September 26, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Lyndon Cerejo

Like everyone else who heard about the World Trade Centre tragedy, I was shocked. Like the thousands who made their way to work daily via the WTC but weren't there when it happened, I thanked God. Like many Americans, I wondered how this would change America. At the same time, like a lot of non-Americans, I was worried about the after-effects this attack would have on the immigrant community.

There's no doubt that America changed that fateful Tuesday. Since then, I've seen faces of America I had never seen before 9-11; in the way people reacted, in the way companies responded, in the way life has changed and in the way some things haven't.

Almost everyone has a story to tell... Even I shuddered when I realised that around the time of the disaster I would have been getting out of my train at the WTC to get to work a few blocks away, had I not been pulled into a project in Boston the previous day.

While our company shut offices around the country at noon that day, some employees tried to get in touch with family, friends and colleagues in NYC. Others made arrangements to donate blood for the victims of the attack at the nearest Red Cross location. Back at the hotel, there was not much else to do besides turning on the television... All channels had, out of respect, cancelled their much-touted season premieres and turned to live coverage. As a result, you had a choice of 57 channels and nothing but the tragedy on. On television and off, Americans were scared, robbed of security, of the feeling of invincibility; you could see and hear fear, disbelief and unease wherever you looked.

By evening, my office voicemail was flooded with messages from the leader of our NYC office -- asking after our safety and the status of colleagues, giving suggestions and tips and rallying support for those stranded in the city because of the tragedy. The following day, each and every employee got a call from their vice-president, taking roll call, ensuring that everyone was safe and offering any help or support needed -- financial, counselling or just a listening ear. The company had also organised trained counsellors and counselling sessions for the employees who needed it. My V-P told me we would not be having this conversation had his 8.30am meeting on the 86th floor of the WTC not been pushed back at the last minute to 11am.

I had air reservations to fly on Wednesday from Logan (which was where two of the hijacked planes began their fateful Tuesday journey) back to Newark (home to the other hijacking) but, with all air traffic suspended, I had to push my travel back a day. Eventually, neither airport in Boston was able to meet the new FAA security regulations, so I ended up taking the train back home. On the way to the station, the taxi driver talked about how he regularly dropped one of the victims in the fatal flights to the airport, grumbled about the dramatic drop in fares and speculated about the bleak future.

Back in New Jersey, my office voicemail brought some good news -- all my colleagues from the office near the WTC were safe and accounted for. Our company had started helping our clients and other businesses in the area, offering office space, resources and, in one case, hooking up a client with another who had space to offer. I switched on the television, but this time there was nothing on... all the local channels I was tuned to used to broadcast from the tower on top of the WTC...

A dentist's appointment took me to Manhattan on Saturday, four blocks away from Canal Street, the area below which was cordoned off. People thronged the barricades, now a gruesome tourist attraction. Many took pictures, a handful cried staring at the posters of missing people, a few left cold bottled water, fruits and juices for the volunteers and policemen who tried to maintain order, "If you must take a picture, do it fast and move on..." The barricades made way for a truck carrying debris while another let out a towing truck with a Honda covered in soot. Firemen coming out of the area were greeted with cheers and rounds of applause.

I spent some time on Sunday browsing through pictures from my digital albums, looking for pictures of the WTC -- some from the Jersey waterfront before the 4th of July celebrations, others atop the 110th floor, and a recent video clip of the Cerejo clan recorded by an Internet device in the observatory proudly proclaiming, 'Top of The World Trade Centre'.

The next day, I was due back in Boston. The increased security procedures at airports across the country meant leaving home two and a half hours earlier than I usually would; no more electronic check-ins, no more arriving at the airport at 7.15am for a 7.30am flight. Long queues of tired passengers waiting for their boarding passes were greeted by ground crew collecting newly banned items -- nail-cutters, tweezers, lighters and even metallic pens and pencils. Lines for security were longer, people went through slower, minimum-wage screeners appeared to be paying more attention to the X-ray images and collecting more banned items. An hour and a half later, the usually crowded departure area had just two other passengers waiting for the Boston flight.

The flight finally pulled away from the gate with less than 10 per cent occupancy -- it seemed like a private chartered jet with just 15 of us on board. Despite all the new security precautions and the hue and cry about how pilots should keep the cockpit locked during the flights, the cockpit door swung open as our plane took off, making passengers exchange uneasy glances.

As the plane soared higher, passengers and crew looked out of the right side, seeing smoke spiral from lower Manhattan. Logan airport was deserted; there was no line for taxis and hardly any taxis either. Voicemails from the office leadership mentioned that the NY offices were open again, but employees should decide what's best for them -- taking time to deal with the events of the past week or coming to work as occupational therapy. Administrative staff in our offices had been making colour printouts of flags for interested employees, specially since flags were sold out around the country -- Walmart's average flag sales that week was 450,000 compared to 26,000 during the same week last year.

Back on the project, I learnt that a new team member was in the Marine reserves. Being one of only 20 in the country with his skill sets in a bomb-related field, he had received feelers about serving the country again and was all set to go when called. Another team member sympathised with me after hearing news reports of an Indian killed in the backlash. If only she had read the Indian media, she would have known how many more had been affected.

Yet another colleague, who's always on the road during the week, confused his 21/2-year-old daughter by coming home every day since the tragedy. Earlier this week, when he left before she woke up, she asked her mum, "Daddy... work? Daddy home... Friday?" When she was told Daddy would be back that day, she asked, "Today... Friday?" People have started rethinking their priorities.

A week after the tragedy, Jay Leno's Tonight Show started broadcasting again, cautious, subdued... he mostly poked fun at himself during the introduction. Like most radio stations that didn't know how to react or what music to play after the tragedy, he confessed he wasn't trying to make people forget what had recently happened, just help people get their minds off it for a few minutes and get them smiling again.

Media reports have criticised Logan airport for not taking enough precautions, but my experience proved otherwise. After removing every piece of metal on my body (down to my belt), my laptop backpack was thoroughly searched, each of the eight pockets emptied and every item examined and my camera, palm pilot and cell phone tested before they ran it all through the x-ray machine once again and then allowed me to pack it up. Then the state police officer asked me where I was born and when I mentioned India, he asked for my residency papers.

During the first few months in the US, I used to carry those sacred papers around wherever I went -- my passport and my Immigration and Naturalisation Services papers -- but had long since stopped carrying them mainly for safety reasons. My US driver's licence did not mean anything, he said, and called the INS office to run a check on me. Since their computers "were running slow", he had to call them back in 15 minutes, during which I was questioned -- what I did, when did I come to Boston, where I entered the country, what visa I was on...

Fifteen minutes later, he called back and was told that their records still showed that I lived in Virginia (where I lived before I changed employers). That was odd, since they transferred my visa to my new employer and had my new address on record! But, all said and done, their records showed that I was legally residing in the US till 2002. I was told to stop by an INS office and update their records and carry my visa and residency permit with me since I would be flying every week for this project. The officer was friendly and courteous, but I could save time and tension next time onwards if I had my visa with me -- at least till the dust settles.

I'll say an extra prayer before I board my flight from Boston back home tonight.

Terrorism in America: The complete coverage

Design: Lynette Menezes

The Rediff Specials

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