The heart of 9/11

Share via
Rebecca Solnit's latest book is "A Paradise Built in Hell." A longer version of this article appears at

Al Qaeda’s attack on New York’s twin towers eight years ago today killed about 2,600 people, destroyed buildings, contaminated the region and disrupted the global economy, but it did not conquer the citizenry.

When the planes became bombs and the towers became torches and then shards and clouds of dust, many were afraid, but few panicked. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people rescued each other and themselves.

Even as New Yorkers worried about more violence to come, a spontaneously assembled flotilla of boats, ranging from a yacht “borrowed” by police officers to a historic fireboat, evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people from Lower Manhattan, a nautical feat on the scale of the British evacuation of an army from Dunkirk in the early days of World War II.


As Adam Mayblum, who walked down from the 87th floor of the north tower with some of his co-workers, wrote on the Internet immediately afterward:

“They failed in terrorizing us. We were calm. ... If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States.”

Far more people could have died on 9/11 if New Yorkers had not remained calm, had not helped each other out of the endangered buildings and the devastated area, had not reached out to pull people from the collapsing buildings and the dust cloud.

The population of the towers was lower than usual that morning because it was an election day and many were voting in the mayoral primary before heading to work; it seems emblematic that so many were spared because they were exercising their democratic powers. Others exercised their empathy and altruism. In the evacuation of the towers, John Abruzzo, a paraplegic accountant, was carried down 69 flights of stairs by his co-workers.

Many New Yorkers that day displayed such solidarity with their co-workers, often at great risk to themselves. In fact, in all the hundreds of oral histories I have read and the many interviews I have conducted while researching a book about how humans respond to disasters, I found no one saying he or she was abandoned or attacked in that great exodus of 9/11. People were frightened and moving fast, but not in a panic.

A young man from Pakistan, Usman Farman, told of how he fell down and a Hasidic Jewish man stopped and saw the Arabic inscription on Farman’s pendant. Then, “with a deep Brooklyn accent, he said, ‘Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand, let’s get the hell out of here.’ He was the last person I would ever have thought to help me. If it weren’t for him, I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.”


Errol Anderson, a recruiter with the New York Fire Department, was caught outside in that dust storm. “For a couple of minutes I heard nothing. I thought I was either dead and was in another world, or I was the only one alive. I became nervous and panicky, not knowing what to do, because I couldn’t see. ... About four or five minutes later, while I was still trying to find my way around, I heard the voice of a young lady. She was crying and saying, ‘Please, Lord, don’t let me die. Don’t let me die.’ I was so happy to hear this lady’s voice. I said, ‘Keep talking, keep talking. I’m a firefighter. I’ll find you by the response of where you are.’ Eventually we met up with each other, and basically we ran into each other’s arms without even knowing it.”

She held on to his belt, and eventually other people joined them to form a human chain. He helped get them to the Brooklyn Bridge before returning to the site of the collapsed buildings. That bridge became a pedestrian escape route for tens of thousands. For hours, a river of people poured across it. On the far side, Hasidic Jews handed out bottles of water to the refugees. Hordes of volunteers from the region, and within days the nation, converged on Lower Manhattan, offering to weld, dig, nurse, cook, clean, hear confessions, listen -- and did all of those things.

New Yorkers triumphed on that day eight years ago. They triumphed in calm, in strength, in generosity, in improvisation, in kindness. Nor was this something specific to that time or place: San Franciscans during the great earthquake of 1906, Londoners during the Blitz in World War II, the great majority of New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina hit -- in fact, most people in most disasters in most places have behaved with just this sort of grace and dignity.

Imagine what else could have sprung from that morning eight years ago. Imagine if the collapse of those towers had not been followed by such a blast of stereotypes, lies, distortions and fear propaganda that served the agenda of the Bush administration while harming the rest of us -- Americans, Iraqis, Afghanis and so many others.

It could all have been different. It’s too late now, but not too late, never too late, to change how we remember and commemorate this event.

The dead must be remembered, but the living are the monument, the living who coexist in peace in ordinary times and who save one another in extraordinary times. Civil society arose that morning in full glory. Look at it: Remember that this is who we were and can be.