There are no victors
Stabroek News
September 15, 2001

Dear Editor,

On Tuesday, September 11 at 8:48am lower Manhattan became a war zone. You have seen the videos and read the news stories. Now follow me for a walk through Dante's hell that has left memories for a lifetime.

At 7:05am I walked through the then existing World Trade Center mezzanine on my way to work across the street. The morning progressed routinely until 8:45. The first explosion sounded like a heavy duty collision. From my vantage point 25 floors up, I could see the smoke billowing out of the top of the WTC. There were very few flames, but lots of tiny bits of paper, the contents of file folders floating against the serene blue sky. Around 9:20 the second explosion rocked my building, and the orders came to hit the exits. For the first time, the truth dawned: this was no accident but terrorist attacks. The question was - how many more were coming?

A furious, but orderly, march down 25 sets of stairs followed. A fellow Guyanese, Jimmy Durante, formerly of the Guyana Police Force, spotted me from the crowds and we agreed to put as much space between us and the scene. Six blocks later, top management made a fateful decision to retrace our steps towards the haven of a park, because of fears of wind-blown gases heading in our direction. I do not know why I followed (as I had my own ideas) but I did.

On the way back, when aligned with the burning buildings I heard this almighty crack of thunder, and saw the building disintegrate into itself almost in slow motion. At this point, there is nothing between us and the collapsing building. The only thought is that there is no way that a building that high will not tip over and crush all in its path, in all directions. That includes me. There is no way to run, and we are running. There is an avalanche-size cloud of thick, black smoke that is swooping down to engulf us. I am awed and mesmerized. I am dead. It's over. As the billowing smoke smothers me, I find myself thinking that there has to be lethal shrapnel in its folds seeking objects in its path. Like me. But I am powerless. For three to five minutes, I try to stay calm, breathe slowly, conserve oxygen. The blackness of night gives way to a thick grey pallor, then a feeble visibility of several feet. There are no sounds, no voices. There is only the quietness that is so surreal that I feel as though I am on the moon. I concentrate on the words of the psalmist, "...Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me."

I get down on my hands and knees and crawl towards what I do not know. Then I hear a lone voice cry out for help. I hear a response to "Walk straight forward... Keep walking." I edge closer and soon a fireman grips me by the shoulder and I rejoin the living. My countryman has also surfaced. We are covered from head to toe in a grey ash. Is it asbestos? What chemicals are present? We are among the lucky ones. I give thanks to God and ask, "Why not me?" Thousands will not be so blessed. They will be of all ethnicities and nationalities, including Guyanese. God be with their families.

Walking away from the devastation, I was too numbed to comprehend the extent of the damage, or to realize the toll of human suffering that will be with us for a long time. But on this new day, this much I realize: there will be retaliation for this act of war, and man can be calculatedly destructive to his brethren. This is true of Irishmen bombing four-year olds, fundamentalists and fanatics of all hues and any inspiration, and ethnic hatred whether in Bosnia or Guyana. Man-made disasters leave all of us diminished. There are no victors, only a terrible cycle of cataclysmic violence.

I am appreciative of the strangers who reached out and offered help. The guards who allowed us to enter their buildings and wash; the volunteers who extended cups of water; the firemen who ushered us into their firehouse to remove the debris from our hair and heads. It is this glue of human kindness that bonds us together in times of deep pain and mourning. The scenes of hapless humans hurling themselves through windows from one hundred stories up are forged in my head. The sea of fleeing refugees clad in dark suits and wingtip shoes will float in my mind, perhaps forever. I will remember these actions and dwell on these thoughts as we pray for strength in the days ahead.

Yours faithfully,

GHK Lall