Sunday, September 11, 2011

2001: A Terrorized Odyssey

“The mystic chords of memory,” President Abraham Lincoln suggested during his first inaugural address in 1861, should be tempered by “the better angels of our nature.”

On an early autumn morning 150 years later, the mystic chords of memory became rooted in infamy that would change almost every political, social and cultural sphere on the planet. There’s no going back to the widespread innocence and ignorance that existed before the momentous events of 9/11, which many of us often replay in our minds.

I’d like to think my better angels will eventually diminish the feelings of fury about who wreaked so much misery and about an American government’s failure to be vigilant despite dire forewarnings. After a decade, the immediate fear has subsided but the rage continues and the wound never quite heals.

Here is an account of memories, reconstructed as faithfully as possible, from my sojourn at the Toronto International Film Festival when the worst demons of our nature came calling:

Tuesday, September 11

8:59 a.m – After waking up and showering, I turn on the television set in my room at a Toronto bed-and-breakfast on Dalton Road. Katie Couric of NBC’s Today Show is commenting on the black smoke emanating from the north tower of the World Trade Center. Her speculation: It might have been an accident, maybe caused by a small plane, and a top part of the building is now on fire.

9:02 – Couric’s cohost, Matt Lauer, muses about whether the incident could be “an intentional act” related to the 1993 terrorist bombing of the WTC.

9:04 – A female producer who lives in Lower Manhattan is on the phone to Couric describing the scene from her high-rise window when she suddenly shrieks: “Another one just hit!” The woman then wonders if there are “air traffic control problems.”

9:05 – NBC plays videotape of the second plane slamming into the south tower. Everyone now realizes these are not accidents.

9:10 – Shaken, I go downstairs and tell the proprietors, Dave and Philomena Vallance, about the situation. They turn on their TV as we drink coffee and eat toast in shock. We discover that the hijacked planes in Manhattan, both out of Boston and bound for Los Angeles, are American Airlines flight 11 and United flight 175.

9:30 – Just numbly putting one foot in front of the other, I leave for the Varsity cinema complex on Bloor Street, where a festival screening awaits me.

9:38 – American flight 77, from D.C. to L.A., has hit the Pentagon.

10:05 – None of the other journalists or industry reps I bump into have heard about what’s taking place. I tell two critics from San Francisco that United flight 93, which should have been en route to their hometown, also was hijacked. I fact, it has crashed moments earlier onto a Pennsylvania field. My colleague, Shlomo Schwartzberg, emerges from an 8:30 press screening of Monsoon Wedding and I break the news to him about the attack. Neither of us is aware the south tower has just begun to collapse.

James LeGros & Emily Mortimer in Lovely and Amazing
10:15 – Only a handful of people, some from New York. are in the theater to see Lovely and Amazing, Nicole Holofcener’s dramedy about a family of neurotics. By now, the neurotics in the room with me all understand what’s happening in the real world outside. A publicist gets a message on her cell phone that 60 planes are still unaccounted for in the skies over the U.S. I suggest that this catastrophe must be the work of Osama bin Laden, a name she’s never heard before.

10:30 – A collective gasp goes through the sparse audience when the Miramax logo comes on the screen. It’s a nighttime image of a Manhattan skyline that includes the two towers. We don’t yet know that the north tower has just begun to fall. The film unspools and for two hours I’m sort of able to escape my gloom.

12:30 p.m. – When I come out of the screening room, the lobby is packed with dazed and worried people. Both WTC towers, the adjacent 47-story Building 7 and and five stories at the Pentagon have collapsed. Another colleague, Kevin Courrier, finds me. I recall that the movie he was scheduled to see had just been cancelled. His recollection entails a slightly different sequence of events. We both agree, though, that life had been turned upside down.

1:10 – Journalists mingle in the hallways, wondering what to do next. Those from New York are trying to call home.

2:00 – We attend a press conference at the Park Hyatt Hotel, where it’s announced that all festival activity will be suspended indefinitely.

Duke of York -- Toronto
2:20 – Kevin, Shlomo and I are joined by several others for a long, somber walk to the Duke of York pub on Prince Arthur Avenue. Over lunch and beer, we look at the widescreen TV that allows us to follow what’s transpiring in New York and elsewhere. The footage, various views both towers crumbling and people fleeing the dust cloud, is unfathomable. We try to console ourselves with gallows humor. I’m the only American in the room and I find myself just wanting to go home.

4:00 – Air traffic is halted over the U.S. Incoming planes are diverted to Canada, which has stopped all departures at 11 a.m. Several movie stars and filmmakers booked for the festival can no longer reach Toronto. Some who are already here scramble for a way back to the States. Rumor has it that very famous actors are renting cars in hopes of making it across the border.

Wednesday, September 12

William H. Macy in Focus
10:00 a.m. – The regular festival schedule has resumed, though a few planned films and guests can no longer get to Canada. Others fill in for them. William H. Macy is at a previously unanticipated press conference. He was on hand to promote Focus, an indie based on an Arthur Miller play. The festival program guide describes it as being about “a nightmare vision of America.” The plot involves bigots who hate Jews during the post-World War II period; we’re contending with terrorists who hate anyone not an Islamic fundamentalist in 2001. This 21st-century nightmare vision of America, the new normal, is only just beginning.

11:00 – I call two very dear friends who live in NoHo, a Lower Manhattan neighborhood 1.68 miles northeast of Ground Zero. They say the air is thick with WTC dust and particles. We sadly acknowledge that people there could be breathing in the vaporized remains of fellow human beings.

Noon – Since air space over the U.S. is still closed, I wonder if it will be possible to return home on Saturday. Then it dawns on me that my flight is on one of the afflicted airlines, American, and I’m supposed to make my connection to Vermont at an airport, Logan in Boston, from which two of the attack planes departed.

Friday, September 14

2:00 p.m. – I have spent days calling American Airlines to no avail. After a 20-minute wait, this time on a pay phone at the Park Hyatt, a ticket agent finally comes on the line but has no information about whether or not my flight will be leaving Toronto tomorrow.

Saturday, September 15

6:00 a.m. – I ring up American Airlines again only to be told there would be 120-minute wait to speak to a person. Instead, I call Logan Airport, which is now expected to open at 7 a.m. Maybe. I decide to take take a chance and hail a cab to Pearson Airport. My 11 a.m. flight to Boston has not been cancelled. However, once we board, it sits on the tarmac for three hours, which means I’ll miss my ticketed connection to Vermont.

2:00 p.m. – We take off.

4:30 – We land at Logan, where SWAT teams accompanied by dogs, soldiers holding automatic weapons and Massachusetts cops regard every passenger with suspicion. While going through security, I get a pat-down and someone swabs my laptop case looking for explosives residue. A police-state atmosphere that would have been alarming a week earlier is freaky but appropriate. I run, hoping to reach the gate for another flight to Vermont, and burst into tears when it’s obvious I won’t get there in time.

5:00 – I manage to find a seat in the terminal’s packed waiting room. People around me are telling stories about their 9/11 tribulations. Many have been stuck there for days. A teenage girl says her aunt was an American Airlines employee tearing tickets at the flight 11 gate when five al-Qaeda operatives (including Mohamed Atta, later seen in photos that showed his dead-inside eyes) carrying box cutters were able to pass through with ease. The woman has since had something of a nervous breakdown.

8:00 – The last flight of the day to Vermont has now been posted and cancelled several times.

11:00 – I’m flying home at last.

Sunday, September 16

1:30 a.m. – Back in Burlington, neighbors across the street who’ve been feeding my cats are still awake and call when they see the houselights on. They tell me that the whole block held a vigil on the night of September 11 and one of their candles was placed on my front porch to symbolically include me in the sorrowful gathering.

September 11, 2002

Ramzi Yousef
At the Toronto festival again, the New York publicist who had never heard of bin Laden last year asks me how on earth I knew then that he was the evildoer in question. I explain that it’s a matter of paying attention rather than psychic ability. I simply had remembered that, after the bombing of the World Trade Center’s north tower in 1993, convicted conspirator Ramzi Yousef – nephew of al Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, – vowed to the FBI: “Next time, we’ll bring them both down!”

In 2002, the public hasn’t yet been informed that Vice-President Dick Cheney never met with the terrorism task force he was supposed to convene, even though the outgoing Clinton administration had stressed the urgency of this issue eight months before 9/11. Another revelation to come: George W. Bush seemingly ignored an August 6, 2001 official memorandum titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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