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Life During Wartime – The Australian – Profiles of Writers by Alison Summers – Snapshots of the Booker Prize


Published:  The Australian

07 September 2002

ON the morning of September 11, Alison Summers, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, author Peter Carey and their two children, was forced to run from beneath the twin towers as they fell. Her diary of the days that followed was written as a record for her boys.

Tuesday, September 11: Lewis Carroll wrote that there is a time in childhood when a door opens, and the future flies in. This morning, when people were rushing to their jobs, or watching from classroom windows, the future; obscured momentarily by the dazzling sunshine and the bluest Manhattan sky; flew in under our radar like the most brutal tornado, shattering glass with tremendous fury, destroying tall towers that once had seemed invincible, and hurling bodies through the sky.

The wailing of sirens ran all day: ambulances, fire-trucks and police cars frantically rushing this way and that throughout the city. Parents ran to collect their children from school, and bring them home. The bridges and tunnels were closed. The irony is that if there are still terrorists among us planning new attacks within the city, New Yorkers just lost their means of escape.

Peter spent most of the day outside, talking to neighbours. I preferred to be inside, folding laundry, making beds, nesting. For a brief moment, I hadn’t known whether I’d see home again, and now it seemed like the best place in the world.

The feeling that I can’t shake is how easy it all seemed. As if a burglar had entered your house by just climbing through the bathroom window, and left mayhem behind.

My shoulders and arms itched terribly all day. I thought it might be a stress reaction and kept applying a tea tree/lavender cream. Bebe noticed me scratching, and suggested that my exposed skin might have been covered in tiny particles of glass from the blown-out windows of the tower. A shower, plus a thorough scrub with the loofah, left me itch-free.

Bebe, husband Jon and 14-year-old Leah have moved in, having been evacuated from Tribeca. Craig came to us, too, for the evening. He said there was a scare at Grand Central, and the area – his offices, too- was evacuated. He estimated there were 10,000 people on the streets. Then someone misheard something about a bomb, and widespread panic started, and he was suddenly in an army of New Yorkers fleeing for their lives. He said it was the most frightening thing he’d ever been through.

Around 10pm, Peter and I walked to the corner. West Houston Street has become a command centre, manned by NYC police, and the roads were empty of private traffic. Whereas in daylight every municipal truck in the city had been turning south down 6th Avenue to report for work at Ground Zero, now they had been replaced by the strangest of earth-moving equipment; like Tim Burton drawings of insects on wheels. Huge yellow floodlights had been erected, and they provided an eerie quality like a movie set.

I find it unbearable, to hear about children waiting for the parent who kissed them that morning, but never returned to school to pick them up.

Wednesday, September 12: The stores are closed; there is no private traffic, or taxis and buses permitted. The only persistent sounds are the military helicopters flying overhead, and sometimes the loud whoosh of a military plane streaking by. It’s eerily quiet with the streets empty.

The typical New York greeting has changed from a rushed, cheery “Hi! How RU?” or “Whassup?” Now it’s a murmur of “How is your family? How are your friends?” then you wait. Mostly I’ve heard  “They’re okay, they’re safe, thank you”, followed by the hesitant, “And yours?” But at lunchtime I went to the cafe opposite. The other restaurants near us have closed because the trucks that bring them fresh produce can’t get in, but these guys make Italian toasted sandwiches, and they’ve still got enough salami, smoked cheeses, ham etc in the freezer. The manager’s eyes were red-rimmed. David said his best friend is missing, a new father, with a three-month-old baby. We hugged for a long time, saying over and over, how horrible, how terrible it is.

It is indeed awful here beyond belief. Mostly people are numb; we’re conscious of being in a tragedy so epic that we’re rendered powerless before it. We want to help the relief effort in any way we can. We try to give blood, or volunteer. But they have so many volunteers at the disaster site that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani asks us to stay home, get out of their way. And blood supplies quickly became ample, so the Red Cross says the same, “Wait till we call upon you. Just send money.” Which we do.

Bebe is a social worker, so she is useful to the relief effort. She was sent to help the police file missing persons’ reports at the morgue. Long lines of people waited hours to register their loved ones. She told us she heard there are 10,000 body-bags standing ready on Roosevelt Island.

On the other hand she heard there might not be any bodies to identify because of the intense heat of the conflagration. All that might remain of a loved one is a finger, or a piece of bone. Bebe said police, Salvation Army, social workers, and the families know that, too, but don’t say it. The bereaved eyes plead “give us hope”. And the police say kind reassuring words over and over again like “Go home, get a good night’s rest, it’ll be fine, there are good people down there digging and digging, they won’t give up”.

“We lie,” she said, breaking down. “We all lie; they want us to, and we don’t know what else we can do.”

We all need to hope. Hope buys us time; hope allows the mind to surrender more gradually to the unthinkable. Everyone talks about long lists of “missing persons”, those possibly alive in the rubble. No one says the unthinkable aloud; not even Giuliani.

Downtown, it’s a war zone. But I’m strangely comforted by the carrier ships anchored in the harbour, the police command centre, and the military planes and helicopters patrolling the sky above Greenwich Village.  Which one of us could have imagined what passes for daily life now?

Fourteenth Street has been barricaded, and is patrolled by state troopers. Any resident of Greenwich Village must carry ID and a letter showing their address, if they plan to return below 14th.  New Yorkers, usually vocal about rights, raise no protest.

The smell of burning plastic or something like it was in the street when I came around the corner this afternoon. I saw a couple of elderly women wearing masks on their lower faces stroll past our house. Masks? I tried not to breathe in the smell.

There was a whooshing sound, and I jumped. A young family, mom, dad, and baby, was moving rapidly down the eerily quiet street, on rollerblades. The baby was in a racing stroller, and she was laughing. Since yesterday I’ve startled easily. Note: Must not develop phobia about noise.

The local fire station is one block down. It is mostly unoccupied today, as the firefighters continue to put out fires at Ground Zero, and dig for survivors. Along the pavement outside are candles, bouquets of flowers, cards and children’s drawings.

The fire station is the heart of this neighbourhood. During the winter months we drop our canned food there and coats for the homeless. And now the fire station has become the focus of our grief. It is the silent, empty, non-denominational church we drop in by day or night, and gather outside for silent prayer.

News of the deaths of more than 200 firefighters is unbearable. How fiercely we love our firefighters now, when we know that hundreds lost their lives in order to save people from the inferno.

Thursday, September 13: Today our family has breathing masks. Whenever the wind shifts, the smell outside is foul. It is coming from Ground Zero. It is the smell of death. We’ve been informed by the mayor it’s not toxic and it’s not asbestos, though no one seems able, or prepared to tell us what it is.

The doorbell rang. I saw the kids in the foyer through the video monitor. They were clowning for the camera, but it was unsettling to see them with masks covering their noses and mouths.

Fourteenth Street continues to separate the damaged downtown area from the rest of Manhattan. I have heard it said that it’s different uptown, the traffic is running, business is open as usual. They go out to dinner, and read the paper. I haven’t seen a copy of The New York Times since 9/11 because of the impossibility of delivery. But every morning on NY One, the TV announcer reads the headlines aloud.

My body is a mess after its Tuesday’s marathon sprint. I am stiff all over: calves, thighs, back.

Something wonderful happened this afternoon. Peter called to me to come outside, and we watched a parade of trucks, coming from as far back up along 6th Avenue as the eye could see, moving slowly toward Ground Zero. Crowds had gathered to watch them. It was a solemn moment.

These were not city trucks, already pulling their weight at the disaster site, but fleets of privately owned trucks. The licence plates were from all over.

There was no jingoism or anti-Islamic slogans, or grandstanding. The drivers had brought their trucks to help our city’s workers dig through the rubble, to unbury our living and our dead.

The trucks rolled down the avenue like the cavalry, drivers solemn, eyes ahead towards their destination. Many of them had attached American flags to the cabins. Some people started half-running along the street, to take their photos. I was smiling through tears. The feelings of overwhelming gratitude in the crowd for the kindness of these men, who had come such a long way to help, is hard to describe.

Some jumped up and down, and others waved. If you caught the drivers’ eyes, they’d nod solemnly and wave back. Some people wept quietly, others cheered noisily, but all of us were moved beyond belief.

It’s the kindness that people have shown us in dreadful times that makes you weep. It’s the generosity that always catches you off guard.

Friday, September 14: The phone lines are jammed, but thank God they keep trying, our friends and our families. It’s unimaginable to be enduring this on your own, without the knowledge of support and love from the outside world.   Giuliani had declared midday the time for 9/11 church services all over the city. Peter and I went to St Luke’s. Our first time after 17 years of marriage. Both of us needed a church, I can’t explain it better than that. There was a powerful impulse to mourn with our community. A catastrophe like this binds you forever. Not just to your fellow mourners, but to the dead as well.

Bebe comes home emotionally exhausted. She’s worried about the capacity of the police to deal with what’s required. The men she works with are exhausted from lack of sleep, and suffering from emotional stress. She said the cops work 48-hour shifts, then spend their time off identifying the bodies of fallen comrades to spare their families the pain.

Hope weakens with every passing day that any missing people will be found alive, but we still cling to it. What else is there, other than that? Death walks the streets daily. We breathe him in. Death is in the bus shelters, assembling the “missing” posters in vertical lines. So many faces, it breaks your heart to see them. Read together, it’s an epic narrative of genders, ages, countries, families, jobs, ethnic identities.

And the photos . . . a Chinese woman and her two adult daughters, a pretty 25-year-old Jamaican woman snapped at a party with her girlfriends  . . . an African American man with grandchildren upon his lap. And always the heading: “Have you seen . . . ?” Or “Missing!”

We, the survivors and the witnesses, make ourselves stop and read the posters as if they are headstones, and they probably are, since the bones of the dearly beloved are most likely buried in the mass grave called Ground Zero.

Death is on the fire-station walls where children have taped their prayers for those who’ve died. And when the sun goes down, death roams the night, too, and watches from the corners where people gather in silent vigils, holding candles and praying for survivors in the rubble of Ground Zero.

Saturday, September 15: There is so much talk of war, and further large-scale terrorist actions, including the possibility of chemical or biological warfare. Be prepared for anything, they tell us. Today I purchased gas masks from the local Army and Navy store, three adult and one child-sized. When I went to the supermarket, the cases of bottled water seemed to be flying off the shelves. But everyone was ordering them in the same casual, unconcerned voice (like “I’m not worried; I just thought it would be nice to have a case of water”.) I bought canned food, too.

There has been much talk reported on CNN from people across the country of vengeance, but we are not as outspoken or unambivalent about it here, in lower Manhattan. Well, in the first day or two yes; when people were distraught, outraged, grief-stricken, it was easier for some to be simple, to speak of direct action, an eye for an eye. But in the days of mourning that followed, and amidst the clean up of the devastated area, such talk died down, to be replaced by grief, then fear.

Sunday, September 16: There are so many lives to mourn.

September 2002: I can’t tell how long the grief and shock will take to go away. No one I know has lived in the aftermath of catastrophe before. At first the grief stays alive because there are so many memories, and people deserve the dignity of being heard by the rest of us. Then later the shock of the catastrophe stays raw because a terrorist attack of that magnitude, almost 3000 dead including 350 firefighters, a crater the size of seven football fields, and the smell of decaying flesh in the air, whether it is London, Sydney or Beirut, turned us into the inhabitants of an island, with a mass grave at the end, and that’s hard to ignore.


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