Below was a concrete field of clover leafs – complex convergences of interstates, city streets, access roads, bus routes, train tracks, waterways, docks, locks and airways.
Peering out the window, I recognized many of the Manhattan landmarks – the Chrysler, Met Life, Empire State, Madison Square – they are still there.
But further south there’s more sky than there used to be. Two giants are missing, gone now for five years.
Is this the window view that passengers on United Airlines Flight 175 saw that fateful morning? What did they feel as they sat in these airplane seats? Scared by the intruders? Confused by the change of direction? Sickened with fear and despair about the future that would not be?
I will never forget September 11, 2001, nor will any American old enough to watch and understand a television. With the fifth anniversary nearly here, how will the historians remember that day?
The method of retelling historical events has changed in the last three decades. Teaching history used to center around large events: world wars, presidential elections, societal shifts like the Civil Rights movement.
But with the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976, U. S. historians saw an opportunity to teach history on a local level. Large events were still discussed, but now in the context of the general public. They asked “How did these grand events affect ordinary people and their everyday lives?”
Fortunately, this is the focus that director Oliver Stone uses in his new film World Trade Center. Instead of explaining the geopolitical and religious tensions between the United States and Al Quaida, or the motivations of the terrorists, Stone examines how the day’s events affected the real lives and families of John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña).
McLoughlin and Jimeno were two Port Authority policemen among the first responders to the World Trade Center. Answering the calls for help, they were heading into Tower One when it collapsed. Knowing that the elevator shafts were the strongest areas of the building, McLoughlin and Jimeno desperately ran as the building crumbled. Though buried in more than 20 feet of rubble, the two men survived the disaster.
They kept each other awake and hopeful for a rescue by talking about their families. McLoughlin described his four children, with an unexpected one on the way. Visions of his wife and an unfinished kitchen kept him alive. Jimeno and his wife had one girl and another one on the way. He fought to stay alive in order to see and name his new daughter.
Across town, McLoughlin’s wife tried to remain calm for the family, acting as if no news was good news. But by evening, the lack of factual information about her husband began to affect her. She lashed out at her brother who had driven an hour just to comfort her. She confronted her 12-year-old son who wanted to drive to Ground Zero and help the recovery efforts.
Jimeno’s wife was just as tormented. Though surrounded by family members, she felt the urge to get out of the house and go to the pharmacy. Once there, she wondered how she could act so normal when she had no idea about the safety of her husband.
Stone and writer Andrea Berloff deliberately examined the layers of emotion in the family members, showing how the tragedy affected dinner plans, birthday parties and the relationships with extended family members and friends. We watch as these ordinary people try to deal with this extraordinary event. We wonder if we would have been as calm. We see their insecurities, their fears and their reactions to wrong information. We wonder if we would have been as brave.
“Andrea Berloff’s screenplay is one of the best that’s ever come to me out of the blue – I guess like that day,” says Oliver Stone. “It walloped me – and many others – with its emotion and simplicity. It hit this horrific event in a way I had not seen before, in a way that deeply personalized it for me.”
This film is good history. Stone’s subtle direction takes the horrific event and personalizes it so that we really know how it affected others. With that knowledge, we can better honor those who served others on that day; we can better honor those who continue to serve us now.
Businesses around town have hung signs this weekend, signs that convey what millions of Americans are feeling this weekend:
In loving memory of the brave and innocent lives lost on September 11, 2001.
We will never forget.
First published in the September 8, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio.
Join Christopher Fenoglio and others by making a donation to the World Trade Center Memorial at www.buildthememorial.org