In the days following 9/11 I was, as millions were, glued to the television watching the horrific events unfold. It was enormous, unthinkable, a tragedy of national and international scope. I couldn’t get my head around the thousands of lives lost, the national symbols destroyed, the buildings collapsing like flaming torches. Finally I shut down, went numb, until an interview with a young man in the street put it into another perspective.
He said he was an Emergency Room physician and had received a frantic call back to work only a few hours after his shift had ended. He told how the hospital staffed up; every doctor, nurse, technician and orderly resolutely prepared for the expected deluge of injured, each requiring every bit of their attention and skill . “And we waited,” he said. “And waited. A few trickled in, then a few more. And finally we realized that they weren’t coming”—here he turned his head away from camera and interviewer and continued in a strangled voice—“because they were all dead.”
I felt like he had punched me in the stomach. Because I hadn't thought—doctors and medical staff don’t focus on “all’—that big picture is for others. They deal instead with each patient, fight to save every life, one unique human being at a time. The tears he hid were for his never-to-be-known patients, for each and every victim that his skill and care, so gruelingly won and readily offered, could now never help. For him it was very, very personal. That young doctor and what he said come to mind every time I remember that harrowing day.
It is very personal. We, the Material Witnesses, fervently hope that each family member of every victim has found some comfort and closure in the intervening years. To each of the firemen, policemen, medical teams, and others who responded so heroically: thank you, thank you for your service. To every one of the thousands of ordinary citizens who walked or biked into the devastated city with sandwiches, bottled water, blankets, or just to ask "How can I help?" your courage and generosity are remembered and cherished.