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One last look back at a terrible day

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One last look back at a terrible day
BY CAROL MARIN SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
September 10, 2006
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times

A week or so ago, my editor asked if I'd write about my experience on Sept. 11 for this fifth anniversary. If he hadn't asked, I probably would not have.

There was a time when I thought about Sept. 11 every day and talked about it ad nauseam, testing the tolerance of even my most understanding friends.

It was just that, for the longest time, I couldn't shake 9/11 loose from my head. There were too many things I was struggling to bring into focus from the chaos of that day. In running for my life, it turned out I had been a far better survivor than observer. I became obsessed with the details.

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As a CBS News correspondent working in New York on that day, I had done what reporters do. I raced to the scene, ending up on West Street shortly after the south tower melted into the ground. I was only a block or two away from the north tower when the street trembled under my feet, a fireball of pooled jet fuel exploded out of the building's base, and it too, unbelievably, started to collapse right in front of me. I turned to run but stumbled and fell.

A New York City firefighter, whose name I did not have the presence of mind to learn and whose fate I will never know, grabbed me by the waist, tossed me back on my feet, and hurled me under the sheltering eave of an adjacent building. Covering me with his body, he shielded me from the thundering avalanche of concrete and steel, his heart pounding so hard I could feel it against my backbone.

Adrenaline and asbestos

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For a good three years after that, the booming sound of a wrecking ball on a construction site was enough to send a jolt of panic through me before my brain could tell my body to shut off the adrenaline and calm down. "9/11 moments," I'd call them, when something that never scared me before suddenly did.

What also worried me was the air that I had breathed. Or more correctly, tried hard not to breathe. In the aftermath of the second tower's destruction, it was like someone had turned off the lights. We were in total blackness but the air around us was almost chunky, full of particles.

In the beginning there were grave concerns about what was in that air: resins, silicates and cancer-causing asbestos. But the federal government, eager to reopen Wall Street and restore order, assured us all that there was nothing to worry about.

We now know, thanks to the largest health study to date of thousands who were at Ground Zero, that there is a real connection between the dust and the diseases that have emerged, particularly among people who worked day after day in search and rescue teams at the site.

Inward, outward and onward

Just after 9/11, the horror of the attacks was exceeded by the nobility of first-responders, the kindness of strangers, and the expressions of support and concern from the world community.

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For a brief time, we really were the United States of America in the arms of a largely sympathetic world. But we squandered the moment and lost the opportunity it offered.

So shell-shocked were we at what happened to us that we couldn't see beyond our borders or appreciate the challenges of our allies or our enemies, for that matter.

We looked inward rather than outward, and sadly, did exactly what our president asked us to do. Kept shopping. Not conserving. And certainly not sacrificing. Most of us, myself included, have given up nothing except, of course, a few treasured constitutional freedoms. The burden of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are borne by only a tiny fraction of us who heroically soldier on.

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