“9-11. What is Your Emergency?”


I first published this blog entry on 9-11-09. I thought I would share it again today, on the twelfth anniversary of the attacks on our soil on September, 11, 2001.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to extend the traditional holiday greeting to you, as in “Happy Patriot Day”, but the day cannot pass without us all thinking very hard about what we lost as a nation that bright blue September day twelve years ago. We lost our sense of safety on our own soil. We lost many, many American lives.

My daughter, rehearsing to perform in a show, one that did go on in spite of the hate extended to us by our attackers, was to turn seventeen years old the day after the attacks. She will be twenty nine years old this Thursday. The world she has grown up in is a different place than it was for us as we became adults. It was a time of fear, grief, and pain, but also a time that saw Americans rally around and support each other in ways that we are still struggling to regain today. I offer this to you to document my memories of that clear day in September and to honor those who died. I never cease to wonder at how much we all suffered that day, how we comforted each other, and how much of ourselves we lost forever. 



It was a Tuesday, of course, late summer/early fall in South Carolina. Bright blue sky, wonderful smells in the air, and just a hint of the changing season. Enough to make you wish for pumpkins and turkey and pan dressing and kicking piles of leaves and smelling smoke. Enough of all this to make you feel safe, free, and wonderful. Enough to make you proud to be an American.

I was working in the mental health center that Tuesday morning, doing what I had done every Tuesday morning for over ten years. I was talking to people with psychiatric illnesses who had been hospitalized against their will for reasons of dangerousness or potential for self harm. In other words, my job that morning involved making sure that the most vulnerable among us were given a fair shake by the mental health system and the court system, and that if they had improved sufficiently, that they would be released from the hospital that day. How American, yes?

After the second interview or so, if memory serves, a staffer ran into the room and told us that the patients and hospital staff waiting their turns to see us in the adjoining room were all glued to the television. It seemed that a small plane had just had a terrible accident, crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. How terrible and sad, we all thought vaguely, going on about our work for the next few minutes, not thinking more about it at least at that instant. Soon, that same staff member came back with astonishing news. It seemed that the plane that had hit one of the twin towers was a much larger plane, maybe even a jet airliner. No, we all thought, at least to ourselves, how could that happen? Huge planes don’t just lose control and crash into skyscrapers. It just doesn’t happen.

The next few moments, really the next few hours, changed all of our lives forever. When we understood what was happening, as the first tower smoked and burned and helicopters began to buzz as did television commentators, we stood riveted to the floor, all of us standing up, restless and vaguely afraid but not knowing what we were afraid of, not knowing whether we should just go on about our days or wait to see if we were going to get new marching orders. The crash of the second plane into the second tower, with the graphic video footage that almost all Americans have seen by now, was surreal.

We were being attacked.

The United States was being attacked.

I have always loved history, and I thought to myself, if there had been the real time coverage we have now in 1941, this is what Americans would have felt like as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Just like the Gulf War and other incidents in recent years, we were all witnessing history being made, terrible history that would affect everything from how we traveled to how we looked at neighbors who didn’t quite look like “us” any more.

I think we went through the rest of the morning in a fog. All of us wanted to make sure our families were safe. As crazy as it feels today, I believe that we all thought that attacks could happen anywhere the rest of that day, even in South Carolina. We made plans to attend church services that night, most of which had been cobbled together as prayer services for the victims as well as for the safety of all of us who remained in America that night, shocked, afraid and angry. My family did something else that a lot of other families did. We met for a meal of comfort food, hearkening back to that age-old tradition of gathering around a table and breaking bread together, offering solace and strength to each other.

One of the most symbolic things we did as the next few days and the real tragedy of it all became so apparent was to display American flags everywhere. We put them on our cars, on our office doors, on our windshields. At our family home, we just happened to have a very large American flag that had been flown over the US Capitol at the request of our congressman. We had never displayed it. I found a few of the biggest, strongest nails I could find, attached them to the front of our house, and hung the flag proudly so that it covered most of the front porch and acted as an impromptu curtain and afternoon sun shade for the living room’s French door windows. That huge flag stayed there, proudly displayed, for a very long time. It has long since been replaced by a smaller version that hangs from a more traditional mounting on a porch column, but there was rarely a day that Old Glory did not fly at our house in the months after the attacks.

Today, we remember that tragic day, 9-11-01, when so many innocent Americans died. We remember and honor a new crop of American heroes who rose to the occasion in service to their country. We remember when the American spirit, so often dampened of late, burned brightly at ground zero in New York City through dark days and even darker nights of digging, searching, rescuing, and recovering. We remember the fear, the anxiety, the terror, the anger and the relief when we knew that the worst of the initial attacks was over, though the aftermath was just beginning.

We remember.

We honor.

We grieve.

Oh, how we still grieve.

We are not fighting a war on terror. We are all struggling and fighting to regain a lost sense of humanity and brotherhood and common cause. We are fighting, or we should be, to be a global people who can live together and celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities. We are fighting not to be isolative and separate and exclusive, for if we do so, we shall all surely die one day, all of us the world over.



The flags outside state offices will be flying at half staff today, as will thousands of others across the country.

No, I will not wish you a Happy Patriot Day.

I will instead ask that you take some time to reflect today.

Take some time not to grieve the loss purposefully inflicted on the United States that clear September day, but to consider the loss to humanity as a whole.

When many of us die, each of us dies just a little right along with them.

It’s time to stop the killing.

9 thoughts on ““9-11. What is Your Emergency?”

  1. Post brought tears to my eyes. Thanks. I was in the canteen at an Indiana State Hospital on 9/11 arguing with a psychologist about a behavior plan. The psychologist was distracted by the tv and kept making comments about what the heck is happening. I was really annoyed that he was not paying attention to me as the disasters were occurring on tv. It is like I refused to acknowledge what was happening and I am still kind of mystified by the whole thing, like a computer that freezes up.


  2. I was listening to rock n roll, when the DJ said there were funny disturbing news reports that didn’t make sense, could somebody turn on the TV and see what was going on? I watched and cried. Then I went to my history class, where we didn’t know what to do.
    For some reason many classmates had me keep an extra car key for them. The phone started ringing when I got home. Some of my friends and classmates were called up, some were told to deploy immediately. I was X-military, so I mostly handled vehicles-got in trouble with city zoning because so many cars were parked on my lawn, in the street. I spent a lot of time collecting power of attorneys and using them to find safe and legal parking.
    What hurt is that in Latin America 9-12 is St. Patrick’s Day-called san patricios-this is an international day where church bells ring from San Francisco to Chile and Argentina, and from San Francisco to Ireland via Boston, The modern san patricios are mostly firemen and some police officers-Irish and Latinos. Instead of the fiestas and parties, the American san patricios were driving to NYC in firetrucks that they gave to NYCFD. The candles were still lit, but the bells were ringing the call to prayer and mourning the loss of the NYC san patricios, and the people they tried to save.
    I hung out the flag of the san patricios. Whenever a fire truck or ER vehicle went by, they let out a whoop on their truck horn. Tomorrow please say a prayer or think of the firemen of the world that risk their lives for strangers and the helpless.


  3. An excellent post, Doc. I wasn’t able to travel to Ground Zero after 9/11, and still haven’t been able to, though I live just under three hours from NYC. When it happened, I was about four years into retirement from the fire service, and this was my worst nightmare X three hundred. When you work in the trade, there are some days on which you have to convince yourself you’re immortal/invincible before you can get into your car and report for duty. It’s a sort of group mythology–a deliberate delusion, really–that enables firefighters to do what they have to do. Or worse sometimes when the alarm hasn’t sounded for awhile–what they might have to do. In other words, if you really stopped to think about it, you’d find a new line of work in a heartbeat. Most of us had families, needed the job, could not have earned a better living elsewhere, and so we avoided thinking realistically whenever possible. But all of that vanished on 9/11. From then on, there couldn’t be any denial, or pretending, and it must have been very difficult going to work for many, many months. I was spared this experience, but I saw enough in my career to know that some advice an older firefighter gave me in week one was the only truth I really needed: “When you go in, you’re not going in alone.”


  4. Rob,

    That is such a good commentary, and a fervent hope, that many of us in many different fields have.

    Nobody likes to feel like they’re going in alone.

    Thanks as always for reading and writing thoughtful comments.



  5. You’re welcome Doc–as always! And you’ve got me thinking again–as usual. One of the things that made firefighting so difficult was a strong sense of isolation and often claustrophobia behind the air mask. Unlike the movies about firefighting, you couldn’t see an inch in front of your face, and because of the protective clothing all you could feel was heat–searing if you stood up, so you had to crawl. The only sense remaining was hearing, and that was overwhelmed by the sound of you own breathing–you had to exhale hard to overcome the pound and a half of positive pressure in the mask. To cap it off, you were most likely trying to find your way to the seat of the fire in a strange building, and the sensory deprivation was so disorienting that you could crawl into a large closet and not be able to find your way out. Happened to me several times. The only reassurance you had was the rasping sound of other breathing regulators nearby, if in fact they were nearby. As manpower reductions took hold, they often weren’t. For years, I thought this was what the old firefighter was referring to when he spoke about not going in alone. Long after my career ended, when I reached his age, actually, I began to understand there was much more to it. And this truth becomes more evident with each passing year.
    This has been a really long run-up, on your dime, to my question: Does tele-medicine make you feel emotionally, if not physically isolated at times? My guess is it must, and perhaps this is one reason you write. Also, though you may have the benefit of a preliminary work-up, the clinicians you’re teaming with are miles away. Does the space between you ever seem too wide, and how do you deal with this sensation when/if it occurs? In firefighting, I could usually follow the hose line back outside for a “breather” when things got too spooky, but where’s the escape hatch in your line of work? I’ve been thinking about these things since your earlier blog on tele-psychiatry. Sooner or later, I suppose most of us will be tele-patients at some point, so if I live long enough, maybe I’ll have some answers. But just in case I don’t, will you clue me in?


  6. Rob,

    Absolutely. Both emotionally, and physically.

    Writing helps, for sure. Also, actually picking up the phone and making contact with the nurses, doctors and others in the ED makes the experience of consulting by telemedicine more “real”.

    Another thing I do is not breaking contact with actual clinic work, so that I can sit across from real people fax to face and talk to them, getting those important physical cues, movements, facial expressions and all the rest that comes across in telepsychiatry, but not exactly the same way as it does in real life.

    My escape hatch is my travel, connecting with friends and family, going to sporting events, dipping my toes in the water at the beach, hiking a trail around a lake or up a mountain. Again, to me it’s the actual, physical connection with people, nature and other experiences that freshens and recharges me for another day “behind the mask” of the Polycom cameras and computers.

    Thanks for the questions and making me think too!



  7. Thanks again, Doc. But I see there’s a new post so one of us should also say, “You’re welcome and let’s move on.” Some afterthoughts, and I’m not really sure what an afterthought actually is. The French have a wonderful expression: L’espirit D’escalier. Literally, the spirit of the stairs–the things you wished you’d said a few moments before (as in just after you’ve left a party or debate), only now it’s too late. Well, truth is, I don’t have any of those right now, and I don’t want to burden you with BS (unless you’ve been recently cloned). It is, however and once again, a true delight to be able to have this running, multiple-way conversation. In particular, it’s been great learning about telemedicine because for many it will be the new normal, and reassuring to know that someone (almost) my age can adapt to it and use it well while remaining “human.” Here’s to you, Doc, and okay, okay…let’s move on. Rob


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