There are two images that have not muted with time. They are exactly 84 months old.
After seven years, these closed eyes still see the jumpers as vividly as I did that morning. I counted five in the few minutes between the time I first turned around to look at the smoldering North Tower and the time the second explosion rocked the South Tower. The couple holding hands and flinging themselves out of an uppermost floor right below the “Windows” restaurant are framed on my inner eyelids.
They seemed so young to me. He had no jacket and tie. She had long hair which was illuminated by the bright sun. It was hard to see much more detail from that distance. Even now, as I write this, they still seem so young. Yes, too young, they were much too young.
I often speculate about what was in their minds. They were knowingly jumping from 100 stories to certain death. What was it like for them with heat and smoke and carnage to bring them to that action? This was before the second explosion and before the buildings fell. This was an act determined by them and only by them before we learned details of scheming Al Qaida monsters and their consummate evil.
Were they young lovers? Were they a couple? They jumped holding hands. They fell clasped to each other for as long as they could. They must have been plummeting a hundred miles an hour as their rate of fall accelerated. Had they been at breakfast together on that clear, blue sky, bright sun, welcoming beautiful autumn day? Did they hold hands while walking to work that morning? The instant before Mohammed Atta struck, that “September morning” was as appealing, tranquil and inviting as one could imagine. Was it that way for them?
The second explosion is the other image. I was then standing on the knoll across West St. and near the entrance to the building where the escalator takes you up to a lobby and on to elevators that rise to the Wall St. Journal offices.
Ancient army training instinctively had me measure the size of the fireball. It was 20 stories tall and about the same width. I counted the stories out of instinct. I also counted the “flash-to-bang” time and determined that I was between 4000 and 5000 feet from it. I could feel the heat briefly as the shock waves rolled out from the blast. It made the loudest sound I had heard since the ‘60s when I crawled on my belly next to an artillery simulation pit at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
My mind surfaced the 23rd Psalm that morning as I stood on that knoll. Looking across West Street and down Liberty Street and beyond Broadway toward Wall St. one had a vista of two smoking buildings, panicked and running people, chaotic and sporadic emergency vehicle movements, injury and death. Through all of this, the bright sun and cloudless sky allowed a sharply defined shadow to angle onto the buildings in the financial district. There are places here where the sun never reaches the pavement, I thought. The nickname “canyons of Wall St.” entered my consciousness. I cannot recall who coined that phrase.
From the metaphor of canyon and shadows the psalmist’s words leapt at me. You are looking at the valley of the shadow of death, David. At that moment we felt calm and not panic. We pursued action not frozenness. We moved decisively. We escaped and are here to tell about it and to contemplate.
Why me? Why those jumpers?
Ancient texts yearly ask that we reflect and personally examine that question. Millennium old teachings say that an annual accounting is done in a spiritual realm. Who shall live and who shall die? These things get sealed yearly according to those traditions.
But good deeds of charity and kindness can annul the judgment. That is also the message imparted by those ancient teachings.
Maybe that is why I recite the 23rd psalm? Why I keep it on my personal bulletin board in my kitchen? Maybe that is why its final sentence is phrased so profoundly with the text that we know?