Zero Plus 361
9 Seconds To Hell
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
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,
Then the cloud of death hit. It
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Go To September 7--Join
The "Congress Of Vigilance" Today!
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