Seared into memory: Our minds still burn with images of unrivaled horror
Sept. 11, 2002, Austin American-Statesman
How does a skyscraper fall?
To start, it doesn’t fall. It sinks. The building gently buckles, relaxes in the middle, then all at once surrenders in a raging cascade of muddy clouds and billowing debris, sinking with vertical velocity into the earth.
Cartoons lie. Skyscrapers don’t topple over. They are not sheared in half or snapped like a pencil.
A skyscraper plunges, furiously telescoping to the ground, and when it is done, it evaporates into nothingness. Where it once stood is blank and serene, clear bright sky.
Down below, horror is unleashed.
On Sept. 11, we learned how a skyscraper falls. We watched the fifth and sixth tallest buildings in the world melt away, the twins’ shared 220 floors and 43,600 glass windows smashed into 3 billion pounds of smoldering grief on the floor of Lower Manhattan.
In the age of personal gizmos, even children tote video cameras, capturing all, from birthday revels to a jet piercing a 110-story building. And so we saw it all, every crumbling detail. The tragedy of Sept. 11 is the most recorded event in history. Thirty-two million tourists crowd New York City each year, most with cameras. Twenty-six thousand visitors daily drank in the view from the top-floor observation deck of the World Trade Center, where one could see for 45 miles on a clear day.
It was a clear day. That early September morning unfurled the shiniest blue sky imaginable. We saw it, in photos and on incessant video. Most of the roughly 230 million televisions in America were flickering with the instantly iconic images, which came swollen with meaning of all shades.
Sept. 11 spontaneously joined — and crowned — history’s loop of visually enshrined moments: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion. It’s been installed in the collective memory.
“We have our standard continuum of images that we journey through, refine and collect,” says Deborah Morrison, associate professor in the department of advertising at the University of Texas. “I can see Martin Luther King speaking on the Mall. I can see John F. Kennedy in the motorcade. I can see the first man walking on the moon. Those images became powerful emotional connectors for us.”
For many days, the pictures of the attacks and the aftermath bound a wounded nation. They dominated the media, which issued around-the-clock scrolls of live footage and replay. And we were mesmerized, with shock, horror, fear.
We watched because we had to. It was history writ large, live. The sheer scale of the event tapped into the darkest primal fantasies of the unimaginable, and the information was beamed out in the most pervasive source of entertainment, television. We were in thrall to the visceral power of the explosions, the destruction, the notion that the unthinkable was happening in the here, the now.