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Reflections on Life
And Safety After WTC

UE News, November 2001 David Kotelchuck

It was about 9:15 am on September 11 in New York City, and I was at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue waiting to catch a bus, when I noticed people looking up at something in the distance. I looked up too, and what I saw I will never forget.

There about 2 miles from us, as the crow flies, was one tower of the World Trade Center on fire at about the 100th floor. Massive clouds of smoke were billowing up, enough that I could see at a glance that folks above that floor would not be able to make it out of the building.

I turned to the gentleman next to me and asked what had happened. He said that a plane had hit that tower and that another had hit the tower behind it, the one we could not see from where we were standing. With a second plane involved, we both knew what was going on, and muttered to each other "a terrorist attack" – it could be nothing else.

I stood and watched for a few moments, decided that the police and firemen were surely there doing what could be done, and didn’t see anything that I could do, so I left for my 9:30 meeting at Hunter College. (I knew the Towers were designed to withstand the impact of a 747, so it never dawned upon me that they could collapse.)

I got to my meeting on time – it was about assisting and organizing community health workers – we all talked about the bombing. Then we agreed to go on with the meeting – if some people were trying to stop us, then we would defy them by going on with our lives. It was a minor gesture of defiance, one that paled further as the events of the day unfolded.

I had to leave early for a union meeting – I’m Co-Chair of the City University teacher’s union (PSC-CUNY) health and safety committee. I hopped a bus north to midtown (they were still running then), which took me further away from the WTC buildings. Inside all of the passengers were talking out loud about the bombing in one big, bus-wide conversation – an unusual New York City moment, to say the least. Who did this? Why? What should we do? We tried, all of us, to support each other, to put the best face on this disaster we could. I still didn’t realize that the two buildings had (or were soon going to) collapse.


When I got to the union office, reality crashed in around me. The TV screen was running and re-running each tower’s collapse. I saw fear in people’s eyes; so many of us had friends and family members working downtown near the WTC buildings. A visceral fear hit me – my wife Ronda works about six blocks away from the WTC. Could the buildings or parts of them have tipped over and fell near her or her colleagues? Maybe she had gone over to the WTC to purchase something just then? The TV said and I saw that the collapse was straight down. But was this the whole story? Frantically I started to call my wife, and also my daughter, who happened to be home from college that week. But, no surprise, the phone lines were all busy, clogged with people like me trying to contact their friends and loved ones.

After about an hour of unsuccessful phone calls, my wife and I both got through to my daughter and we all knew we were OK. Eventually everyone in the union office got through to his or her loved ones – and the news was good for each of us. Our pent-up tears burst forth, and we hugged one another.

Not so lucky, many of our friends and colleagues. A colleague at school lost her sister, another her husband. As the day went on the losses hit, and hit hard. Over 300 firemen died. (Later a firefighter union rep told us that prior to this disaster, the worst disaster ever to hit a U.S. fire team took 30 lives, one-tenth the number here!) Almost 100 policemen and policewomen lost their lives. Many other union workers died. Over 70 members of the Restaurant Workers union, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, lost their lives. Twenty-seven members of the Local 32BJ of SEIU, who ran the elevators and cleaned and maintained the buildings, died. Many, many foreign nationals lost their lives, as well as over 600 persons of the Islamic faith, both American and foreign.


The bombings were and are a first-class tragedy. And it will take us many years as a nation to recover, but recover we will – changed by the bombings and the deaths, just as we are changed by wars and losses in our families. But life goes on with its pleasures and joys, as well as its sufferings and worries.

But where do we go from here? What have we learned from this tragedy? I honestly don’t know what "we" as Americans have learned, we’re too diverse a country and people for that. But the following thoughts have been on my mind since the bombing:

  • That there are people in the world who are so filled with hate and anger that they are willing to do almost anything to harm us. I must say it grieves me to see that in some parts of the world, many people consider Mr. Bin Laden a hero for what he and his supporters did, despite the massive losses of lives involved. There are too many such people, in my opinion, simply to be brushed off as "crazed" or "out of their minds." We need to find out why so many peoples in the Middle East are so angry and upset with us. And if there is merit to the reasons for their hostility, we should try to address them, even as we continue to search for the perpetrators of the bombing and bring them to justice.

  • That we are going to be fighting wars in the Middle East for the rest of our lives, and our children’s lives, and our grandchildren’s lives if we don’t find some way as a nation to quench our national thirst for third-world oil. We must begin to make a serious national effort to conserve energy, starting with home and office heating and improved fuel efficiency for our cars (Yes, gas-guzzling vans and SUVs are an ecological disaster), and seriously develop renewable fuel sources like wind, sun and water. Fifteen years ago I was telling environmental classes at Hunter College that reliance on foreign fuels would embroil us in wars in the Middle East for generations to come. Since then we have fought or are fighting two wars there, and as the threats to Saudi Arabia and Egypt increase more wars are on the horizon. And who knows what Saddam Hussein will decide to do before he leaves the international stage?

  • Finally, we need to keep our cool in fighting Bin Laden and his network. Our chief goal should be to go after him and his associates, and bring them to justice. Bringing down the government in Afghanistan should be a secondary goal for us, but increasingly this appears to be the chief goal of our military effort. We can no more install a government in Afghanistan and expect it to survive as a legitimate national government without foreign support (read: US soldiers) than we could do so in South Vietnam forty years ago. These efforts didn’t work then and they won’t work now, in my opinion, no matter how much we are aggrieved by the Taliban’s support for Bin Laden. Bin Laden and associates carried out the attacks on the U.S., let us go after them and bring them to justice.

For the more distant future, we should heed Mother Jones’ advice: "Let’s mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."

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