Remembering 9-11

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — I got up late that day and was taking the express bus to work in midtown Manhattan from Forest Hills in Queens. When the first plane crashed into the North Tower (Building One) of the World Trade Center (WTC), nobody knew what had happened. We thought it might be an accident. We saw the second crash from a distance and realized that it had to be much more than an accident. One person had a radio and searched for news. As we approached the Midtown Tunnel, the bus was stopped and made to turn around by the authorities. Manhattan was being isolated and all traffic into the heart of the city was halted. This was unprecedented and we began to worry about the scale of the danger taking place. Some became scared of what might happen next. On the trip back, we could see the smoke billowing from the towers, and the collapse of the South Tower of the WTC. When I eventually made it back home, my wife, who at that time was not working, was in tears, not knowing what had happened to me. Her sister-in-law had called from Moscow, saying she heard that buildings were collapsing in New York, and asked how we were. I rushed to the television to see the footage of the collapse and learn more about what was going on.

That day of attacks on civilians on American soil became unforgettable for me, though my own experience was not as immediate as that of many others. A feeling of inviolability was lost. While heavily armed soldiers or national guardsmen guarded strategic points in the city, I was shaken to see, for the first time in my life, armored vehicles in Manhattan. Makeshift memorials throughout the city added poignancy to the air of New York already laden with the dust of the remnants of the WTC. That dust hung heavy in the air for several years.

For most Americans, and most particularly for New Yorkers and Washingtonians, 9/11 turned into a defining event indelibly engraved on people’s psyches. Everybody can say where they were that day and can tell a story of his own. Novelist and critic Peter Sourian compares it in this sense with the Kennedy assassination. Armenian-Americans, like all other Americans, were a part of this. Some were victims, others survivors and the rest witnesses of one sort or another. A number of Armenian- Americans individually or through their institutions have or are contributing to the understanding and legacy of 9/11. This article can only present a few examples from this ongoing story and will not attempt to discuss the Armenians who were killed in the attacks.

Survivor Jon Simonian

I worked at the Hartford Steam Boiler insurance Company, whose New York offices were on the 30th floor of World Trade Center Building Two. That morning, I got to work about 8 a.m. My normal routine was subway, pick up a newspaper, coffee and hard roll and start the work day.

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I was sitting at my desk at 8:45 a.m., probably halfway through the paper, when three of us in the office felt this heavy thud — like an anvil dropped on the floor above us and then we felt a big vibration that shook the office. Co-workers Tom Donnelly and Roseann Yoffredo had no idea what it was. It was our first signal that something was wrong.

Later we realized that the first plane had hit WTC Building One and the impact was so forceful that we felt it in Building Two. Tom Donnelly said, “I think I just saw something, but I’m not sure what it was.” Within 15 seconds, the three of us were looking out the east window and we could see two troubling things: we saw office paper, 8 1/2 by 11 sheets, floating down in the air and we saw people running away from the building, looking up towards the building. We knew something bad had happened.

Within one minute, I went back to my desk and called my wife, Charlene. I said something happened and asked her to put on the TV to see if there was any news. Nothing was on yet. I told Charlene something happened and it looks serious.

I feared an explosion and I immediately knew to vacate the building. I told Charlene that I was going to leave and if I did not make it, “remember that I love you and our children and take care of them.” I then hung up the telephone.

Within another minute, I smelled smoke, a fact which I attribute solely to my Armenian nose. Co- orkers Tom and Roseanne did not yet smell anything. I said “let’s get out of here.” They said the procedure is to stay put.

My response was, “you do what you want, but I’m gone.” I got paper towels from the kitchen area, wetted them to put over my nose and mouth in case there was smoke and gave some to my friends. I said let’s leave now. We can always come back tomorrow to take care of the computers and office business and I left the office alone.

I walked around the corner, down the hallway and past the elevators. I saw a couple of people standing at the elevators and asked them if they knew what happened. They said no; I said if something bad happened, you shouldn’t take the elevator. I then walked some 30 flights of stairs down to the lobby.

It took me 15 minutes to walk down the 30 stories. The stairway was clean, well-lighted and well- marked. On the staircase, I saw no more than 20 or 30 people, certainly not a lot. There was no panic, no smoke … just people walking down, like I was. Then all of a sudden on the 10th floor, there was nobody around me anymore. Later I learned there was an announcement on the loudspeakers that you could go back to your work area. I did not hear it and maybe this was why everybody disappeared, but I would have kept walking down anyway. There was never any doubt in my mind that the correct thing to do was vacate the building.

Tom Donnelly and Roseanne Yoffredo left our offices and walked down the staircase about two minutes after me. They heard the announcement, but they kept walking also. It was the right thing to do. On the last 10 floors or so, I saw only one other person on the staircase.

When I got to the lobby of Building Two, I could see debris outside all over the place. There was a guard and I asked what happened. He said he did not know, but the outside doors are closed, so you can only go to the main concourse. The building had been secured from the outside. After I talked to the guard, I saw Tom and Roseanne come out of the stairwell.

There had to be 2,000 people milling in the concourse. This was a big area, where the subways and trains from New Jersey came in. It was the commercial hub of the World Trade Center complex. The bank, stores, restaurants were all there. The man I bought my newspaper from was still there, the coffee lady was there and people were standing around talking, having a cigarette and drinking coffee. Despite the disruption that we now knew about in Building One, Two World Trade Tower appeared okay and operating.

Tom, Roseanne and I walked through the crowd, out the door on the south side of the building and onto Greenwich Street. I walked 130 yards (I paced this out later) where there was a pay phone and I called Charlene. She said there was an explosion; “they think a plane hit the WTC. Are you okay?” I said, “I’m fine, but there is a lot of chaos here. I’m coming home.”

Charlene offered to call both Tom’s family and Roseanne’s family to tell them they were safe, but both said they would do it themselves. Roseanne then left to get her ferry to Staten Island and Tom left to get his ferry to New Jersey.

I hung up the phone and started to walk south down Greenwich Street. I took literally five steps and I heard this tremendous boom. I looked up and the building that I had just vacated… there was a huge, orange fireball blowing out of the wall. My first thought: if I had not gotten out of that building, I would be dead — which of course turned out not to be true. Five seconds after that, big pieces of concrete hit the street 20 or 30 yards away from where I was standing. I thought, how inglorious to escape the explosion and get hit on the head by a piece of concrete in the street. I walked to the Bowling Green subway station, stayed there 10 or 15 minutes and watched what happened.

By that time there was chaos. Fire engines, sirens, ambulances, smoke, panic, people running away all over the place. I tried another phone to call Charlene but nothing was working. People around me couldn’t use their cell phones. People started saying an airplane had hit the second building. I couldn’t tell. I knew about a bomb incident 10 years earlier and thought it was explosions in the building. How could it be two airplanes? I feared the possibility of civil disturbance. Maybe it was a coup against the US government. If that were the case, you needed money. I went to a Chase bank on lower Broadway and took out all the money in my checking account, $3,500 to be exact.

Subway and buses were not operating downtown. Walking was the only way to move. Street traffic stopped. No cars or taxis. Hundreds of people were walking across Water Street toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Obviously the authorities shut down all communications and transportation. Twenty minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Center, everybody knew something very bad had happened and everything in the area was sealed off.

Above Canal Street, phones were working and I was able to call Charlene and tell her that I was safe. That was the first communication she had that I was safe. She then called our two children, Jon David who was 15, and Jennifer, who was 13, to tell them.

On that call, I instructed Charlene to go to the bank and take out all the money she could and to go to the supermarket and get all the food and water that she could get. By that time, she was only able to take out $1,000 and she got some food. Everybody else had the same idea, so there were limits to withdrawals and the stores were full of people seeking supplies.

I walked up Bowery and then First Avenue. About an hour or so later, I got to 34th Street and Saint Vartan Cathedral. I went to Saint Vartan to say a prayer and get a drink of water. They had scheduled a noon service, which they asked me to stay for, and I did. People said that I appeared in shock, but I knew that was not true. Nobody in shock has the clearness of mind to make the decisions I did about leaving, money, food, escape route and so forth. I left to continue on my way home to 92nd Street, some three miles away.

I probably got home at close to 2 p.m.; I got my big hug and kiss from Charlene and Jennifer and then we went to pick up Jon David at his school on the West Side of Manhattan. Schools correctly did not dismiss their students until a parent came to pick them up. Charlene had picked up Jennifer at Chapin School, which was close to home, and we were going to Collegiate School to pick up Jon Jr. When we went to the Collegiate auditorium to get him, Jon David got tears in his eyes. So did I.

Once home, which was at about 3 p.m., it was pretty clear that the World Trade Center attack was a terrorist event and emergency measures were in place. All major bridges into Manhattan were closed. Warplane flew routes around Manhattan and every 10 minutes we heard a jet fly by. Another security measure was the deployment of aircraft carriers from Norfolk News, Va., into the Atlantic around New York and Washington. Obviously, our authorities were not convinced this attack was over. That too was a correct decision to make.

I looked at Charlene and asked, “why are we here? Why not go to Uncle George and Aunt Alyce’s house in Connecticut and avoid a possible second danger?” I called my Uncle George, who said, “Yes, absolutely, come to New Britain if you can get here.” Although I knew the major road arteries in New York were closed, I knew the local streets well enough to try to reach Connecticut without using the major highways. The four of us packed passports, money, some clothes and a pot of pilaf that Jon David was making for supper and got in the car. We drove up First Avenue, across the 138th Street Bridge into the Bronx, up the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road toward Pelham and got access to I- 95 in Pelham. We reached Connecticut; we stopped at a McDonalds and had hamburgers and pilaf for supper that evening. We made it to New Britain around 9 p.m.

We spent the next two days at Uncle George and Aunt Alyce’s and by then things in New York had calmed down and we camehome. Jon David and I spent those two days playing golf and Charlene and Jennifer went shopping and did the things that mothers and daughters do. Our New Britain family including the Holy Resurrection parish and the Country Club of Farmington took great care that their New York City friends were welcome among them.

After we got back to New York, two noteworthy things happened.

One was that I quickly realized that I may have problems about airplanes and being trapped in inescapable places; specifically I was not sure how I would react about flying and I was fearful about getting trapped in an elevator. In a couple of weeks, planes started flying again. I bought a Jet Blue ticket to Palm Beach Florida, stayed overnight and flew back. Thank God, no problem.

I got stuck in an elevator once for about 30 seconds and traffic stopped moving in the Holland Tunnel once for about five minutes. Each time, I had a minor panic attack. I’ve gotten over the tunnel business; I know you can get out of the car and walk out. I’ve never been stuck in an elevator since then. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle that if it happens again. Hopefully, I will be okay.

Second, my very capable personal physician at the time, Dr. George Gorham, made me to go to a psychiatrist to talk about this event, just in case there might be lingering issues. I went to five very expensive sessions and the conclusion was that I am fine and know how what to do to solve problems. So much for $2,500, but thanks, Dr. Gorham, I know you did the right thing.

Finally, the City of New York is still doing a good job monitoring the 20,000 people of so who were directly involved in the World Trade Center incident. Every six months they follow up on a medical and psychological profile. So far, so good. By God’s grace, that’s the case forever.

I know two people who died in the World Trade Center. God take care of them and their survivors. For me and my family, the World Trade Center issue has passed. Thank God I was below where the planes hit. My mind was clear and my instincts were good. I never second- guessed what to do. I worked in tall buildings all my career. I always paid attention to the fire and emergency instructions. You know you don’t go up; you don’t take the elevator; you put something wet over your nose and mouth to breathe.

Eyewitness Lisa Kadehjian

At the time I was about three blocks away from the World Trade Center. I worked very near it. I was vice president of compensation at the Bank of New York. When the first plane hit, nobody knew what was happening. There were all sorts of rumors as to what had happened. When I reached our office, the building was already burning so I was relying on rumors. Then I saw the second plane hit from the windows. At that point we realized it was some kind of attack. We had to get to a safe distance from the area and avoid falling debris. There were a lot of people on the street and a lot of confusion. We realized that we had to get off the street. Nobody expected the buildings to fall.

I and a group of people from my company went farther south just to get away from the immediate area. The father of one of our coworkers worked in a nearby building nearby, which was further away from the WTC. We were inside there when the building fell, so we had no idea what was going on. We heard a huge rumbling and a very loud noise. The windows all went black and we couldn’t see anything. We relied on radio or other news. We finally heard that the buildings had fallen. We waited a while and then started walking uptown. There were masses of people. What struck me was how hopeful everybody was. There was a sense of community — we were in this together.

I walked to the Armenian Evangelical Church in midtown where my mother worked and stayed there until the subways were running and we were able to go home. I had spoken to people on the phone but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember how we got home to Queens, or when.

For about two weeks we couldn’t return to our offices. Some people were just too traumatized to return but I always felt that as soon as I could go back I would. It was like defiance. I was going to continue with my normal life. Obviously I thank God that I was not affected directly. I know a lot of people who lost family members and friends. I did lose a classmate from high school who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. In that sense I’m very grateful. It is part of my everyday life because I work down there. It’s always there; there is always a reminder. Over the years it has been a big scar in the area. I actually work closer now to the site, in the World Financial Center, right behind it. It is very important to everyone here that the site is rebuilt and the scar is covered. I think there always has to be some sort of remembrance. The memorial site is a great idea. There has to always be a reminder that this occurred and knowing the damage that happened to the people and the place…but there also in my opinion should be rebirth and regrowth. You can’t let anybody knock you down and you don’t get back up. Maybe the same attitude comes from our history as Armenians, where we have a sense of resilience — that even after being knocked down we get up and back.

Commemoration

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, as Hagop Vartivarian, chairman of the Tekeyan Cultural Association of Greater New York, summarized in an article published in Beirut in Zartonk in October 2001, Armenian organizations cancelled or postponed their meetings and dinners. Armenians of great and modest means alike participated in general American fundraising campaigns. Wealthy individuals donated large sums of money. Soon Armenians also found various ways to remember or commemorate the 9/11 events.

There have been quite a few prayer services in the past and many more are taking place on the 10th anniversary of the attacks in Armenian churches throughout this country. This year September 11 happens to coincide with a major feast day of the church, and for this reason, the traditional requiem service or hokehankisd cannot be performed. However, special dispensation has been made in several cases, such as at the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs, for a requiem service for members of the Armenian community who lost their lives in the attacks. Other churches in the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) will instead have special prayers recited.

September is customarily the beginning of the fall season of Armenian events, as people return from their summer vacations. The solemnity of September 11 conflicts with the joyous nature of these events, but some Armenians have attempted nonetheless to continue with their usual schedules by making changes. The Senior Armenian Church Youth Organization Sports Weekend, for example, opened with a prayer for the 9/11 victims on September 11, 2009 in Huntington Beach, Calif. The Armenian Festival of Orange County (California) added a commemorative program on the night of September 11, 2010, with a “nationally-recognized 9/11 authority,” Angie Kardashian, speaking along with local community leaders. Element Band, an Armenian group, presented a musical tribute to 9/11. A portion of the net proceeds of the festival were to be donated to the Orange County Fire Fighters’ Benevolent Association. The remainder of the two-day festival continued as in previous years.

Some Armenian institutions have dedicated stone crosses, or khachkars, to the victims of the September 11 attacks. The cathedral of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of America erected a seven- foot-tall khachkar last September. Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II officiated during its consecration and Los Angeles’ mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, participated in the ceremonies.

Perhaps it was inevitable, considering the importance of the Armenian Genocide to today’s Armenians, that one church decided to commemorate the two tragedies together. Saint Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., inaugurating a monument sculpted by Kaspar Gharibyan to the victims not only of 9/11 but also of the Armenian Genocide. It was unveiled on April 22, 2011 and will be consecrated on September 18 by Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese. The commonality between the two events commemorated, according to remarks given by one priest in April, is that innocents became victims of violence at the hands of other human beings.

Armenian-Americans are also part of broader non-Armenian commemorative efforts. For example, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, served as the chair of the jury selecting the designer of the Ground Zero memorial to the 9/11 victims.

Armenian Aid and Sympathy

Seven first aid responders who had gained useful experience during the 1988 earthquake in Armenia were among the first to come to the US to aid American victims. Some Armenian-Americans like psychiatrist Dr. Louis Najarian applied the experience they gained in helping Armenian earthquake victims, and in his case, a method of aiding disaster victims in Armenia, to helping victims in New York.

Later, Armenians from the Republic of Armenia contributed to commemorations in the United States. One example is the “Message of Freedom and Hope,” an exhibition of 44 paintings by Armenian children moved by television reportage of the 9/11 events. It was hosted by the Embassy of Armenia and the Caucus on Armenian Affairs in the Rayburn Congressional Building in Washington, DC, on September 13, 2004, with support from the Kamk Benevolent Fund of Armenia.

The Republic of Armenia and various Armenian organizations and individuals over the years have made many statements and declarations supportive of the US with respect to the 9/11 terrorism. Ambassador Garen Nazarian, Armenia’s representative to the United Nations, recently wrote to the Mirror- Spectator about Armenia, the UN and the international aspects of 9/11. He said, “The implications of the 9/11 tragedy a decade ago did not stopped with the United States. They impacted the entire world community. That is why Armenia believes that the whole system of the United Nations should be engaged in the fight against international terrorism.” Nazarian stated: “I would like to assure everyone that the Republic of Armenia will continue to support and contribute to all actions undertaken

by the United Nations in this regard. The United Nations can play a very positive role encouraging member-states to exchange operational information about the terrorists and their networks. Particular effort should be made in order to prevent terrorists from getting access to weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations should also double its efforts in the fields of economic development and poverty eradication, since these are the strategic battlefields in the war against terrorism.

“Armenia has already demonstrated her commitment to and has lent support to the international struggle to combat terrorism. We are state parties to the UN, Council of Europe and CIS counter- terrorism instruments and have enacted necessary national legislation for their timely implementation. It is imperative that all nations, without exception, increase their cooperation in the fight against terrorism and abide by the principles of the 12 international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.”

Artistic Transformation

We are too close still to the 9/11 attacks to assay their cultural impact, but Armenian- American writers and artists have already begun to deal with them in their works. Intellectual and author Peter Balakian has grappled with their meaning. His most recent book of poetry, Ziggurat (2010), is a meditation on the pain and aftermath of 9/11 which explores many universal themes. His Armenian background and his scholarly and poetic work in particular on the catastrophic trauma of the massacres and genocide of the Armenians — including the phenomena of collective and individual memory of that which is no longer there — have prepared him for and contribute to his understanding of this new human calamity. Sculptor Kardash Onnig, who lives in upstate New York, was in Karabagh in September 2001 and created his own memorial. He described it recently: “On 9/11, I was in Shushi. I heard about it from a neighbor. In the morning I drew an American flag in black ink in mourning and hung it on the front of my house. By noon there were a dozen candles and a stack of flowers laid under the flag; by evening the flowers had grown to a foot deep and condolences came pouring in from passersby. There was a sadness in the village, unlike the anger and hate of Muslims in the US.”

Linda Ganjian contributed to an exhibition of proposals in 2003 for 9/11 memorials called “Multiple Memorials” at Viridian Gallery in New York. The exhibition was organized by Mary Miss and Elliot Maltby. Ganjian explains, “My idea was to tie translucent ribbons around posts around New York, as wishes for the return of the missing (remember the “missing” posters!). I was referencing yellow ribbons and also the tradition of tying rags on branches as a way of making a wish that I saw in Armenia.”

Non-Armenians aware of the tragedies in recent Armenian history have mined this material for their own creative works. In July and August 2011, a play by D. Tucker Smith opened in Hollywood called “Quake.” It was the story of the meeting of a Jewish businessman whose wife died on 9/11 (though not from the attacks) and an Armenian immigrant woman who lost everything in the Spitak earthquake in 1988.

The effects of 9/11, ranging from political to social to psychological, will continue to reverberate for a long time to come.

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