My first post on 9-11 this week asked for stories. One friend, artist Erma Martin Yost could not just write a comment. Her heart and mind were bursting. So she sent me an essay, which I immediately asked permission to share. As journalists search for stories of hope, I wonder how many of them have told this kind of story? Erma tells an honest story of hope and courage.
By Erma Martin Yost
Memories that touch my heart most are those of the young children fleeing nearby schools. One young child asked his teacher, “why are the birds on fire?” The “birds” were falling human bodies.
A little child. . .
Another image is the photo of two-year old Patricia Smith pictured in the NY Times leaving the stage with her father after the Police Department’s highest award was hung around her neck in honor of her mother, also a police officer. On the 5th anniversary of 9/11 she was pictured again. I wonder if her photo will appear again this year. As a two-year-old, she holds on to her father with one hand and sucks her fingers with another. Clearly she cannot comprehend what is happening. Her picture in The New York Times reached right out and grabbed me. It seemed to symbolize all the losses–of life, of innocence, of a sense of security within the “homeland,” that strange new word we all now speak.
Constant Code Orange
For 27 years prior to 9/11 my photographer husband Leon and I lived in Jersey City just six blocks in from the banks of the Hudson River directly across from the World Trade Towers. Since that day we were never not under “Code Orange.” We stayed an additional seven years after, but the memories and daily reminders of that fateful day eventually became too much. We now spend most of our time living in Carlisle, PA, where rightly or wrongly there is a greater sense of safety, free from the frequent terror alerts and constant sense of fear.
My story of 9-11: A Survivor’s Tale
On that bright beautiful Tuesday morning of 9/11/01, I went out the front door to go to a water aerobics class only to find the street and sidewalk filled with neighbors looking east towards the Hudson River. I turned to follow their gaze and saw the horrific sight of the first tower burning (lined up with the end of our block). Shortly, I witnessed the impact of the second plane which shook the ground so hard it buckled the knees of us standing there and the image of that orange fire ball burned into my memory permanently.
An index finger. . . a forearm
I knew a friend of ours worked above where that plane hit. All that was ever found of him was an index finger and forearm.
My student’s voice on 911
More friends and neighbors perished, as did a former student of mine. The only civilian 911 tape that was released to the public was that student’s call and she was on the line until she was overcome and died. Victims from the WTC towers and surrounding buildings fled to piers on our side of the river on anything that floated. Still covered with ash, they walked past our house looking for their homes, cars, and any way to get away. There were many more horrific sights that on day and in the days and weeks and months that followed.
Twisted steel and lights
The iconic twisted burning metal that everyone is so familiar with was lit with bright lights at night for three months, a beacon for rescue workers, but also a glow in our bedroom. At first the smells included that of burning flesh, and the acrid smell of burning plastics continued for months permeating bedding, clothes hanging in the closets, curtains, anything absorbent. The drone of fighter planes flying their circuit’s overhead every few minutes sounded like buzz saws inside our house. There was the constant pull of wanting to stand with friends in spontaneous meeting places and wanting to stay inside the “safety” of one’s home.
Some stayed. Some fled. We did both.
Someone said there were those who stayed and those who fled. In the immediate days, months, and years that followed Leon and I tried to stay. We knew from the beginning of this tragedy that city life had changed forever and assumed that one day we would adjust to the changes. Eventually the decision was made to move, as did many of our friends. Within the first year of living in Carlisle, PA, we met several families that had moved there too, their hometown, having fled life in the Big Apple. I hope such people are not viewed as quitters, non resilient, or not hopeful. Our new beginnings just have to take place elsewhere.
Bio: Leon and Erma Yost bought a row house in Jersey City in 1974 where they lived and maintained their artists’ studios for 36 years. They also worked in Manhattan, going through the World Trade Center many times a week on the PATH trains. In 1993 Erma missed the bombing of the WTC by perhaps minutes. She had taken the PATH train into the towers, went outside to buy art supplies and when she returned a short time later, people were running out of Tower One. No emergency crews had even arrived yet and no one knew what had just transpired. The crater that the bomb left was on the PATH platform where she had just departed the train.
Wow, Erma. Thank you so much for this gift. You challenge us to think about the many ways to make “new beginnings.” I hope 12-year-old Patricia Smith will somehow find this essay and know how important she is to you and to all of us.
When we help others heal, and when we tell truthful stories of how we have wrestled with the twin angels called Courage and Hope, we heal a little more of our own wounds. Shalom. Now, what are YOUR stories?