Yesterday Americans of every stripe remembered where they were, what they did, and how they came to grasp the enormity of “9/11”—the day the worst terror attack struck deep into the core of the American experience and forced each of us, in one way or another, to come to grips with the inevitable “cease to exist” facet of life.
We heard the thuds of the bodies of the victims who leaped into the inevitable rather than face the flames as they struck physical objects below. It only took seconds for them hurling downward at a speed of 150 MPH or 45 feet per second to reach the end of their life’s journey. The nation stopped, stood still in time trying to fathom a decision of whether to leap or face the flames.
The terror of that moment still haunts us all.
I was 55 years of age on September 11, 2001, and into my 35th year of incarceration. I was working in the prison laundry at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, Louisiana.
“Hey, guys,” Bob Howle, a former police officer and the laundry clerk, yelled out to the inmates working in the sweltering laundry, “some plane just flew into one of them buildings in New York.”
Laundry inmates gathered in the lobby area outside the laundry’s security office. We could see the news coverage, without sound, through the closed office door and plate glass window.
After the second plane struck and the first building collapsed, security ordered all inmates back to their living units. The cellblock TV was on. Inmates began to assemble about the TV listening, trying to understand what each kernel of news information meant.
The day wore on.
The gravity of the moment transcended the razor-wired double fences, reached inside our hearts, and made each of us for a moment different human beings.
What I witnessed was never before seen in a prison. Convicted criminals—some hardened, some not—wiping flowing tears from their eyes; guards and inmates huddled together on bended knees with arms encircling each other praying for families who would never know anything but grief from that moment on in life; and sworn enemies stop, speak conciliatory words to each other, and then embrace each other in a futile attempt rewind the clock to a moment when everything was certain.
The TV remained on throughout the day and night, cell doors were left open, and a dozen or more inmates remained transfixed in front of the TV for the next 18 hours or so.
The next morning the inmates were quiet as they moved in a solemn procession to the food cart in cellblock lobby to get their breakfast tray. They ate in silence, weary, beaten down by horrific images of planes exploding into buildings and buildings reduced to contaminated dust and debris.
“You motherfuckers,” one voice screamed out in anguish.
“It’s all right, my man,” another voice calmed the moment. “The Lord will have His vengeance.”
Silence once again engulfed the tier, each man struggling to swallow the next bite—almost ashamed that he could eat while so many suffered.
The next morning, as I struggled through my usual 1500 non-stop skips of the rope, a well-developed weight lifter—a former State Trooper in fact—let loose a guttural scream as he lifted a 45-lb weight above his head and slammed it into a weight bench, buckling its iron frame.
The moment after had arrived for us all.
Yesterday as I sat in my living room watching news coverage of the various 9/11 commemorations those images of 20 years ago re-emerged in my brain. I remembered how inmates for a short period became one humanity locked in a shared tragedy. Yes, they returned to their normal world where hate, division, and anger reigned supreme. But for a moment they were human … they understood.
Why did it take such a tragedy to make us all embrace each other?