I was in the DC airport this week; airports always remind everyone of 911. The weather was terrible, the flights delayed. I was fortunate to nab a carrel with an outlet and a usable if slightly broken chair to work on my laptop. A big man slouched against the workspace next to mine, chairless; a Hassidic Jew with a big beard and wide rim hat. Announcements of my flight stirred. I powered down my computer. The man looked at me. “Would you watch this for a moment?” He asked quickly. I barely heard what he said; nodded, assuming he wanted my seat. But no, he walked away, leaving an iPhone recharging next to me. I stared at it, watching the battery light dance.
I packed up my system and kept an eye on his phone. I wondered how long he had observed me before deciding to trust me with this chore. I wondered if the phone would explode. I thought that if I died at the hands of an iPhone Hassidic terrorist that would be an all right way to exit life, quick at least. I would rather die trusting someone than
being suspicious of them. Suspicion is not in my nature. Maybe that is why he trusted me with his iPhone. Maybe he is a master terrorist. Maybe he pinned me for a sucker. Then again, maybe he is just a Hassidic man with an iPhone out of power who needs to take a leak. I didn’t like thinking these things, but I couldn’t help it. We all think this way now. This is the legacy of 911.
The man came back. I nodded in recognition that his iPhone was safe, collected my things and walked to my gate. A small
victory of humanity over terrorism.
My first piece of published writing was the article I wrote after my 911 experience at Yale New-Haven Hospital. I am including it in this post to add my voice to the millions today who are remembering.
WHERE WERE YOU ON 911?
Paul E. Fallon 9/12/01
People have already begun to ask the question. Where were you on the day the planes toppled the Towers? Everyone will remember. We’ll embellish our stories over time until the minutes surrounding 9:00 am on 9/11/01 become branded to our souls. To remind ourselves that we are the lucky ones, still here to tell our tales.
I was at a meeting at Yale-NewHaven Hospital. Every Tuesday I drive from Boston to New Haven to
review an ongoing project. The first of four Intensive Care Units being renovated was slated to open in a week, and we
were haggling over details. Trying to locate the slides for suction containers, adding a receptacle for the specimen
refrigerator, arguing why the signs were late. A cellular beeper interrupted the meeting; we learned that a plane
crashed into one of the Twin Towers. We took an appropriate pause, then quibbled over some TV brackets. A second call revealed that the other tower was hit. This bit of information caused an awkward gap, but we moved on to discuss the project schedule. It was difficult to worry about a week gained or lost in construction while an icon of corporate America
was in flames. The third call brought news that the towers had collapsed. Instantly, the sixty miles between New Haven
and New York became mighty small.
We went to review the construction. The television in every patient room displayed the smoking remains of lower Manhattan while twenty construction workers adjusted faucets, hung robe hooks, and tested circuits. There was dust everywhere, buckets of paint, and dangling wires; the sweet scent of citrus cleaner tinged with carpet adhesive. But I know how much can be done during a final sprint of construction. I thought we were in fair shape, until the
hospital’s project manager arrived and announced that they were going to open the unit that day in order to accept patients from New York.
Within an hour fifty or sixty people filled the space. Construction equipment went into non-essential rooms, union workers took up brooms and mops, an army in scrubs began wiping down every surface, and the parade of stuff started rolling in. There were beds, tables, supply carts, paper towels, sterile gowns, latex gloves, bed pans, specimen cups, bandages, splints, and tape. That was the easy stuff. Next came the syringes, lotions, shelf medications, prescription drugs, and burn supplies. Any burn supplies available. A carpenter installed the suction slides we thought lost that morning, an orderly made up a bed, an electrician screwed on
the final cover plates, and a guy on a ladder hung the privacy curtain.
Then there was the technology. A cart load of monitors, dozens of computers, a conference table piled with phones, and a band of computer geeks thrilled by the challenge of getting the unit up and running in a few hours. A group on ladders tested the intercom. A third team booted the
air handling system and tested the pressure within the unit to isolate patients with contagious disease.
By two o’clock, evidence of building construction had disappeared from the ICU as completely as the Twin Towers had vanished from the world’s most famous skyline. By evening all the supplies would be organized and the electronics working; the ICU would be ready for business.
I visited the World Trade Center once with my children, on a sunny day not unlike 911 of 2001. We could have been crushed. A friend of mine flew from Boston to LA on the tenth , missing by one calendar digit an early death. Fortunately for me, on the day of terror I was not in New York, but in New Haven, playing a small part in a transformation born of crisis; where the hourly employee and the salaried manager, the scrub tech and the Head Nurse, the hard hat and the high-tech all came together to complete in a few hours a feat that would have been laudable in a week.
There is much about America that is imperfect. Our political system is impure, yet it is more democratic than most. Our economic system is unfair, yet it offers more opportunity than any other. We have shameful racism and bigotry, yet immigrants from all over the world pour onto our shores. We have myriad problems, yet we have the luxury of debating them openly. Some say we are overly content, untested, and no match for The Greatest Generation, yet it is only under fire that we can truly be tested.
We are under fire now, by terrorists who harbor hatred beyond comprehension, and our actions will reveal if we can prove ourselves. Not for the sake of history or for the sake of revenge, but to ensure the freedoms we enjoy and the communities we cherish. On 911 of 2001 I witnessed a community come together and perform extraordinarily well under fire. It was a good place to be on a very bad day.