Memories of September 11, 2001

11 September, 2008

Traffic on I-81 was stop and go for a couple of miles this morning.  I found myself following a tractor trailer.  I don’t think the driver was very experienced.  He kept riding the brakes, filling my car with the smell of burnt metal with a slight aftertaste of plastic.  Add to that, I was stopped cold for about 3 minutes next to a three-day-old deer carcass.

Burnt metal.  Burnt plastic.  Decomposing flesh.

My stomach began to churn.  I knew what was coming.  And it didn’t even dawn on me until later what today is.

Three days after the terrorist attacks in New York City, I was sent down to the Javitz Center to provide security for the Southwest Incident Command Team.  The team supported the search and rescue teams.  I was there for three weeks.

I found myself inspecting trucks for bombs.  Controlling access to a warehouse in which the supplies for the team, FEMA, and the S&R teams were received and stored. 

I worked 16-hour days.  My hotel was a few streets above Times Square (near the Stage Door Deli, if that helps).  Most nights I was so stressed that I walked the 30-minutes up to my hotel rather than catch a ride in the van.

I was at Ground Zero about seven times.  The smell is what sticks with me.

Burnt metal. Burnt plastic.  Decomposing flesh.

As a student in high school, and a trumpet player, I found myself blowing taps during the Memorial Day celebrations and observances in Sharpsburg, Maryland, at the National Cemetery.  Ground Zero gave me the same eerie feeling — too many deaths, too many youngsters killed, too much violence.

Burnt metal.  Burnt plastic.  Decomposing flesh.

Those smells trigger memories that I do not want.  Memories of the towers coming down.  Memories of wasted life.  Memories of violence.  Memories of blowing taps. 

I know what comes next.  Three or four nights of being afraid to go to sleep because I know that the nightmares will come.  For a few nights, I can look forward to dreams about the attack.  And I can look forward to waking up at three in the morning with that smell in my mind.

Burnt metal.  Burnt plastic.  Decomposing flesh.

I look at the violence done in the name of god(s) throughout history and despair.  The inquisition.  The conquistadors.  The Thirty Years War.  The Holocaust. India and Pakistan. Israel and Islam.  The Sudan.  Eritrea.  Iraq.  Iran.  Afghanistan.  Ireland.

Burnt metal.  Burnt plastic.  Decomposing flesh.

These are the smells of religion.  These are the smells of god(s).  These are the smells of violence done in the name of ideologies and theologies.  These are, for me, the smell of despair.

And will I ever get the smell of despair out of my mind?



  1. That’s a very moving post (((Billy)))
    A very personal take on the tragedies committed in the name of religion. Well done.

  2. Best 9/11 post I’ve read so far. Simply, well-phrased and, as ozatheist says, very moving. Thanks, (((Billy))).

  3. Oz: It was not what I had planned to write. I was going to take a more intellectual view, but the serrendipitous smells of yesterday morning necessitated the more personal post.

    Yunshui: Thanks.

  4. Yup.

  5. Ric: “Yup” I will someday get that smell out of mind? or “Yup” that smell is the smell of theology and ideology?

  6. Ric: Did you notice the time stamp on your comment? Are you trying to go Republican and use those numbers whenever possible? Or (as I hope) is it just a weird coincidence?

  7. (((Billy))) – this is a wonderful post. Simply stated, intensely moving and very revealing. Beautifully written.

  8. A shame, no question. Religion is our history. At the same time a civilizing force and one that betrays the best things human.

    Nice post.

  9. Chappie: Thanks. Not often that I am that emotionally involved.

    Dereck: Welcome to my site. I still struggle with whether religion has been a net positive or not with regards to Wetsern history. Oddly, Christianity may have created the tools to doubt.

  10. Nope to time stamp. Curious, though.

    Yup to fine post.

  11. […] was certainly a day that changed the world.  We still feel the impact now, I was very moved by Billy the Atheist’s account of the events who worked at the site after the attacks.  I have a great deal of empathy […]

  12. To this day I’m still trying to find out exactly what caused the extremely strong smell of carbolic acid (or, perhaps, carbolated jelly) that filled the air on Thursday after 9/11. It was then that I returned to work on 34th Street and 7th Avenue, and every time I stepped outside, that smell just permeated the air with no letup. It’s not like you got only whiffs of it; it was the smell of the air. I’ll never forget it. A couple of my co-workers thought that perhaps the government had sprayed some sort of disinfectant, but I’ve never found any information to indicate that. By any chance do you know? Was it, as you’ve written here so poignantly, the smell of Burnt metal. Burnt plastic. Decomposing flesh.? I don’t think this question in my mind will ever go away. Thanks.

  13. Kathleen: I did not smell anything even remotely similar to a disinfectant. The smells of metal, plastic and decomp (coupled with the stench of fanaticism) are what I remember. Sorry I can’t help.

  14. Maybe we did smell what you described. In any event, none of us could figure out what it was. It smelled to me like extremely strong carbolated vaseline.


  15. It’s a very moving post.
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. Maussie: Thanks for stopping by. You’re welcome.

    And I hope your kitten gets better.

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