Readers will almost certainly remember where they were and what they were doing on Tuesday 11 September 2001.
The horror of the terrorist attacks against the United States, together with the fact that the modern media brought us the events live, meant that from the very outset we were all in some way emotionally involved.
I was in the editorial offices of Wanted in Rome, finalising the issue of 19 September, which was due to go to press the following day. Although in the confusion of those first few hours it was difficult to establish exactly what had happened, let alone predict the consequences, all of us there that afternoon were keenly aware that something had changed.
However, hand in hand with this intense feeling of participation went a feeling of stunned disbelief. We had seen the footage of the collapsing towers over and over again, yet somehow we just couldnt quite believe that it was real.
It was only later that day, after I had struggled home across a city that was visibly shaken, that I learned that my 30-year-old cousin Suria worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center and that she was missing.
With the subsequent confirmation of her death, the terrorist attacks took on a very different aspect. Now I had an insight into what it really meant to be touched by those events.
In the weeks, months and years that followed I found increasingly that I was looking to other people who had been caught up in the tragedy to make sense of my own experience and also of the world that we now lived in as a result.
In February 2005 I found the courage to go to New York to interview some of these people and chronicle their lives. Their testimonies went on to become the substance of a book in Italian, Voci da Ground Zero (Caterini editore, June 2006). The following text is a reworking of selected passages from the book as well as some unpublished material touching on a few of the innumerable ways in which the terrorist attacks impacted peoples lives.
The first thing that strikes the visitor about Ground Zero is that there is nothing there. There are no Twin Towers and, with the exception of a large cross formed out of two rusting steel beams extrapolated from the rubble of the North Tower and a couple of buildings that still bear the scars of the attacks, nor are there signs of the devastation they left behind.
Crowds of tourists line the metal fence separating Church Street from what is now a building site, looking skywards as if searching for some residual trace of the 412 m structures or craning to see into the pit, perhaps in the hope of identifying some recognisable remain anything to confirm that all of this really did happen.
All the while business people hurry backwards and forwards, clutching their mobile phone in one hand and a beaker of piping hot coffee in the other.
At the same time, Chinese women sell picture postcards showing the exact moment at which the second plane hit the South Tower, exploding in a ball of fire. In the background, the North Tower is already in flames, the thick dark smoke rising into the blue. Needless to say that in this all-too-familiar image, all sensorial references to the horror of that moment the terrified screams, the heat, the smell are totally absent.
On the far side of the road stands the tiny 18th-century chapel of St Pauls. By a strange coincidence that has come to assume the connotations of a miracle, the oldest building on Manhattan Island still in public use was spared damage in the attacks after a sycamore standing in the churchyard absorbed the force of a flying steel beam. The tree was felled but the church was largely unscathed. It went on to become the centre of a now legendary relief ministry to the men and women who toiled at Ground Zero for a little over nine months to recover the remains of the victims and clear the area. Today the chapel hosts an exhibition dedicated to this effort, which draws a steady stream of pilgrims and curiosity seekers from all over the world.
Nearby a small group of activists representing ny911truth, the local chapter of one of the organisations that is challenging the official 11 September story, is trying to engage a hesitant public.
This is an educational event, explains Joseph Carranza, holding one corner of a banner reading Stop the 9/11 cover up!. The mainstream media of this country is completely incapable of properly informing the American people.
However, it would seem that he and his companions may be preaching to the converted, at least here in liberal New York. He cites the results of a survey conducted in summer 2004, according to which 49.3 per cent of New York City residents and 41 per cent of people living in New York State believed that some of their leaders knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.
But, as I listen to him give his own version of what happened on that fateful day, and why, I cannot help but wonder whether it will ever be possible to separate fact from fiction, speculation and propaganda from the truth.
The Family Room
It takes only ten seconds by lift to reach The Family Room on the 20th floor of 1 Liberty Plaza, but one could just as well be in another world. In the silence, broken only by the hum of the air conditioning, the private dimension of 11 September reclaims the space it deserves, but which, sadly, has all too often been denied.
Made available to victims families by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), the body responsible for overseeing the redevelopment of the area affected by the attacks, the spacious suite overlooking Ground Zero has been an important reference point for many grieving people, a place where they can be alone with their pain.
On entering, one is met by a sea of smiling, happy faces: men and women, mostly in the prime of life, immortalised on their graduation day, on holiday with friends, with their young family or colleagues at work. There are hundreds and hundreds of photographs: large, small, new, fading, in frames, pinned to the wall or sellotaped to the window running the length of the room. Many are partly obscured by the mass of other mementoes that have been brought here since: birthday and Valentines day cards, messages in English, Spanish, Japanese, childrens drawings, cardboard cut-out angels, crosses, funeral Mass cards, cuddly toys, deflated helium balloons, withered roses with drooping heads, badges, certificates of achievement all bearing witness to a tragedy that has united people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
I am overcome by panic as I struggle to comprehend the scene. Torn between the desire to order what I am seeing and the need to give time and space to my own emotions, I alight on one message after another, barely getting to the end of one before moving on to the next. All the while, I am asking myself how I am ever going to find the one photograph that I have really come to see.
On the floor a placard reading The Fresh Kills Garbage Dump is no resting place for the World Trade Center 9/11 victims is a reminder of one of the thorniest issues for many families: the decision by New York City authorities to reopen the historic landfill on Staten Island for the disposal of part of the over 1.5 million tonnes of debris cleared from Ground Zero. It also points to another tragedy within the tragedy: that of the 1,151 or more families who have still not been able to bury their dead.
Identifying the dead
Exactly 19,916 human remains were recovered from the mountain of rubble at Ground Zero and from the Staten Island landfill. Of these, around 290 were mostly intact bodies, while the rest were body parts arms, hands, fingers, pieces of skull many of which were barely recognisable or not recognisable at all. To the remains recovered during the original rescue operation must be added hundreds of bone fragments discovered on the roof of the Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, near where the South Tower once stood, in spring 2006, to a total of 20,714 remains.
To date investigators have managed to identify 10,933 remains corresponding to 1,595 victims, largely through DNA testing with the occasional use or support of traditional techniques such as dental x-rays or finger printing (figures updated 15 August 2006).
DNA had never been used to identify remains to such an extent before 9/11, says Dr Robert Shaler, director of the forensic biology laboratory at New Yorks office of the chief medical examiner (OCME) and the person responsible for coordinating the identification of the victims.
Organisationally, scientifically and emotionally it has been a mammoth task.
To begin with, it was not even clear how many victims there were: the earliest figures set the number of dead at 50,000 the total population of the WTC on a standard working day although this figure was quickly revised downwards to 5,000 before settling at 2,749 in January 2004.
Then there was the need to collect personal effects of the missing and kinship samples from their biological relatives in order to make the identifications. Dr Shaler explains: We could do all the DNA typing in the world but if we couldnt match [the profiles] up to something, we would make no identifications.
In addition, there was the question of how to deal with the ordinary caseload at the laboratory. There were two missions now: one for the country basically of historic proportions; and then our normal, everyday homicides, rapes, assaults and burglaries, says Dr Shaler. Luckily all of that went away for a fortnight. There werent any rapes in Manhattan for two weeks after 9/11 so we got a little bit of hiatus.
To make things worse, on 12 November 2001, American Airlines flight 587 heading for Santo Domingo crashed shortly after takeoff from New Yorks JFK airport, killing all 260 people on board and another five on the ground. This time too responsibility for identifications fell under the jurisdiction of OCME.
The nature of the terrorist attacks and the resulting conditions at Ground Zero created another set of problems for the scientists striving to put a name to the victims. We had heat and moisture down there, which are not good for DNA, says Dr Shaler. We had everything against us for the maintenance of good DNA. After the first couple of weeks the standard DNA testing procedures started yielding only partial results. It became necessary to apply more specific techniques, some of which had to be modified or developed specifically for the task.
In late February 2005 OCME announced to the waiting families and to the world that the scientists had come to the end of the road, at least for the time being. The process [of identifying victims] will be ongoing forever, but we are at the limits of what this technology is capable of, Dr Shaler explained with a mixture of realism and regret.
Since then, the investigators have managed to put a name to a further seven victims. The last identification dating to early 2006 was made using new techniques.
However, even if it were possible one day to identify all the remaining body parts it is unlikely that these would correspond to all the missing victims: it is thought that some people were completely cremated in the fires. Their ashes now rest in the Staten Island landfill or in small urns presented to families by the city authorities which now stand on mantelpieces and windowsills in homes all over the world.
The invisible victims
There are some people whose names do not appear on the medical examiners list and whose families have always known that they would never be able to bury their dead. These are the invisible victims of 11 September: undocumented immigrants killed in the attacks whose illegal status, combined with the lack of information about their activities in New York, meant that it was not possible to prove that they had been involved.
Take the story of Jos Morales Aquino. He left his common-law wife Flix Martnez and their four children in a small rural village in the southern Mexican state of Puebla in June 2001 to seek his fortune in New York. There he found a job working in a restaurant in or around the WTC and his remittance money and the regular phone calls home quickly became a lifeline for his family.
After 11 September 2001, the money and the phone calls stopped. Martnez soon realised that something was wrong and, despite being pregnant with her fifth child, she decided to brave the illegal crossing into the US to tell someone that her partner was missing.
On arriving in New York she sought help from Asociacin Tepeyac, an organisation working with documented and undocumented Latin American immigrants in the city, and together they turned to the authorities to report that Morales had been killed.
In reality the investigators required little in the way of documentary evidence to pursue a claim. However Martnez, who cannot read or write and speaks only Spanish, simply did not have enough information about her partner to even open a case, let alone obtain a certificate attesting to his death. Not only did she have to suffer the pain of seeing her loss ignored by public opinion but she also found herself excluded from most of the assistance offered to the official victims of the attacks.
She returned to Mexico in early 2002 after giving birth to a baby girl. There, with financial help from Tepeyac, she bought a small plot of land and opened a grocery store which enables her and her children to survive.
Tepeyac came across dozens of such cases in the days, weeks and months after 9/11 as friends and relatives of illegal immigrants missing after the attacks poured into its cramped premises on West 14th Street or called the organisation from abroad to find out what to do.
Families living outside the country had a particularly difficult time emotionally, according to Brother Joel Magalln, SJ, the associations Mexican founder and director: not only did they not speak the language or understand the legal system in the US but they had also been separated from their missing loved ones for five, ten or 12 years and communicated by telephone, so they only knew their voice. He tells the story of Fernando Jimenez Molinar from Mexico, aged 21, another undocumented victim of the attacks. He came here when he was 14 and worked in a pizza place opposite the Twin Towers His mother had only a picture taken when he was 14 years old. She used to receive a phone call every Wednesday or Thursday, and suddenly they stopped coming. And she didnt know where he was living. She hadnt seen him for seven years. She came to New York not because she wanted money or anything like that; she just wanted something to remind her of her son and to prove that he had been there.
A missing persons case was filed for Jimenez Molinar but in October 2003 his name, along with 39 others, was struck off the official list of victims after the city failed to confirm their death or, in some cases, even their existence.
However, in most cases handled by Tepeyac, the family managed to secure a death certificate for their loved one. This meant that they were able to apply for compensation from the Victims Compensation Fund, a fund set up by Congress immediately after the attacks as an alternative to civil litigation (applicants were required to waive their right to pursue legal action in the courts) and which was open to the families of all confirmed victims regardless of their legal status in the country prior to the attacks.
Besides working with the families of the missing, Tepeyac also supported Latin American immigrants who had lost their jobs as a direct or indirect result of the terrorist attacks. Brother Joel points out that job displacement didnt just affect people employed in or around the Twin Towers, but also those working outside the area whose activities depended on the WTC: people working in bakeries that produced the bread for the restaurants, laundries that cleaned the tablecloths, babysitters. Employers died in the attacks or left New York City and so people lost their jobs, he explains. Everyone was impacted. Some people had been working maybe ten, 15 years in the place. They had probably arrived in the way that all undocumented immigrants arrive, with no experience, and they had gained experience and got a good position and a good salary, [but] they had no diploma attesting to that experience. So when they lost their job they lost their means of surviving in this city.
Brother Joel says that some people are now struggling to earn the same amount as before and to maintain their former standard of living; sometimes all family members have had to take jobs to make ends meet.
However, I think there have also been positive effects, he continues. This city has become more friendly. And we have workers who had done nothing but work for many years. When they got displaced we encouraged them to study something. So some of them got their English diploma or learned computing or how to be a chef. So they got to see this city from another point of view and not just as a worker.
Emira Habiby-Browne, founder and director of the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), was driving to work in Brooklyn on 11 September 2001 when she learned of the terrorist attacks. The next thing I heard was about world war two and the Japanese and I remember saying to myself, Oh my God, I know whats going to happen now: they are going to round us all up and put us in a detention camp. And in a way it did happen, even though we werent all rounded up and sent to a camp in Arizona or somewhere; but the effect was exactly the same.
Habiby-Browne relates how suddenly the stereotype of the Arab terrorist became very real for Americans. And from that moment the Arab immigrant and Arab American communities became suspect and constantly harassed, says the woman of Palestinian origin. The people who were most impacted were those who looked different, such as women wearing the hijab (headscarf) or people who didnt speak English: They were clear targets for anyone wanting to take out their anger, frustration, hostility, hatred, whatever Children also had a really hard time at school, particularly if they were called Muhammad or Osama.
AAFSC had just moved into larger premises and was about to launch a series of new programmes for families. However, it had to drop its plans in order to respond to the needs of the wider community. At one point, right after 9/11, we put out an SOS because we needed people to walk kids to school and to accompany the mothers who were afraid to go out, says Habiby-Browne. A lot of people from the American community volunteered to help us but we couldnt even deal with their offers because four of my staff left that week: they just couldnt handle the situation.
She tells how in the post-9/11 period men would come to the centre almost in tears because they had been dismissed from their jobs they were never told it was because they were Arab, but it was obvious, she says and didnt know what to do. They would say: People I have been associating with for years now dont want anything to do with me. My colleagues dont want to talk to me. Awful.
The situation was most acute in the months following the terrorist attacks, but problems persist. Just very recently one of our very old clients, an Iraqi woman married to a Palestinian, and her daughter were attacked by a group of youth on the subway. They beat them and insulted them just real hate crime.
Further, known or reported cases such as this one may only represent the tip of the iceberg as many people were too afraid of the consequences of interacting with the law enforcement authorities to report what was going on. The Operation PENTTBOM investigation, voluntary interviews, Special Registration: all the measures enacted by the government after 9/11 in the name of national security blatantly targeted the Arab immigrant, Arab American and other foreign communities. In the two years after 11 September thousands of young men almost exclusively of Arab origin were arrested and detained before being deported from the country, usually on the grounds of a violation of immigration law. The full extent of the deportations will never be known as the US government has never released the names of the people involved.
Many people reacted to this situation by choosing to lie low, sometimes even going so far as to change their name. The tension and frustration felt by the community was largely internalised, leading to an increase in domestic violence and child abuse among other things. And nobody wanted to speak out, says Habiby-Browne.
So it was down to organisations such as AAFSC to act on behalf of the community, often in conjunction with representatives of other foreign communities, which were also targeted.
Surprisingly Habiby-Browne says that she was heartened by the response. People were hungry for information, they wanted to know, to hear, and they believed, she recalls. That was one response. The other was shock that they could have known so little. Often, when I spoke, they were like, Oh, really? This is happening in America? And I would think, Where have you been?
She laughs before going on. The most shocking and painful thing for me, and I think for all Arab Americans and immigrants, has been to see democracy and human rights and freedom all the things of which this country was once the bastion and for which we came being slowly but surely chipped away, without the general public really understanding that this is happening When I came to New York I really felt that this was the one place where you could really be you. Now I dont feel that any more I think the Muslims feel it more. Im Christian, but the Arab Muslims and other Muslims feel it very, very strongly. The sense is that youre suspect not because of what youve done or because youre a threat but because of who you are.
Building the future
For Mamdouh Fekkak, the former union representative at Windows on the World, the restaurant that occupied the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, 11 September 2001 began with the sound of the telephone ringing: his sister in Italy had heard about the first hit and was calling to see if he was alright.
I turned on the TV and I saw the building where I worked in flames, recalls the man from Morocco. I thought there had been an accident. I woke up my wife and said, My God, itll take four or five months to fix the building, because we had been told by human resources and by all the training that the building would not collapse even if a plane hit it. I thought that the people who were upstairs floors 106 and 107 where I used to work were above the fire would go up to the roof and that helicopters would come and pick them up. But that didnt happen. The second plane came and the second building collapsed first, and then the first one It was just a disaster. Seeing that building collapse and bring down 73 of my co-workers is something that will live with me forever.
Over the next few days many of the 350 surviving co-workers and their families as well as the families of the missing flocked to HERE Local 100, their union, in search of assistance. The people who died at Windows on the World were mostly people who worked in the kitchen in the morning, dishwashers, people who were making peanuts, 200-300 dollars a week, who lived from paycheque to paycheque. They didnt have any savings so their families were affected immediately.
HERE Local 100 created a temporary centre to administer relief. This had funding for 90 days but at the end of that period there was like a line of people outside, most of them in desperate need of work. So the union approached Fekkak and asked him together with a sprightly young lawyer and immigrant organiser, Saru Jayaraman, to launch a permanent assistance centre to help the families of Windows on the World victims and their displaced co-workers.
The first time I met Saru she told me we were going to organise restaurant workers all over the city, he recalls. I told her, Who cares about organising right now? People just need to eat. People are in need of money. But she said, No, people have to understand the roots of the problem. They have been working for ten, 15 years and now look, they have no savings, no money. So whos to blame?
The pair founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) in April 2002. Initially it concentrated on relief work before moving on to organising campaigns in the sector to improve conditions for the 165,000 restaurant workers in New York.
I think part of the reason we switched to campaigning in the industry is that workers very quickly realised that they just wouldnt be able to find jobs similar to what they had had at Windows; they were never going to find the wages or the strength of the workforce vis vis their employer anywhere else because 99 per cent of the industry is non-union and because even among union places Windows was special, explains Jayaraman.
In summer 2002 ROC-NY staged a protest against the former Windows on the World owner, David Emil, who was about to open a new restaurant in Times Square and had refused to hire his ex staff. The night before opening he didnt want another hullabaloo so he called us in and hired the majority of his work staff from the Windows crew, she continues. The victory marked a turning point for the centre: Up to that point the Windows workers had been in this mode of relief, charities, handouts, and they saw the power of uniting and fighting, she says.
Not long after, Fekkak came up with the idea for which ROC-NY is probably best known: the cooperative restaurant Colors.
The dream of the people who died was to own a restaurant and I thought, We have a lot of talented people, why dont we open a restaurant? It took us two and a half years and there were problems at every step, because here is this bunch of immigrants who want to open up their own restaurant, and who cares?
In late 2003 a small group of workers travelled to Italy, which has a strong tradition of cooperatives, to meet the management of the Cooperativa Italiana di Ristorazione (CIR) and Legacoop to ask for their support.
There were a lot of people with us who never travel, and here they are in Italy explaining how they are going to do it, and convincing this huge coop restaurant to invest money. And the hospitality of the Italians gave us a big boost, and people felt, Yes, this is how we want to be.
The workers visited numerous cooperatives during their stay and had a chance to talk to their Italian counterparts about labour conditions. They said that the management and the chefs they do not call them chefs, but coaches are not abusive, they are friendly; mothers can take their children to school before going to work Its just a human rights thing and not just money, money, money like we are used to seeing here in the States.
Colors the name of the restaurant was chosen by the worker-owners to reflect their different national and ethnic origins opened in Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village in January 2006. Fekkak says that he will be working there for the first six months or so, before moving on to open up a second coop. Its not going to be as fancy as the first one; that one is really high-end because all the people that used to work at Windows on the World are experienced in serving high-end table cloth restaurants, making all that money, and you cannot put them in a pizzeria place, theyre not going to do it. [The second one] is going to serve Italian pasta and pizza where people can come and eat and leave; people like me who dont make that much money can go and eat there.
Fekkak is philosophical about the many changes that have come about in his life since 9/11. Before I didnt know about organising I used to be the shop steward but I was only fighting for myself and the people with me. Now as the co-founder of this organisation I carry 165,000 workers all over the city on my shoulders and the families Its a huge load. But thank God, I am getting there. Sometimes I think how hard it is, but I love what Im doing; and at the end of the day I can say Im doing something. For the last two and a half years its been great.
Return to Ground Zero
I decide to go back to Ground Zero at the end of my stay to view it again in the light of my experience of the past few days. The place itself is unchanged: there is the same noise, the same coming and going of people and traffic. However, the experience of the place is radically different. Now, the consternation that characterised my first visit has given way to much clearer emotions.
I make my way to the top of the black marble steps leading to the entrance of 1 Liberty Plaza and survey the panorama. Suddenly I become aware of the sound of a flute drifting towards me from afar. I strain my ears to hear better and can just make out the tune of the haunting gospel hymn Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now Im found, was blind, but now I see... The figure of the flautist is just visible through the passing vehicles: a dishevelled elderly man half sitting, half lying against the metal fence separating the road from the building site. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists clambering over and around him to peer into the cavern left by the collapsed Twin Towers, he launches into another tune, this time with a very different feel: the rousing John Browns Body.
The alternating melodies mirror exactly my contrasting feelings: deep sadness on the one hand, but also a very real sense of hope. For the first time since 11 September 2001 my tears flow freely.
Voci da Ground Zero Laura Clarke, Caterini editore, 8.
Copies (in Italian) are available from the following bookshops in Rome: Libreria Minerva (Piazza Fiume 57), Libreria La Strada (Via Veneto 42), Libreria Paesi Nuovi (Piazza Montecitorio 60), Antica Libreria Croce (Corso Vittorio Emanuele 156), Lo Yeti Caff and Bookshop (Via Perugia 4), Libreria Sforzini (Via della Vite 43), Odradek (Via dei Banchi Vecchi 57) and Libreria Minimum Fax (Via della Lungaretta 90/e). The book is also available by contacting Laura Clarke at email@example.com, tel. 067851649.