November 12, 2001: Flight 587, and a Letter

Morning brought a touch of the horror, and a lot of the same feelings as September 11; when I got into work, I heard from a co-worker that a plane had gone down in Queens, and Giuliani had arranged to have the airspace around New York shut down. I turned on the radio; it was an Airbus out of Kennedy bound for the Dominican Republic that had gone down, crashing in Rockaway where a number of houses were on fire. It turned out everyone on board the plane was killed, as well as about half a dozen people on the ground. (If I had left home a few minutes later, I might have seen the smoke from the blaze, a few miles to the south, on the way to the subway.) The U.N., where a big conference was being held, was evacuated. After a few hours, when nothing else had happened, the airspace was reopened. The government quickly handed the investigation over to the National Transportation Safety Board, probably to downplay the speculation that the crash may have been due to terrorism, no matter what they actually believe (so as to minimize any panic). Many people in New York, myself included, are skeptical that this was an accident and not an act of terrorism.

Late in the morning, I discovered that I had become something of a minor celebrity in three towns in central Washington state. I got a call from a colleague, Jill Walters. Sheís helping with a drive in her community (Richland, Washington) to help raise money to buy a new firetruck for New York. I had sent them a contribution, and also written a letter to their local paper, the Tri-City Herald, and it had been accepted for publication:

A colleague from Richland sent me a copy of your article on "A Day's Pay for the USA," as well as a flyer for the drive. I have put them up on the bulletin board of my office, which is nestled nearly in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Life in New York of late has been like living in a fishbowl, and it is often hard to see much beyond our altered skyline and the even greater changes in our psyches. The other material on the bulletin board consists of fact sheets on dealing with trauma, articles about anthrax protection, about how to be alert and what to be suspicious of, and discourses by various pundits as to the nature of terrorism--in short, a grimly practical guidebook to this strange reality we now find ourselves in. We spend more than our share of time wondering "What's next?", usually in the context of what Osama and his boys might try for an encore. But hopefully a large part of what's next is things like the "Day's Pay" drive, the best of what humanity can offer, displayed to help counteract the worst. With the help of communities like the Tri-Cities, we will rebuild and heal. We're Americans--we take care of each other.
This morning, after we talked about the crash, Jill let me know that my letter had come out, and whatís more, it had been read on the radio, part of it had been read on TV, and Jillís husband had received it as an e-mail that was circulating! I guess it was a slow day for news in the Tri-Cities area. Seriously, itís probably as hard for people in small-town America to contemplate what itís like these days in New York; for them itís a distant place, and a lot of them have never been here. Horrible as itís been, here weíre grounded in a knowledge and reality of the events that no TV image can hope to convey, and there have been hundreds of things, little and big, that people have been able to do here to help out. Something like the ďDayís PayĒ drive can go a long way towards relieving the sense of helplessness in distant communities, and itís good to let them know their efforts are appreciated.

[One thing about the letter: I don't mean to imply that taking care of one another is by any means a strictly American virtue; indeed, the reaction of practically the whole world following September 11 proves that empathy knows no borders. I, for one, will not forget that several thousand people in Teheran, Iran, our supposed enemy, held a candlelight vigil for the victims of the attack. Nonetheless, when faced with calamity, we can count in particular on our fellow citizens to come to our aid. And cities have long memories. After the Civil War, when Sherman's march through the South had left Charleston, South Carolina in ruins and its fire equipment destroyed, New York came to its aid by donating whatever horse-drawn or steam-driven contraption passed for a firetruck in those days. Now, 135 years later, Charleston is returning the favor.]

When I got home I had a couple of e-mails about the crash, offering support and commiseration about the crash. I let them know Iím on the opposite side of Queens, so it wasnít particularly near me.

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