Sunday, September 13, 2009


On September 11th this year, many of my "friends" updated their Facebook status to describe what they remember from that day eight years ago, as in "WP, who was in the capitol that day, remembers", or "RR: I was in my dorm room asleep when a friend called to tell me to turn on the TV. 'What channel?' I asked. 'It doesn't matter' he said." Many people said where they were when they first heard the news, others wondered what we'd learned in the time that has followed. Others just looked forward to the OSU game on Saturday.

I remember being on the unit when I overheard someone say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The medical resident standing beside me said, "I've been in that place, it's a fortress. That building isn't coming down". At that point most assumed it was an accident. Patient care went on.

I stopped by the TV in the atrium just in time to see the 2nd plane crash, confirming this was no accident. But patient care went on.

Then my long time supervisor and friend, J., saw me in the hall and said, "Did you hear they hit the Pentagon?". "Who is they?" I said. "Terrorists. They're coming for the Capitol". But patient care went on.

There was a brief time where I thought I was personally in danger. Silly now looking back on it, but powerful in the moment.

Patient care that day involved business as usual for our inpatients, who for the most part didn't have the awareness to understand what was going on given their injuries, and prepping for the admissions from the acute care hospital as they were sending anyone who was medically stable over to us to make room for burn or other trauma victims from the Pentagon scene. They never came, as people either survived unscathed or were incinerated on the spot (a friend who worked the recovery later told me that they found people still sitting at their desks doing whatever it was they were doing on impact, only they were no longer people but piles of ash).

Where I work is in the northwest quadrant of the city, and to get to Virginia you have to go over a bridge leaving the city unless you want to go into Maryland and around. We were hearing that people had simply walked home in order to evacuate downtown DC before they knew all the planes had been grounded, and there were rumors flying that there were no open roads into VA. After the single longest day of my life, it was finally time to go home but no one knew how to do it. One of the guys in the Rehab Engineering department went first and called within 10 minutes of leaving to say that roads were not only open, they were wide open.

I made my way home and didn't see a single other car on the road for the whole trip, which was the most disturbing part of it all to me as this route was usually a traffic snarled nightmare. As I came out of the 3rd St. tunnel to merge on to 395 I could see the smoke plume from the smoldering Pentagon, and as I drove by it alone on the freeway, expecting at any moment to get stopped by military police or the National Guard or the Secret Service or something, I could see the giant hole that used to be a wing of a building and people who loved their country. It was horrifying.

When I got home, pictures had been knocked off the wall from the impact of the plane hitting many miles away.

It was simply a surreal day, and these things I remember.

But what I remember more strongly and spend more time thinking about is the fallout.

Today's sermon was about Noah, which is what got me thinking about this. Noah, the first winemaker, after being back on dry land got drunk and took off all his clothes in what was likely a response to the total devastation he had witnessed. This lead to the cursing of his son who found him, which lead to a whole mess of hurt.

I worked with a man a month later who after years of controlling his drinking had fallen off the wagon when his friends were killed at the Pentagon, and crashed down a flight of stairs in a drunken stupor. The hospital's international program which housed primarily people from Arab countries immediately shut down, and some relationships that were really meaningful for me were lost.

But just as the story of Noah is really a story of love, there were so many amazing acts of love the day of and the days that followed all of this awfulness. Having a moment, even if only a moment, where you feel like the world is probably ending as you know it makes subtlety seem ridiculous. Strangers all over the world gave money, and blood, and time to help people they'd never met before in places they'd only seen on TV. I took risks and told people I loved them, and I meant it, just because I thought they should know. There was no such thing as small talk - every exchange was meaningful for awhile.

But just like patient care, life went on.

Though God promised to never again destroy the earth there is no guarantee that some other force won't. As horrific as that day was, I'm thankful to have at least one time a year that reminds me of how rich love can be when boldly professed and shown to friends, family, and strangers.

The image, the antithesis of the warm-fuzzy feeling of cute animals on the ark, depicts the destruction that Noah saw from his view high and dry in the ark. I can't find the artist's reference, but thanks to J. for mentioning it this morning in the sermon. It would surely drive a man to drink.

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