Fifteen years ago this month, Alene Keenan was the new chief stew on the 163-foot Oceanfast M/Y Mystique docked at Chelsea Piers in New York City. She had a front-row seat to the devastation of that day. This is edited from her Christmas letter home to family in 2001. To read the full letter, visit her website.
It was hard to grasp the enormity that day, but America was changed forever.
Generation X had evolved into Generation Why? The defining question of a generation was no longer “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” (for those of us old enough to remember), but “Where were you for 9/11?”
I was right there, and I will never forget.
Moments after the first plane struck at 8:45 a.m., we ran out on deck. At first we were confused, but when the second plane hit at 9:03, there was no question in any of our minds that this was not an accident.
I have never been so afraid in my life. I expected more planes to fall from the sky, and probably bombs, too.
We had a perfect view of the towers looking south that day. The first tower fell at 9:59 and the second fell at 10:28. We could not move the boat, so there we sat, at what was rapidly becoming Command Central. Chelsea Piers was convenient, as the permanent ice rink could serve as a temporary morgue. The convention and sports areas were set up for medical triage, with hundreds of doctors and nurses waiting to receive any survivors who could not be treated at hospitals.
Along the Westside Highway came a flood of people heading north. There was a hush to them, hardly anyone spoke, and here and there were people caked in fine beige powder. I imagined that Ground Zero was like a war zone, and remembered reading somewhere that the fabric of society frays in direct proportion to one’s nearness to the battlefield. In New York on Sept. 11, it was happening over the course of a few blocks.
Our crew volunteered as quickly as we could. We were met by two aides who instructed us that we were to accompany stretchers from ambulances, gather identification information and tag victims. Groups assigned by color divided the area, and we were warned that it would be hard to witness. Green and yellow tags were for the ambulatory and moderately injured; red and black for seriously injured or dead. My knees buckled a little when I heard that.
We waited and waited for the wounded to arrive, but they didn’t come. No one was coming out of that awful cloud a few blocks away. We were all just there — doctors, nurses and volunteers like us — stacking boxes and erecting eye-wash stations, making neat little trays of gauze bandages and syringes and antiseptic wash. Staying busy let us believe we were doing something to help.
So many volunteers had gathered that we were asked to wait outside. By this time the sun was setting over the Hudson River and for a while, maybe a half hour, there was a stunning gold tinge to the sky. In the true spirit of that wonderful city, even in the midst of their own anguish, those waiting for ferries to shuttle them home greeted us with a round of applause as we poured out into the afternoon light. It was amazing to see how people treated each other. There was so much kindness, care and concern, everyone trying to do or say anything to ease someone else’s suffering.
The grief and fear were palpable, though. Some peoples’ eyes were desperate, or terribly sad and vacant, as if the mind was trying to erase what the eyes had seen.
I sat on the fly bridge all evening, watching the smoke rising from the charred remains of the Twin Towers, thinking of all the souls who had been lost that day.
By the second day people were slowly emerging from their shock. Throughout the city, impromptu memorials began to pop up, little altars of flowers and candles. What also blossomed were a million small posters, photos of those still missing. It was heartbreaking.
At Chelsea Piers there was something to do 24 hours a day. We could step off the boat and help any time of day or night, even if it was just loading the boats carrying supplies to Ground Zero. I was constantly thinking about all that we have and take for granted every day of our lives.
On Sept. 11, 2001, in uncounted ways, in final phone calls, in circumstances that Hollywood should no longer try to match – it was proved true all over again: “What will survive of us is love.”
We have so much to appreciate. We, as a society, are so fortunate to have such a wonderful way of life. Let us carry into the world the spirit of hope and of peace.
Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale and author of “The Yacht Guru’s Bible” (www.yachtstewsolutions.com). Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Chief Stew Alene Keenan: