Our Eternal Fragility: Reflections On An Explosion on a Harlem Morning

March 12, 2014

explosion

I was standing before my class teaching when I heard and felt it: the building shaking under my feet, the windows rattling, and the boom that sounded way too much like a bomb. My students, seated, froze before me, wide-eyed, silent, scared. They are too young to have memories of 9/11 but old enough to understand that something very strange and very scary has happened.
One says meekly, “What was that?”
I have no answer other than, “I don’t know.”
I am disturbed. My job requires me to do all I can to insure the students remain calm.
The sound was so loud and so violent I walked over to the window expecting to see a catastrophe and found instead… people walking, cars going by, the sun high in the blue sky. Nothing out of the ordinary: a typical scene from a Harlem morning.
It made no sense to me.

I call my principal and ask her if she knows what is going on. She does not but she knows she must. In a moment, she calls back, asking me to come down stairs to help a respond to whatever it is as I am a member of the school safety team.

Within what felt like minutes I hear helicopters (many) and sirens (many more.) We still have no idea what is happening. The school undergoes what is called a Shelter In. This means that all doors are secured, no one leaves or enters the building until the source or the nature of the problem is identified.
This is part of the legacy of 9/11.

Little by little news filters in. A building has collapsed a few blocks away. No one knows why.
Little by little the air is filled with the stench of burning rubber, wood, and God knows what else. It is soon unbearable.

We rush around the school trying to determine whether any of our students live around or — in a nightmare scenario- in the collapsed building. Thankfully none live in it, even as many live around it. Frightened parents, quite naturally, bombard the school with calls. Is my child safe? Yes, your child is safe.
And they are soon all sent home.

It is my lunch hour and curiosity drives me to walk the three blocks and see with my own eyes what I’ve been glimpsing on iPod screens. The moment I walk out the door I can feel something on my skin, taste something on my tongue. Whatever it is did not issue from nature.

I wander up to 116th and Madison, one block from the collapsed building. That’s as close as you can get. Everywhere you look there are cops and firemen. Helicopters hover in the air a few hundred yards away as so, I’m told, not to further weaken the surrounding structures with their vibrations. Hundreds of people are standing, still and mute, staring into the smoke. The stench is so bad many are wearing gas masks. I wish I had one. Cops hurry by yelling into radios wearing high tech masks that make them look like aliens.
There is press from all over the world. I hear people speaking Dutch, Japanese, and languages I don’t recognize. I wander inadvertently into a crowd of press people, many reporting live. I overhear a reporter say there are 14 dead and two injured. I’m shocked. I wait till she stops filming and I approach her.
“ Excuse me,” I say. “Did you say there are 14 dead and two injured?” “ No,” she says, “I said there were two dead and 14 injured. Didn’t I ? “ “No, that’s not what I heard. “ She looks at me horrified, curses, then runs away, trying to chase somebody down.

A Captain Dennehy of the NYPD approaches the reporters to tell them about a press conference to be held in ten minutes down the street and asking them not to walk near the “crime scene.” The phrase crime scene sends a chill down my spine. I later learn it is standard operating procedure to call it so until a cause is identified, but I did not know that at the time.

My face stings with whatever is in the air and my eyes begin to burn.
I return to my student-less school to find the stench has pervaded the building and all of the teachers and staff are nauseous. Some have trouble breathing. My principal, a wise and compassionate soul, does the right thing and sends them home. I go with them, realizing only on the subway how thoroughly the stench has permeated my clothes. I positively reek.

I come home to watch Mayor Bill de Blasio give a press conference on TV from the scene. He is striking the perfect blend of intelligence and compassion. He talks about the first responders continuing their search for “ the missing. ” New Yorkers know all too well what those words mean. I find my self thinking, against my will, how easy these souls were to find this time just yesterday.
I am exceedingly grateful to be here in my humble home, with my wife and my daughter.

Aftermath: Two days later, you can still smell the smoke, if faintly. The cause of the explosion remains “undetermined.” The death toll now stands at eight with dozens injured. Ominously, some of the missing remain missing.

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7 Responses to “Our Eternal Fragility: Reflections On An Explosion on a Harlem Morning”

  1. John Says:

    Patrick, at least part of the “crime scene” designation is so that PD gets control of the incident. Otherwise, an explosion would be FD. PD is petty like that. If not petty, than it’s probably more diabolical. But I doubt it’s concern. I could be wrong. It’s sad that I think that way though.


  2. […] blog has a personal story up on the blast yesterday in New York.  Understandably, the first concern is what happened and how […]

  3. Harris Lirtzman Says:

    Very powerful, Patrick. You are a very expressive writer. Thank you.

  4. Betsy Molter Says:

    I was wondering about you and your students today. It’s good to hear none of them lived in the building. Still traumatizing, though.


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