Monday, May 2, 2011

9/11, Bin Laden and Bermuda

Upon hearing the news of Osama bin Laden’s death by a US special operations force in Pakistan, I found myself reliving a beautiful, sunny day in Hamilton, Bermuda. The date was September 11, 2001.
I had been playing the piano on a Celebrity cruise ship called the M/S Destiny whose homeport was New York City. We made regular weekly runs to Hamilton and St. George, Bermuda. It was one of the loveliest gigs I ever had. I sang and played solo piano in a venue called the Cova Café. Every Saturday, the ship berthed at the South Street Sea Port terminal, just a brisk 30-minute walk from Times Square. There were no security checks such as we undergo now. New York was at peace with everybody. The Twin Towers still stood proudly, although some purist New Yorkers still complained that they stuck out too inharmoniously above the skyline. As far as I was concerned, the Towers were a constant, welcome presence in my life while I stayed in my friend’s apartment in Astoria, Queens back in 1989. They greeted me everytime I looked out of the bathroom window. Yes, people, whenever I took a piss or sat at the loo, I’d just glance over and see the towers in the distance, a comforting presence that I learned to take for granted.
Bermuda was, and still is, a beautiful island that is the nearest and most logical destination for vacationing New Yorkers. Temperate and semi-tropical, it has fine pinkish beaches that are some of the best in the world. In the summer, when the ship overnighted in Hamilton, the fragrant smell of profligately-blooming flowers hung over the harbor like a thick, intoxicating blanket. It is British , and the people are very well behaved (in contrast to other tropical destinations in the Caribbean). It is also stunningly expensive, which means there were no Disneyworld crowds here. I have swum in sparkling coves where sometimes I was the only person present. Based on the prices they charged here for everything from tea to hotel rooms, I wouldn’t come here at my own expense. Having said that, I still recommend that anyone who can afford it go visit Bermuda.
We left the port of New York Saturday afternoon. Pleasure boats were out on the Hudson, their sails catching the late summer breezes. This is one of the great sailaways in the world. On one side you saw the Manhattan skyline with the twin towers dominating it, and on the other, the Statue of Liberty on its own island. As we passed by the towers, their expansive, glass-swathed facades looking so impressive and inviting, I remarked to a passenger who was standing beside me at the railing: “You know, somebody could fly a plane into that.” I had read an article in a magazine speculating on what would happen if a plane did fly into any of the towers. The writer concluded that it would only do partial damage to the building because the plane would be swallowed by the immensity of the building. He was talking about a small plane, like the one that crashed into the Empire State building back in the forties. He could not have foreseen that fully-fueled 757’s would be used to attack not just one, but both buildings. That remark I made to the passenger would haunt me a long time afterwards.
After a day at sea, I woke up on September 11, somewhat groggy. I put it to a lack of oxygen in my cabin, a side-effect of a sometimes faulty and weak ship’s ventilation system. I went out for breakfast. The ship was already docked in Hamilton. It was 9:00 AM. I passed by the library. There was a group of passengers there, staring at the TV screen. Curious, I went inside to find out what they were looking at. The TV was tuned to CNN. It showed one of the towers with a blackened hole on the side.
“What happened?”I asked one of the passengers.
“A plane had just crashed into the tower. “
The screen switched to an announcer (I think it was Bernard Shaw) who was struggling to put on his earpiece and trying to describe the scene. Behind him, the damaged tower stood, framed by a gorgeously sunny sky. Perfect New York weather.
From the corner of the TV another plane appeared that seemed to be heading straight into the other tower. It disappeared between the buildings and didn’t emerge. We looked on in astonishment, unable to comprehend what was going on.
There was a quick newsbreak that said another plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
I went out of the ship into Hamilton, my mind in tumult. I was hungry though, and was still going to have my breakfast.
I decided to go to a restaurant on Front St. just across from where the M/S Destiny was docked. I went up to the second floor and ordered an English breakfast. The TV was on. The place was abuzz with passengers from the ship. At the table beside me, two women were consoling another woman who was crying.
“I know somebody who’s working there,” she was saying through her tears.
“I’m sure she’ll be all right,” her friend was telling her while stroking her arm.
By this time, forty minutes had passed from the moment the planes had crashed into the buildings. We were all hoping, in fact expecting, that things would be under control.
Then it happened.
A collective gasp of horror arose from the assembled crowd, me included, when we saw the towers disappear in a huge cloud of smoke and dust. The cloud engulfed the surrounding buildings , its tendrils curling slowly, almost elegantly, into the streets and into the waters of the Hudson. It stayed there, and for a moment I was not sure if the towers had actually collapsed. And then we knew. They had.
I went outside, into the wonderful sunshine of Hamilton. I had my breakfast, and I felt guilty for having it.
And as I walked and walked on Front St, a kind of blackness came over me, the sort that you experienced when you woke up with a hang-over and were not quite sure where you were.
In my heart and mind, I realized I had seen something truly evil unfold, perpetrated by unknown people for who knew what reason. I also remember thinking, “Well, I’m sure the US won’t take this lying down.”
Today, we know that, through all the changed milieu that has befallen the world after that attack, this greatly wounded nation has found closure.

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