to the United States of America. Lumps settled in our throats. Just beyond in the receiving room, high overhead among the tourist iconography, a large photo montage of the Twin Towers was superimposed with the word ‘Welcome’ in five or so languages. No one had thought to wreathe the display with flowers of mourning.

The immensity of the tragedy comes into focus every day as I receive e-mails from friends and associates, with news of Battery Park apartment tower lobbies becoming triage units, and New Yorkers forging ahead with weddings or baseball games or dinners out with friends amid all the rituals of death. Where I live, an hour’s drive outside New York, the local Connecticut papers—once filled with recipes and civic notices and wedding announcements—are filled with obituaries honoring the dead and now presumed dead from the neighboring commuter towns: basketball stars, grandfathers, homemakers, Wall Street traders, and college students. Chillingly, one of the scenic local state beaches is closed as a staging ground for coast guard and military rescue and strategic operations across the Sound from Manhattan.

It seems the ultimate irony that our October issue, which has been ripped apart and reworked to document the staggering loss to the world that resulted from terrorism allegedly waged in the name of religious faith, already featured a Building Type Study and essay on houses of worship, a section for which a practicing Buddhist scoured the globe for worthy projects so we could feature sacred spaces representing as many of the world’s faiths as possible. And in Malmo, Sweden, I had toured an international housing exposition called Bo 01. “Bo” is the Swedish word for “life,” and the waterfront redevelopment features 500 homes designed by international architects, a kind of United Nations of residential design. A centerpiece, still unbuilt, was to be a towering skyscraper called Turning Torso, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Inspired by an athlete twisting in celebratory motion toward the sky, it represents a vision of the new century one hopes can still survive.

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