Tuesday 19 November 2019

Lise Hand: 'Individuals, communities and nations have shown they're stronger than fear'

Ten years ago, it was a day of sound and fury -- the scream of jets plunging into city buildings and into the Pennsylvanian earth; the wail of fire engines and police cars rushing to the rescue.

The shriek, crack, thunder and crash as the Twin Towers toppled and died in a boiling, roaring tumult of smoke and rolling balls of fire. The unheard howls of the dying, the clamour of those running for their lives, and then the lamentations and weeping for the dead.

Yesterday, the horrifying, still-vivid tragedy of 9/11 was commemorated in many different ways -- by religious reflection, music, speeches, the naming of the 2,983 victims who perished under the limpid-blue skies of September 11, 2001.

But everywhere, at every memorial, it was marked by the sound of silence.

As 1.46pm approached in Ireland yesterday afternoon -- the exact time when 3,000 miles to the west of us the first hijacked plane slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre at 8.46am Eastern Time -- the President and the Taoiseach sat with heads bowed as a deep silence settled on the RDS Hall.

There may be 3,000 miles of deep blue ocean separating Ireland and New York, but it's no distance at all, really. We grew up looking at its unmistakable silhouette in films and on telly. We had aunties and brothers and cousins and friends who worked in the skyscrapers, hospitals and restaurants.

And when the Celtic Tiger was in full swing, we went there in our thousands to shop and carouse and just breathe in deep lungfuls of the electric Manhattan air. For it was a heady brew, infused with endless possibility and pugnacious opportunity. The air never smelled like that at home, it never had that scent which promised Anything Can Happen. No wonder the Irish loved it. No wonder that it felt so personal when the city was subjected to such a brutal attack, one made all the more personal as the atrocity unfolded live on television, the unforgettable images beamed into homes and offices.

And yesterday some of those images of falling towers and twisted metal served as a backdrop to a quietly moving ceremony to mark the passing of 10 years since 9/11.

President Mary McAleese, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, US Ambassador Dan Rooney and his wife Patricia were in the RDS, alongside members of the garda and fire services, and also representatives of the New York police and fire departments, and a small group of relatives of people who died at Ground Zero.

There were no trumpets or fanfare; it began with two unaccompanied soloists singing 'Amhran na bhFiann' followed by 'The Star-Spangled Banner', and included the reading of two poems, 'The Names' by US poet laureate Billy Collins was read by Patricia Rooney and 'Anything Can Happen' by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was read by Enda Kenny.

US Ambassador Rooney gave a short, simple speech. "Ten years ago today the world stopped in horror and stood by our side. Ten years ago our hearts were broken with grief, our hearts are still heavy with the burden of grief," he said. "Those who have used terror have failed.

"Individuals, communities and nations have shown they are stronger than fear."

Ms McAleese then showed why she'll be such a hard act to follow as Uachtarain na hEireann, delivering an eloquent speech which paid tribute to the bravery of those who died trying to rescue people from the disintegrating towers.

"For if terrorism manifested that day, the meticulously-planned worst of human nature, there were surely so many, many others who with no more than a heartbeat to decide displayed a selfless generosity and a spontaneous courage of absolutely astounding depth," she said. "9/11 is not and never will be defined by the people who demolished the fundamental human rights of those who died, were injured or bereaved.

"It will forever be defined by those men and women whose decency and determination stood strong and valiant in defence of human values and human dignity which are the very bedrock of true democracies."

President McAleese then quoted Martin Luther King. "He once said, 'under a mountain of despair, a stone of hope'. Certainly things changed, but the American people did not fall apart, nor did the world. Innocence was lost, but not fortitude.

"And on this day, those of us who believe in the right of every human being to live in peace, equality, dignity, protected by a shield of invincible civil and human rights, we commit ourselves anew to the task of building, stone of hope by stone of hope, a better world, a safer world, a fairer world."

The applause was prolonged and heartfelt, and there was a standing ovation for the three New York firefighters and one member of the police department who had fought to save lives on the day the sky fell in.

And yet perhaps the most powerful testament came from Waterford man Sean Egan.

The engraver and sculptor created a stunning sculpture of the fallen towers out of glass and, most preciously, a small bar of darkened metal from one of the towers.

Miracle

It was called 'The Miracle of Stairwell B', and Sean vividly recounted the story of bravery and heroism by a group of firefighters who somehow survived the collapse of one of the towers while they were still inside looking for people.

As time briefly paused in Dublin and London and New York and Washington and myriad cities touched by the tragedy -- 90 nations lost citizens in 9/11 -- perhaps some ghosts rested more quietly. But so many of them have Irish names. In the RDS, master of ceremonies Ryan Tubridy read a short roll-call and the 3,000 miles between the countries just melted away.

Murphy, Mullen, O'Keeffe, Cahill, Keating, O'Neill, Kennedy, Collins, Gallagher and Mitchell. The list went on. And silence fell again.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss