Ten years after 9/11 and a 60th birthday

Dear Laurie ,
I congratulate you with your 60th birthday. I feel for several reasons very sad not being able to congratulate you in person. You and I are both born in 1951, the year Linus Pauling proposed correctly that the alpha helix and the beta sheet are the most important motifs in protein secondary structure and the year that James Watson started seriously considering to resolve the structure of DNA after attending a lecture of Rosalind Franklin.
I learned one important lesson from James Watson: avoid boring people. And because you are among the least boring people I know, I must admit: we haven’t seen each other for too long.
I will try to make that up in the next few months.
Your 50th birthday I remember vividly. I wrote in the acknowledgements for the book ” Viral Fitness” that was published in 2004 and is still in print and available in kindle edition , an account of my days in New York in 2001:

” On Saturday, September 8, I attended a birthday party for Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plaque, at the Brooklyn Brewery. Wayne Koff, the science director of IAVI, his wife, and I shared a cab to Brooklyn from IAVI’s office in the Wall Street area. Totally unaware of the disaster that would soon occur , we celebrated a person whose work has inspired me time and again. The following Tuesday, September 11, at half past eight in the morning I arrived at an IAVI meeting to evaluate vaccine programs. Located on the 27th floor of 110 William Street, the conference room offered a clear view of the World Trade Center three blocks away. At a quarter to nine, one of the IAVI employees called us to the window, saying that an airplane had hit the north tower. We looked at the fire in amazement. It hardly seemed real, but as we stood there twenty minutes later, we saw with our own eyes a second airplane flying into the south tower. Everyone knew at that moment that this tragedy would change the world.

A few minutes later, we were standing with all the IAVI employees and thousands of other people on the William Street sidewalk. Finally, we could not think of anything better than to go to our hotel on nearby Gold Street and continue our meeting. That idea turned out to be ridiculous when, at ten o’ clock, the first tower collapsed and, half an hour later, the second. Many people who had escaped from the towers came to that hotel to recover and tell their stories.

With towels held to our faces against the thick white smoke, Ian Gust and I went to the South Street Seaport, where we were able to breathe better due to the proximity of water. There we talked while watching a crew of tugboats that had organized to offer free transportation to the many people in need. Of all the inspiring conversations with Ian, I am perhaps most thankful for that one by the water in Manhattan. By the evening, all the participants in the IAVI meeting were walking in silence among thousands of New Yorkers, all making their way uptown along South Street to safer regions.”

To add to that account of seven years ago, I remember I could not fly out of New York home to Holland for another week. The first few days I stayed at the house of a friend , but New York became more and more depressing and I more and more depressed. To cheer us up Seth Berkley invited us all to his summer home in Saq Harbour where I stayed for the rest of that week. Finally I flew back with only a few Chasidim on board on their way to Israel. Because of the sabbath evening occuring during flight, they were standing up for hours praying and ‘ benching’ ( saying their blessings).Except for me nobody was sitting in the airplane.

In 2004 I was still under the spell of 9/11 when I opened ” Viral Fitness ” with the following first lines of the preface:

” The September 11, 2001, attack on New York and Washington, DC changed not only the world of humans but also the world of viruses. No one would have thought it possible that a group of terrorists could strike strike the United States at its very heart, yet that is what happened when the twin towers were destroyed. Many people now urgently believe that we must arm ourselves against a repeat of that attack, especially if it should come in the form of bioterrorism.”

I believe that now a lot less. Natural disasters turned out to be more threatening than the man- made ones. When you think about it, this is not totally accurate: the cholera epidemic on Haiti or even the Mexican flu are in one way or the other also man-made.

There are may ways to commemorate 9/11, but images appear to convey the strongest messages. Every time I see a soap or a series on TV made in New York before 2001 and showing images of the two towers in full glory, I cannot believe or grasp that never again these images will be seen in real life. The towers are gone as is the William Street office of IAVI or the restaurant Florent in the Meatpackers- district.

The moment just before the towers collapsed, say the evening of September 8, 2001 is the moment to remember, when everything was normal and nobody ever imagined that the ultimate vanishing act was staged for opening night. We innocently celebrated your birthday drinking beer in Brooklyn.

The Canadian artist Tobias Wong, who committed suicide at the age of 35 on May 30, 2010 in his East Village appartment in Manhattan, captured the towers ready to be hit best. His death was as mysterious as the collapse of the towers. Apparently Tobias Wong hanged himself, may be by accident, while sleepwalking. Were we all sleepwalking, -in other words being active while sleeping-, the days, weeks and years before 9/11? Did we not see the disaster coming because we had a blind spot for the culture clashes around us or did we turn a blind eye?

Tobias Wong created an image of a book of matches with an imprint visible on the inside of the matchbook, reading:
69 Gansevoort Street

The matches in the book are cut to represent the skyline of lower Manhattan with the twin towers as two unlit matches, black with a white head. The beauty of this image is all encompassing. Restaurant Florent was once called ” the Mecca of Cool “; it closed after 23 years in the summer of 2008. Frank Bruni of the New York Times characterized the 24/7 hangout in the paper of May 21st, 2008 , one month before closing as follows:

” Nestled among meatpacking plants and hard-core gay bars, Florent was an anomalously egalitarian enclave beloved in equal measure by celebrities on the A list and hedonists on the edge, and a prism through which certain aspects of the city’s evolution could be seen with unusual clarity.”

Florent is gone, the towers are lit. Do we live today, in 2011 in a different world from ten years ago: no doubt. But is that because of what happened in lower Manhattan on that fatefull day in September 2001 or did the world anyway change because it had to? Would the financial crisis have happened without 9/11, we will never know. For a  basic scientist, like me, it is difficult to accept that a controlled experiment in which half the world lived on without 9/11 and the other half experienced the September horror, was never done. But that is what makes living on this planet as a human being so exciting, I guess.


September 2011
Blog: posts