September 11: 3 different perspectives
On September 11, I was twelve time zones away from New York, watching the NYSE on my Bloomberg screen in the study. Suddenly the minute to minute chart of the S&P futures began to fall. Then it flatlined.
I dialled my trader in downtown Shenton Way.
“There’s a rumor that the World Trade Center‘s been attacked by terrorists,” he said.
“Keep me posted.”
I thanked him and hung up. The flat line on the screen continued moving, horizontally. I drummed my fingers against the key board. I had a couple of hundred thousand dollars riding on the S&P futures. Tomorrow, I thought, I’d be marking down positions big-time.
That’s all I thought it was about then, just a few hundred thousand dollars.
I didn’t know about the people jumping off the building then, the soldiers sent to war after, the hours and hours and hours I’ved had to stand in security lines the last eleven years. Just right then, all I wanted was for the line on my Bloomberg screen to start turning upwards, and to have my position turn from red to green.
A VIETNAM VET IN ORANGE COUNTY, THE DAY AFTER HIS 60TH BIRTHDAY
By the Tuesday morning after his birthday, Sixth had forgotten his misgivings. Nothing had changed in his life, not for better or for worse. As usual, he and Huong had gone to early morning mass a walk around the corner from the apartment and let themselves back in to their empty apartment. It was just the two of them and the television, as it had been for years now the children had grown up.
They’d up and left as soon as they could, the way American children did. But despite that they were good children, Sixth thought, all at good jobs, making good money and generous with their allowances for him and Huong. He thanked Huong’s god – content this third uneventful day of his new cycle, grateful for the morning’s crisp fall weather, for having a roof over his head, someone else beside him if only his wife.
Huong handed Sixth his coffee and started up a pot of crab noodles, leftovers from the enormous cauldron made for the visitors who’d come over to the house on the weekend.
“Leftovers,” she excused herself.
“Anything’s better than those tablets of instant noodles you usually plop into hot water,” he grunted. She made great crab noodles, but he wasn’t going to tell her that.
He hummed with anticipation as he carried his coffee into the living room and settled in front of the television.
On the screen, he saw a plane was plunging into a building. Then the perspective shifted to another building, burning beside the first, great clouds of smoke spewing out of a hole in its side.
Sixth set his coffee cup and the filter down on the coffee table with a clatter.
“What is it?” Huong looked up from the stove in the kitchen.
“I don’t know,” he said, turning up the volume. “It looks like a plane’s hit a building in New York.” He channel surfed. Every station showed the same images of the two burning buildings. A terrorist attack, he made out. “It’s the Arabs,” he translated for Huong, who’d come out from the kitchen to stand next to his chair.
She grabbed the remote control from him and switched channels until she found a Vietnamese station.
“Trời đát ơi… Heaven and earth!” she cried. “It’s the buildings where Daughter and Son-in-Law work.”
Their only living daughter. Sixth rushed to the telephone in the kitchen and began to pound out his daughter’s mobile number on the keypad. The line was busy. He tried her land line at the office, their apartment number, his Son-in-Law’s mobile. “No one’s answering,” he said to Huong. But Huong wasn’t listening to him. She was desperately banging numbers into her own mobile.
“Mine’s got through,” she shouted to Sixth when the ringing at the other end of her line stopped. But it was only a robotic ATT voice saying, ‘All lines are busy, please try again’. She begged it anyway, “Please… Please connect me. It’s a matter of life and death… Please.” She fell on her knees, praying.
Sixth pulled her up. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and took the mobile from her. “No one’s going to understand you, you’re speaking in Vietnamese,” he said, brushing away the tears on her face. He put her mobile to his ear. “Whatever’s happening, it’s jammed up all the signals,” he explained. “We’ll have to text and then wait.”
Huong nodded. She watched him tap out his messages – first to his duaghtern, then to his brother also in New York, finally to his son-in-law. Then still standing, they turned back to the television. The burning building Sixth had first seen was collapsing on the TV screen. Like a tinker toy experiment gone wrong it was folding gently into itself in a cloud of rising dust, de-materializing in less than five minutes, taking with it the Morgan Stanley offices full of traders at ten o’clock Eastern time on weekday mornings.
“Son-in-Law!” Huong, who’d been mesmerized by the flickering images, fainted onto the sofa, bringing down Sixth who’d been holding her. As he toppled over, his legs hit the coffee table and kicked it into the TV screen.
The screen turned black. The newscaster’s disembodied voice continued to drone from the blackened surface – explaining why the stairwell between the ninety-third and ninety-ninth stories of the North Tower where their daughter and her father-in-law worked was impassable and how the helicopters could not pick up the survivors from the rooftop because of the billowing clouds of smoke and dust, revealing dispassionately that no one working above the ninety-third floor was expected to survive, that in desperation they’d started jumping out of the building.
Sixth sat, taking it all in… the horror. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he cursed at karma.
The heavy sweet odour of Huong’s plastic soup stirrer melting on the hot stove top brought Sixth to his senses. He let go of Huong, who’d regained consciousness and was crying silently into the sofa cushions, and went into the kitchen. Huong’s crab soup, a fiery orange, was surging over the pot’s edge to hiss spits of steam onto the stove top. See… ssseeee… what’s happened now… ssseee, the soup seemed to taunt Sixth.
Without thinking he lifted the pot high above his head and threw it down onto the floor to silence it. He didn’t feel the boiling mix of tomatoes, crab meat and fermented shrimp splashing onto his arms and bare feet, spattering them with little blisters. The pot seemed to smash onto the floor tiles and crack them of its own accord, to spin on its side, clanging like the gongs at a Vietnamese funeral possessed by some grief other than his own.
The clanging surrounded him. The smell of the burning plastic stirrer filled his nose, his mouth, his throat. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t want to. He dropped to the floor covering the pot with his body, letting its heat sear his chest and his stomach. He would let herself be burnt like his daughter was burning, like his other daughter had burnt during the ward, like that boy in Nha Trang he’d accidentally killed. If heaven wouldn’t absolve him, if death in the flames was what karma wanted, then he’d make the offering now. “Not another one,” he bargained, “not one of my sons next.” He held his breath and willed the end to come.
But enough was enough, some higher power somewhere in the universe must have decided.
Huong was by Sixth’s side lifting him up, wiping crab soup off his face and neck and shoulders with a rough washcloth. She handed her mobile to Sixth. ‘Didn’t go in today. Still on vacation after your birthday. Safe with Jake and Uncle’ his daughter’s message shone out from the screen. Sixth sat up and began to scroll down the display. There were messages from his brother, his daughter’s message forwarded again from his sons, then a message from Son-in-Law. It said, ‘Dad went to work’’ and nothing else.
Sixth turned to the television. The newscaster’s voice was saying the North Tower had collapsed and with it most of the bond trading operations of the firm his daughter and her father-in-law worked for.
AN UPWARDLY MOBILE VIETNAMESE MIGRANT VET IN MURRAY HILL
Everyone subsequently interviewed said it was a beautiful morning in New York on Tuesday September 11th. I don’t remember that. My wife, daughter and I woke up late. We’d arrived back from California at almost midnight on Monday after attending my brother’s birthday. The day started for me with the phone call from my neice and her husband inviting the three of us to pastrami sandwiches at Blooms around the corner from our house. We still hadn’t gotten out into the day when I felt a slight tremble through the floor in our yellow lobby and then heard the boom of the unseen plane crashing against the building.
I hustled my wife and daughter back into the house and down into the safety of the guest suite in the basement.
As we scrabbled to turn on the lights we heard the sound of the second airliner flying low towards the second tower and got the television turned on just in time to see the delayed image of the first one crashing into the North Tower.
We sat down, unbelieving, to the image of the second plane going into the South Tower and then the third falling into the Pentagon.
As in 1963 during the coup against Diem, there was a frantic knocking at the door. This time though, it was my neice and her husband, not my brother, at the door. Unlike 1963, smoke seeped through our windows from the burning buildings, toxic with chemicals. And then, like nothing that I’d experienced in Vietnam, the ground shuddered again as if the earth itself was opening up. Like the beginning of the end of the world, we were enveloped for a moment in absolute darkness.
I turned to my wife, who was sitting by my side, to catch her hand and to ask her where unbelievers went in her version of the last day. But my fingers were shaking too hard for me to reach over and hold on and my teeth were clenched so closed I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. I bent over and held my daughter, sitting on my other side, tight to me instead.
Across the room, my neice and her husband were sitting apart. She was crying into her hands. He was facing the television, his eyes were closed.
“Poor things… It’s their colleagues, his father, in those buildings,” my wife whispered in my ear. She uncurled herself and went to them, put her arms around them both and held them to her, one on her right, the other on her left.
My neice’s mobile was beeping in her handbag. I went to pick it up. It was from her father, my brother. I tried to call him him back to let him know we were all fine, that Kim and Jake hadn’t gone to work. But I couldn’t get through. I sent him a text., then went back to sit by my daughter. We watched the screen in stony silence, the both of us. Neither she nor I would cry I knew. We’d learnt never to break down. Ever.
I felt the house shudder once more.
“Is it safe for us to be down here?” my daughter asked. I could see the hairs on her forearms standing. Her eyes were uncertain, seeking guidance.
“I don’t know,” I replied. It was the first time in my life I hadn’t been able to answer an engineering question.
We heard a second long explosion lasting perhaps a minute, maybe more. The windows rattled. On the television a few seconds later we saw North Tower collapse.
“Dad,” my neice’s husband whispered.
I couldn’t take any more. I pointed the remote at the television and turned it off, wiping away the sickening replay of the burning buildings, the falling bodies, the horror. Sprinting up the stairs I opened the front door and stepped outside into the dust and the smoke, into reality.
Cars were gridlocked on our street. People drifted here and there, unsure where to go, what to do. My eyes burnt from the smoke and the chemicals. Up in the sky I saw a pall of grey, how I would have imagined a mushroom cloud. How could my father’s stories about Saigon after the 1968 Tết offensive compare?
I shuddered. The enemy had attacked America, the beautiful country Mỹ. And on what we’d always assumed was hallowed ground.