A Harrowing Experience

Our son Jaideep had started to work in the financial district of Manhattan. His office was in the vicinity of the World Trade Center - just a stone’s throw away. His apartment was also a couple of blocks from the WTC. We had just visited NY and returned only 36 hours before the 9/11 attacks. Jaideep had a nice apartment with a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty and the Jersey shore, seen from his rooftop deck of the 20-story apartment building. We spent several hours there on the night of September 8th enjoying the view and admiring the WTC buildings that were so very close that you could almost reach and touch them. The marvel of construction of this nerve center of the financial world was apparent to anyone who had visited there. We went to the courtyard and enjoyed the wonderful sights. We even went into the building to buy some tickets for Broadway shows. It is hard to imagine these marvelous structures, the landmark and pride of NY is no longer standing today.

We had returned to Florida on the 9th of September after experiencing and internalizing the marvel of the financial district and the majestic beauty of the WTC. Jaideep walked to work on the morning of September 11th full of hope and anticipation, as it was his second day of work. On the way he saw the first building burning after the first plane had crashed into it. He went into his office building, which is called the World Financial Center (housing most of the investment banking and brokerage houses). From the 20th story window of his building he along with his colleagues watched with their own eyes, in utter disbelief, as the second plane ploughed into the second of the towers. Then it was apparent to all that this was not an accident (as it was presumed earlier) but a concerted terrorist attack. At this time we finally got in touch with him and learned that he was being evacuated from his building. He told us, in a shaky voice, about his witnessing people jumping out of the windows of the WTC. The financial center was promptly evacuated and Jaideep went home to check on his cousin, Chetan, who shared the apartment with him. The cell phones were not working and he was concerned about Chetan’s safety. 

When he was inside the apartment the first tower collapsed. The day suddenly turned into a pitch-black night of death and destruction. Thick black smoke surrounded his building and he was not able to see anything outside his window. Fortunately the smoke within the building was not stifling. However, soon after, Jaideep called us in a panic - not knowing what to do. Breathing was becoming more difficult, he told us. The phone suddenly went dead and we were cut-off from the conversation in mid-sentence. After that we were unable to contact him for over an hour. He had just told us that he was going to stay in his apartment but neither he nor Chetan were answering the ringing telephone – and this was when we feared the worst. We were unaware that the phones were not working in his apartment due to power failure, though we could hear it ring from our end.

Knowing how close he lived to the area of disaster, we panicked. Soon the second tower collapsed as we watched on our television set with helplessness. We were frantically trying to reach him on his cell phone, which too did not work. After what appeared to be an eternity, Jaideep finally called us to say he was okay. The relief we had when we heard that both Jaideep and Chetan were unharmed is not something we can describe. Rathna and I breathed an emotional sigh of relief. Jaideep and Chetan had somehow found their way to the dark basement in their building and huddled together with the other residents of the building, not knowing what was going on in the outside world. 

On some settling of the smoke and debris, Jaideep and Chetan ran to the shores of Hudson, where they were able to take a boat across the river to the New Jersey shores. They were dropped off in a desolate area on the Jersey shores. There were no hotels or transportation available there. However, they certainly were relieved that the saga had ended for them and the important thing was that they had survived. From the Jersey shores they took a train to go to Philadelphia and stayed with friends. It was well past midnight when they knocked on the doors of their friend’s apartment in Philly.

It is hard to imagine the Manhattan skyline without the twin towers that used to be the most prominent structure one saw from the sky as well as the ground. It is disconcerting that such acts can be carried out by human beings against their own race. Rational, thinking people just cannot fathom the purpose or the goals of the terrorists. 

William Wordsworth wrote, “I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing often-times the still, sad music of humanity.” John Keats words also come to mind when he wrote, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it.” 

This gruesome experience has changed my outlook toward life entirely. The scene of death and destruction plays out in front my eyes as though I had witnessed the unfolding events first hand. The disaster that hit lower Manhattan had almost hit us at home in Florida. The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach did not leave me for many months. It was unfair for our young son to have had to go through such an experience so early in his life. Our close friends had come home to share our concerns about our son and this was a great relief. We had felt so helpless and fretful for an hour, on that day. Indeed, this incident has had a profound effect on both my wife and myself.

That was a harrowing experience we will never forget for the rest of our lives. Life seemed ephemeral and love seemed to transcend everything. The abundance of our love for our son and the concern our friends had for us gave us the strength to endure. One such day in one’s life is enough to contemplate and reflect on one’s own mortality. 

Maalok's Note:
Sometimes the darkness of death becomes the catalyst for lighting us up as seems to be the case here. The darkness of death can serve as the backdrop for us to witness our inner life force. But for how long? Is there a fundamental change in us? They say time heals. By healing it is often meant that we forget and move on to live our lives as we always did. The Wall Street is back to being the Wall Street – despite the fact that on 9/11 it was the Dark Street of death, and subsequently, for some time, the Love Street of healing and caring. It is revealing to see this in contrast to Ramana Maharishi’s death-experience and how it changed his life profoundly and irreversibly.  Why is it that very rarely, if at all, does one see an example of a deep-enough internalization of a tragedy that makes one seek lasting peace and happiness? Why is that Maalok, even though affected deeply by 9/11, continues to live a life not very different from what it was pre-9/11, while people like Ramana Maharishi abandon themselves to the quest of deathlessness? Why? Perhaps, the answer is not as important as the question itself? 


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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