9/11 anniversary: Why I can’t let go of my Sept. 11 ‘hurt locker’

090211 (Ray Graham/The Palm Beach Post)--Studio--We need a photo of this old Samsonite suitcase I have that is filled with a bunch of stuff from the week of 9/11/2001.

Post reporter Staci Sturrock’s old Samsonite suitcase is filled with ephemera from the week she spent in New York City covering 9/11. (File photo/The Palm Beach Post)

The 15th anniversary of 9/11 is Sunday. Palm Beach Post reporter Staci Sturrock wrote this column on the tenth anniversary of the attack:

It’s been years since I had the heart to sift through the contents of the vintage suitcase in my spare bedroom. But recently, I flipped open the latches of the hard-sided, marbled-green Samsonite.

There was the paper air-filter mask someone handed me on the streets of New York 10 years ago this Sunday.

There were the reporter’s note pads, scribbled with quotes like this one from an eyewitness to the attack on the twin towers: “At first, we were just watching the smoke, and then we saw people jumping or bodies falling out of the windows. They were like rag dolls.”

Or this one, jotted down two days later outside the Lexington Avenue Armory, where families sought help in locating what we then called “the missing”: “We just hope someone will tell us where we can go to find our son.”

And there, the pair of battered black sandals.

I wore the shoes most of that week, when I happened to be in New York to attend fashion shows, and wound up covering a national tragedy.

Now, I remember why I couldn’t bear to look inside the suitcase. It’s my very own “hurt locker” of recent history.

*****

The Samsonite is also a time capsule of sorts, a historic relic, a souvenir of an era long past.

This particular model was popular in the 1950s, when the person who drove you to the airport could escort you to the gate and kiss you goodbye. When you didn’t have to remove your shoes and belt and jacket to pass through security. When grabbing your bags and heading to the airport meant packing your sense of adventure, not a couple of Xanax.

Stored inside, I can see the technological changes of 10 years. There’s a small stack of faxes.

A horizontal credit-card receipt that had been put through an old-fashioned, sliding imprinter. A packet of 36-exposure film developed at an Eckerd drugstore, not instantly routed from a phone to my Facebook page.

The photos trace my path after I scribbled this note during the initial post-attack phone call from my editor: “first person story, center of the apocalypse, walk as far south as possible.”

And so, around 10 that morning, I headed south from my Times Square hotel. Along the way, I talked to dazed New Yorkers and aimed my point-and-shoot camera at pedestrians trudging mid-avenue, pausing to stare at smoke billowing in the distance.

Out on the streets, news updates weren’t as near as the palm of your hand. Smartphones? Tablet computers? Try the occasional transistor radio or jam box. I didn’t even own a cellphone then, and neither did the many residents waiting at pay phones to call home.

Here’s a photo of information-gathering, circa 2001: two dozen strangers huddled around a car, its windows rolled down and radio cranked up.

And here’s a snapshot of how quickly hospitals mobilized that morning — attached to a tree, a hand-lettered sign that read “Blood needed at St. Vincent’s.”

Scores waited in line to donate at the Greenwich Village hospital, where green-scrubbed doctors stood outside, next to office chairs draped in white sheets, ready to ferry the wounded who never arrived.

And, in my note pad, phrases evoking the surreal nature of a catastrophe that was simply unbelievable, even with the evidence written in a disfigured skyline:

“NYC bus goes by with paramedics in every seat. … Police riding in back of Ford F-250 pickup.”

“A priest wearing a dusty white hard hat.”

“Soot falling from sky like snowflakes.”

*****

In the end, I made it within half a mile of ground zero before encountering a policeman who had every reason to be impatient, but wasn’t. “I even threw NBC out,” he said.  “Unfortunately, you guys gotta go, too.”

The days that followed were a blur of interviews with tourists and mourners and downtown residents trying to retrieve the pets they’d hastily abandoned in apartment buildings adjacent to the Trade Center.

My photos do a poor job of conveying that week’s schizophrenic mix of pride, sorrow and hopefulness: American flags hung from fences and scaffolding. The makeshift memorials of roses and sunflowers, candles and messages of peace. Mailboxes papered over with missing-person fliers.

Those hastily Xeroxed pleas for information — which typically featured professionals in their prime, oblivious to the violent fate that awaited them — were mind-boggling in number.

Two posters were handed to me outside the Lexington armory, where many fathers and mothers, friends and co-workers sought out reporters, or anyone else, who would listen to their stories.

One shows a handsome 32-year-old man in a swimming pool with a young child. He is Mario Nardone, and on Sept. 15, 2001, The New York Times described the bonds broker, who worked on the 84th floor of the South Tower, as the guy with “the million-dollar smile and the million-dollar heart.”

Less than a week later, The Times ran an obit of the lovely woman on the other flier. Rosa Julia Gonzalez, also 32, a Port Authority secretary. After the terrorists flew into the South Tower, Gonzalez called one of her six sisters, then tried to make her way to the street from the 66th floor.

According to news reports, Gonzalez was descending the stairs with her friend Genelle Guzman-McMillan when the building collapsed. Almost 27 hours later, McMillan became the last person pulled alive from the wreckage.

Gonzalez was not so lucky.

*****

Last month, my boyfriend asked, gently and without judgment, if I’d like to get rid of the suitcase, or at least the contents that give it so much physical and emotional weight.

We’ll be in Lower Manhattan on Sunday, and maybe, he suggested, we could leave a few items in tribute at the new 9/11 Memorial, the one inscribed with 2,983 names.

I didn’t know what to say. He finally spoke: “You’re not ready to let it go.”

I guess I’m not, and I’m not sure why. I experienced 9/11 at such a remove that it’s wrong to say I “experienced” it at all. I wasn’t in the center of the apocalypse; I was an observer on its outskirts, and after six long days, I returned to the comforting routines of home.

But it seems heartless to discard the fliers or the photos or the note pads, or even say goodbye to those worn-out sandals.

Now, as I handle the shoes, lyrics from a favorite song by the folk trio The Be Good Tanyas come to mind:

You pass through places
And places pass through you
But you carry ’em with you
On the soles of your travellin’ shoes.

The suitcase is where I carry ’em with me — those memories of places I hope we never pass through again.

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