Degrees of Separation
Updated: Oct 17, 2017
I typically do not write about 9/11. In recent years, I even make an effort to avoid media for the span of 24 hours. When society rolls out the 9/11 memorials each year – via posts, footage, interviews or documentaries, it is important to understand and accept the why. As soon as the calendar month ticks from 8 to 9 it starts, and will continue through until tomorrow morning on the 12th. Two weeks of mourning every year for an event that took 102 minutes from first hit to second tower down.
It is almost as if each year the media needs to create this sense of anticipation for the renewed pain, a warning for an event that gave us none and took us out at the knees.
Everyone has their own process, it really doesn't matter what it is. Some watch the footage year after year after year. They devour all of it, tears streaming down their face. Others avoid media like the plague, unable or simply too tired to face reliving it yet again. Other make it positive and participate in memorial services, runs and other commemorative acts. Some sit down at a bar and order a drink that goes reverently untouched at the empty seat next to them. Everyone remembers.
I was not at 9/11. I was home on maternity leave. My son was 20 days, 5 hours and 41 minutes old when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower at 08:46 am. I was not into morning television but the baby was awake so I had it on. At first I did not know what I was looking at, it did not register. A couple of days earlier a skydiver got caught on the Statue of Liberty and not long before that a Cessna had hit a building – so my scale was off, I did not understand just how big that was or what was going on. I was still trying to make sense of it when the second plane hit. I was equal parts frightened and disappointed. I was afraid of what this all meant, and I actually felt guilty that I was not at work – because I knew that we would be going to help, if not already on the way. Rescuer guilt.
Then the first tower fell. As I watched the screaming metal collapse on itself I could feel the tears in my eyes. I distinctly remember this moment. I gasped and said aloud, to nobody who could answer me, "Oh my God, they're all dead."
I was not referring to the civilians.
I looked down at my son on the couch and my brain reeled. All those rescuers, gone. Dead. If I was there would I have gone in?
There were people I knew that day – people I had worked with, hung out with, went drinking with, even shared a birthday with. They went in. Then the towers fell.
The sky was blue, the weather had just a hint of autumn on its breath. The black smoke roiled on the horizon, devouring the light while the ash and debris sucked the life out of a city. It did not matter.
My friends surged across the river and they went in, and they kept going in. Over and over and over again. Hours turned to days turned to weeks turned to months.
Every year I stay quiet, but I doggedly read what they write and listen to what they say (or don't say). I know their stories by heart by now, but I listen anyway. My dispatch friends trying to stay on top of the exploding phones and screaming radios. My EMT and Paramedic friends throwing their go bag in the car and heading to receiving points where they might work in shifts for days. My technical rescue friends working "The Pile," desperate for a save until it was clear it could only be a recovery. My debriefing friends quietly moving among the grayed out providers, offering a supportive shoulder and a bottle of cold Snapple.
Some years they talk about it, some years they do not.
Some years they die from it, killed by an aggressive cancer that got its insidious start in the gruesome confetti that they had no choice but wade through each time they went back in.
Time is a funny thing though, the more distance it creates the hazier the memory can be – especially if you were not directly involved or impacted. This is the 15th anniversary of a day that is as real and hard for me today as it was then, and yet this will be the first year that it is taught in American history classes to children who weren't even born yet. Children who are growing up in a country divided along lines so deep that it sometimes feels as if the last 50 years never happened. Where millennials make costumes out of burning towers and companies use the bloody gash in our historical landscape to sell mattresses with smiles on their faces.
Comedian Louis C.K. said, "When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don't get to decide that you didn't." We were hurt that day, do not let the soothing balm of the passage of time tell you any different – ever.
You see all those posts, those drinks, those long media silences or the non-stop chatter about nothing and everything each September? That is the sound of my friends trying to tell you that they are hurt. That it still hurts.
You don't get to decide when it doesn't hurt anymore.
In this great age of connection we have lost touch with what we are to one another. Not as in race or politics but just as people, as a country, as a nation, as Americans. On that beautiful September morning the world wept for us – not because we had done something stupid in the global theater, but because we had been grievously wounded as a people.
In his 1929 short story, Chains, Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy proposed the concept of six degrees of separation. He was the first person to suggest that you are only six (or fewer) steps away from any other person in the entire world, connected solely by a network of personal acquaintances.
That was before social media.
Today if you use Twitter you are, on average, only 3.42 degrees away from every other Tweeter. Over on the Facebook you are a mere 3.57 degrees away from each of the 1.6 billion users reported in February 2016. (That's about 22% of the world's population.)
If you are a Kevin Bacon fan like me, then you also know the version Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Where due to his prolific career, you can link any current actor or actress back to Kevin via television or movie appearances within six relationships.
It is a first world problem that no matter what you do, somebody knows somebody that will be either positively or negatively impacted by your actions. Our ability to resonate is greater today than at any point in recorded history. A single tweet can destroy a career and a Chewbacca face mask can entertain an entire nation that is starving for authenticity.
We should not take this level of connection for granted. Right now we exist in this spectacular mosaic of communication that gives even the smallest sentence the ability to reach millions of people.
Simply by reading these words, we are connected.
If you know me, then you are one degree of separation from losing friends in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
You are just two degrees away from hundreds of people whose hearts were broken while they did their best to help with the rescue and recovery of thousands of people.
If someone shared this with you and we've never met, congratulations you are now three degrees away from the remarkable men and women who gave their lives that day, and those that that gave their hearts in the days after.
World, meet Dave LeMagne, he's the officer standing in the back with his face to the sun - this is the last known picture of him, taken shortly before the tower fell.
David, meet the World.
There, now that it's personal, perhaps remembering will be easier …