Thursday, October 22, 2009

The USS New York Sails Past New Orleans

On October 13, 2009, the USS New York left its birthplace in Avondale, Louisiana, to sail down the Mississippi River on its way to New York, where it will be commissioned before it moves to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia.

The USS New York is a 684-foot-long amphibious transport dock ship with a crew of 360. Constructed by Northrop Grumman, the New York incorporates steel salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune posted several stories asking residents to get up early and line the bank of the levees to show support for the ship as it passed. They estimated that it would pass sometime between 7:30 and 8 a.m. By 7 a.m. I was waiting for the streetcar to take me to the Quarter. By 7:40 I had arrived and joined the crowd along the Riverwalk to wait in the muggy morning air.

For those waiting, visibility was a disappointing challenge, as the morning fog had not yet lifted, and the other side of the river was almost completely hidden. Barges traveled upriver and the Algiers Point ferry chugged back and forth, and some of us began to wonder if we would even see it pass.

Spectators around me began to hear from sources farther upriver that the launching had been delayed due to the fog.

At 9:45 the fog had still not lifted, but out of the mist appeared the shape of a ship. We waved our American flags and whooped and hollered and hoped that they might see us or hear us. Through the fog we could see that the deck of the ship was lined with sailors waving.

Just as soon as it had appeared, it disappeared into the fog and was gone.

It was a brief moment, but one for which I am entirely glad I dragged my often-too-lazy self out of bed. I felt it was something that I had to do.

In mid-2001, I left Philadelphia for my first job in New York City with a consulting firm on Madison Avenue. On September 11, 2001, we discovered one window in the southwest corner of the building that had a clear view all the way downtown to one of the Towers. We watched it as the flames engulfed it, then watched in horror as it fell.

We were soon evacuated from our building and took refuge with a coworker who lived nearby. At the time I lived in Brooklyn, so taking a subway home was out of the question. We watched the news all day while panicked friends and family tried to reach us. Some people walked over the bridges through the ash to try to get out of the city, inhaling the dust of the dead and the destroyed.

Later that evening my subway line was reopened and I was finally able to get home. Two days later, back at work, a bomb scare and evacuation sent us home again.

Leaving New York was never an option for me afterward, though some friends begged me to return to Pennsylvania. I loved New York and would never give up on it like that. I refused to leave on anyone’s schedule but my own. I still love New York, to visit, but I’m continuing my adventures in other places now.

I’ve on occasion taken visitors to New York to Ground Zero, but it’s a hard thing to see. I still get a lump in my throat, the same one I get from listening to “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.

I’ve never written about September 11. While I’ve written copious amounts of poetry and blogs about Katrina and its lingering effects on not only me, but also the city of New Orleans, I’ve never been able to put pen to paper to adequately express how much that day in New York affected me.

But I am certain that—though I may never have found the right words—9/11 made an indelible mark in shaping who I am as a writer, as an American, and as a human being.

A letter to the editor appeared on on October 18, 2009, from the commanding officer of the USS New York, Curt Jones, thanking Louisiana residents for lining the levees and showing their support. They could indeed hear and see the people who came to see them.

Personally, I’d like to thank each and every member of that crew for the work they’ve done and for the work they’ll be doing, tirelessly defending our country and protecting its citizens.

Thank you, USS New York.