September 8, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 361
9 Seconds To Hell
Cliff McKenzie
   Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

       GROUND ZERO, New York City, September 8-- I've lived through a lot of "Hells."   The last one took 9 seconds.   Nine seconds is about three heartbeats.  It took only three of my heartbeats for 500,000 tons of steel and concrete to fall 1,362 feet at 125 miles per hour when the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., September 11, 2001.

         Just a few seconds before the building imploded, police officers herded those of us close to the South Tower down a narrow street.   They received reports the building was going to fall.   I was on a corner, straining my neck upward, watching the flames shooting from the windows, the black kerosene smoke from 164,000 pounds of jet fuel burning the steel support structures at 1,800 degrees, melting them.  
       People leapt from the WTC windows, choosing volitional death over the Terror of being burned to death, or choking on the smoke caused by the Terrorist's flying Molotov cocktail..  I watched the escaping bodies flail as they tumbled, arms and legs outstretched as though they might sprout wings and fly, The chorus of "we, the living," watched with empty guts and sickened hearts.
      According to Eduardo Kausel, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, the energy released on impact of the Terrorist planes against both towers amounted to one-percent of an Atomic Bomb.  Dr. Kausel reported there was a total of nearly 50,000 gallons of fuel set ablaze, 24,000 from each plane. The intense heat virtually melted the core of the towers, causing them to collapse straight down since 90 percent of each of the 2.3 million square foot  buildings was airspace.   Free falling objects from a height of 110 stories takes about 9 seconds to reach Ground Zero, Dr. Kausel reported in Scientific America.  (link to Scientific America article). 
       The rubble was 11 stories tall, representing 1 million tons of concrete and steel, and the remains of nearly 3,000 people who didn't escape the WTC tomb as 24,000 others were fortunate to do.  Dr. Kausel says it was a tribute to the buildings' structures they lasted as long as they did before falling.

                  I remember 9:59 a.m. well. The time is stamped on my soul.  Just prior to that moment, the police pushed us to a corner, past a bleeding woman being attended by Emergency Workers.  She had blood on her head and face, even though the building hadn't fallen yet.   She was wounded by debris from the shrapnel when the Terrorists' plane slammed into the structure at 500 mph, torching it with the fury of a fire so hot it could melt steel and weaken the floors.  And when the floors started to collapse, their falling weight creating a domino effect on the other floors, resulting in the evisceration of an world icon that took all of 9 seconds--three heartbeats.

         We were shoved to a corner.  Hoards of people were walking and gawking up the streets of Lower Manhattan toward uptown, not yet in a panic.   Then the thunder rolled.   The earth heaved and a giant roar belched from the bowels of the earth. The South Tower crashed down, bringing with it one billion pounds of concrete, steel and what was left of thousands of people trapped inside.
     Debris shot everywhere. 

     People screamed and ran wildly, eyes filled with fear, panic, sensing death.   The grey-black cloud roiled down the street at us, a giant fist of fury shoving balls of pulverized concrete ash to shroud us in its death blanket.
     I captured the faces of the panic in people's eyes with the shutter of my mind.   In a blink I thought about Vietnam, of the helicopters I rode into hot landing zones.   As the choppers tilted to one side and slid down to empty us on the landing zone, the ground exploded with enemy artillery and mortars.   We could see the explosions just below as we dropped closer and closer.  I could feel the heat of their blasts against my face as the explosions ripped open wounds in the soil, scarring the earth with fire and flinging shrapnel indiscriminately.

       In the bizarre jumble of thoughts racing through my mind as I watched people panicking, the vision of a young Marine's face appear before my mind's eye.   He was maybe 17 years old at best, sitting with full combat gear across from me on the helicopter.   It was his first mission.   His face was white, his eyes bulging as we dropped down closer and closer to Ground Zero, Vietnam.    I recalled the vacant look frozen on his face, the one of absolute fear, a look of  emptiness of soul, one caused when the door in your gut opens and all your insides seem to drop to your anus and  you feel the icy fingers of certain death slide around your throat.   In that instant, you choke.  Your ability to breathe, to think, leaves you mentally, emotionally and spiritually numb, as though you were embalming yourself to die without pain, without screaming, without whimpering--"Mommy..mommy.".
       I remember reaching out and putting my hand on the kid's shoulder. He looked at me, that vacuous emptiness gazing at me.. I squeezed his shoulder, perhaps to remind myself he might be the last human being I ever touched, or perhaps to issue him my experience hoping he might not panic when we leapt off the choppers and forget to zig and zag  to avoid the artillery.  I had seen others like him just stand in the heat of their first battle, as a deer caught in the headlights, unable to move until a bullet cut them down.  I hoped the kid would make it.   That's all I could do.

        That was three and half decades earlier.   Now, as I stood on the corner, I had new faces to view.   They were faces of people who had never seen death or destruction in such magnitude.   They were faces of the non-combatants, the non-veterans of war.  They were being baptized this day.  They were learning about the door in their gut, and how it opens and leaves one's soul empty, preparing it for instant death.
      The women next to me were crying, "We're all going to die."  I reached out and put my arms around them and pressed them up against the wall to avoid the blast, and  to keep them from being trampled by the panic of those running up the streets, screaming, frightened.
      Then the cloud of death hit.   It covered us all in its black soot, snuffing out the sunlight of life, choking us.
      It all happened in nine seconds.   I thought the bowels of the city had erupted and was sure the Terrorists had laced explosives in the subway, and were setting them off.  I thought they were full of biochemical's.
      Even in Vietnam when our B-52's dropped tons of 1,000-pound bombs in carpet bombing attacks, I hadn't felt the ground beneath me heave as much as I did that morning, at 9:59 a.m., on the Second Tuesday of September, 2001.
      And then, at 10:28, when the second tower fell, I was ready for it.   I knew what was coming and warned the others around me to duck for cover.  The second tower also took 9 seconds to fall.  But by then, I was a Ground Zero Veteran.

      I think about those 9 seconds a lot as September 11 approaches.   I ponder about how precious time is, how wonderful being alive can be when you compare it with the options..
      When people ask me, "How are you, Cliff?"   I usually respond, "I've never had it so good.  I'm alive."
      They don't really know what I'm saying, but I do.
      By saying "I'm Alive!"  I remind myself how lucky I am to have survived Vietnam, to have survived colon cancer, to have survived Ground Zero.
      It's easy to forget life is a gift.
      Sometimes it takes a baseball bat on the head for us to recognize the value of life.   I am always angry at myself for feeling sad or depressed, or worried or concerned over the mundane things in life like food, money, fame, fortune, my waist size, the gray hairs in my head, the new wrinkles on my face, the swelling of my ankles, the herniated disc in my back.
       I need to remember those Nine Seconds of Nine Eleven.
       I need them as I need  air to breathe, for they offer me the opportunity to compare the value of what I have versus the other options.
      A mentor of mine told me once, "Cliff, when you think of your problems, think of them in comparison to someone else's problems.  Would you trade your problems for someone who had more than you?"
       "Of course not."
       "Then ask someone who asks you--'How are you doing?'--ask them, 'compared to what?'   If you compare your lot in life to others' lots in life, you might find your problems very insignificant," he said.
        Nine Eleven has taught me, one more time, to compare my life to others.   When I see someone I might envy with fame and riches we all would like, I have to remind myself I have no idea whether that person is really happy or not.   He or she may on their way to blow their brains out, or he just came from the doctor's office where he was told he had inoperable brain cancer, or, he may be heading for an intersection where another car is going to run a red light and crumple him in a mass of twisted metal.
       "Never look in another man's pocket," my mentor advised.   My surviving of Nine Eleven underscores that message.
        As I stumbled through the rubble of Nine Eleven and saw the disaster of that day first-hand, I realized how close I had come to death.   Had the policeman not moved us from the corner we were at, we all might not have survived.    No one knows for sure.
       I can't understand today how I survived 100 combat missions in Vietnam. I'm 6-4, a pretty big target, but the bullets only cracked past my ears and between my legs and never hit me.   The mortars and artillery killed and wounded others around me, but left me unscathed.   Why?  I can't say.   But I believe it was to remind myself that my problems in life are nothing.  The gift of life is everything.  
      I also have to believe there is some reason for my being around today, just as I believe there is a reason for all of us to be around.   I refuse to believe we are just here to take up space.   I don't believe we are trapped in roles of servants or slaves to others, or that our lives are meaningless, or that we are wandering generalities waiting to die after we suffer and pay taxes and make others rich.  Those are Terroristic Thoughts, designed to drive me into Complacency, to fill me with Fear or worthlessness, and Intimidate me with futility.
      There is some reason for everything.   While I cannot say what it is for anyone other than myself, I sincerely believe each person has a destiny, raison de etat.
      Those who died at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and in a lonely field in Pennsylvania, weren't "victims of a tragedy."  They were messengers, punctuations about the need for Vigilance over Terrorism.   They were the Citizens of Vigilance, born out of the horrors of Terror.
      I see them as icons of Courage, Conviction and Right Actions.  And I'm not referring to the police or firemen or emergency workers.  They were "doing their duty" that day, and died in the line of that duty.   But the Citizens of Vigilance were conscripted that day into service.   They were picked by the Hand of Destiny to serve as Sentinels of Vigilance, to remind the living we must never succumb to Terrorism's Fear, Intimidation and Complacency, and that we have a duty to teach our children and their children's children how to use the Shield of Vigilance to ward off Terrorism's venom.

     I will not bury their memories on September 11, 2002.  I will not accept their "death" in mere mortal terms.   That would be a travesty to what they died for.   Neither will I close the book on their purpose or value in life today or tomorrow.
     Instead, I will open it.   The people who were killed in the Terrorist attack are, in my opinion, the authors of the Book Of Vigilance.   They have written the first chapter in the Era of Vigilance--a time when all of us need to take stock of what Terrorism is really all about.
     I am convinced "The War On Terrorism" is not  about Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein.  It is all about how we think and act toward the future of our children, our loved ones.  It is about learning how to fight our Fear, Intimidation and Complacency.
       Terrorism is all about stripping one's self of Courage, Conviction and Right Action by becoming victimized by one's Fear, Intimidation and the resulting Complacency of being powerless.
       In its most insidious form, it disenfranchises children from their parents because the parents are "too busy" to learn their child's fears, intimidations and complacencies.  It is about a person feeling useless, or inadequate, or not as "worthy as," or not as "rich as," or not as "lucky as," another.    It is all about comparing our outsides with other's outsides, instead of comparing our insides with other's insides.

         On Nine Eleven the barriers between human beings were washed away.  The rich and poor, the white and black, the brown, the yellow, the red, the peon and CEO, the priest and pauper, the saint and the sinner, all morphed into one body--human beings being human, human beings being Sentinels of Vigilance for and to each other.

      The best of us came out.  We helped one another regardless of race, color, creed, religious or sexual preference, despite our economic differences---or political diversity--we became one that day.  Everyone held hands.  Everyone reached out for the other.
      It all came about in nine seconds.
      When the Twin Towers fell, it reminded us of the fragility of life, and how transient power is.  One day a person could feel the "king" or "queen" of the world because he or she had an office high in the sky at the World Trade Center.  The next day, working in a corner office 1,000 feet above New York City was the last wish one would want for themselves.  And those who stood in envy of those who lived so high above the world, were glad they were who they were.
      In 9 Seconds, the world changed.  The playing field of human existence was leveled.  Just "being alive" was the highest of all riches that day.

Tower of Mercy (note the WTC near the bottom)

 My world changed in those nine seconds it took for the first and second towers to fall.   Their destruction reminded me how lucky I was, and, forced me to see the good in the event.
     The good I see is the presence of the Sentinels of Vigilance.   They remind me I have a choice in life.   One of those includes how I look upon September 11, 2001.
    I can see that day as one of "Infamy" and "Futility."   Or, as the Birth of Vigilance, a time to honor the messengers who hover over Ground Zero.
     I can carry the legacy they left by becoming a Parent of Vigilance, a Citizen of Vigilance or a Loved One of Vigilance.
      I can be reminded the Sentinels of Vigilance gave us all a great gift, one we can  pass on to our children, and their children's children, or to our loved ones--the Shield of Vigilance.

         If I learn how to hold the Shield of Vigilance up against any Terroristic Thought, I never have to be afraid for long, or be intimidated by anyone or anything again, or fear that emptiness and uselessness associated with complacency.
     With the Shield of Vigilance I  can learn a new source of Courage, a new injection of Conviction, and the energy to take more Right Actions.
      And it all begins with taking the Pledge Of Vigilance.

  It only takes about nine seconds to sign your name to it and date it.
      It only takes about three heartbeats to become a Citizen of Vigilance.



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