Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The View From Ground Zero ...

I remember the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

That was a traumatizing experience for the whole country, but it must have been especially brutal for the folks who lived where those planes did their devastation. In fact, I often wondered, as I watched news reports from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, what must it feel like to be at ground zero?

Now I think I know.

Well, the casualty rate isn't anywhere near as high as it was on that day — not yet, anyway. And no buildings have been destroyed. Otherwise, though, it seems to be pretty much the same.

I live a few miles east of Dallas' Texas Health Presbyterian hospital. The original Ebola patient didn't come to my apartment complex when he (knowingly? unknowingly? does anyone know for sure?) brought the virus to America ... but he could have. From what I have seen, there is little except geography that separates that apartment complex from the one in which I live or hundreds of others in this city, for that matter. His girlfriend happened to live in a complex that is south of the hospital so that is where he went.

But any of us could have been put at risk. It was just the luck of the draw that we were spared and the other apartment complex was not.

A similar thought must have passed through the minds of many New Yorkers in 2001. Clearly, people died at the World Trade Center simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many victims worked there; if one's workplace is targeted, it's really more a matter of time than the luck of the draw for that person, even if that person doesn't know, but in a large facility like the WTC, there are always people on the premises who don't come there every day. They are just there conducting business of some kind. In the North Tower of the World Trade Center, some were eating what turned out to be their last meal in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the tower.

Perhaps those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time only plan to be there a few minutes or a few hours, but they get caught in the event.

I was near another ground zero in the 1990s. I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, which is located in Norman, about 25 miles from Oklahoma City, at the time of the bombing of the federal building there. I was about half an hour from the start of a class when that bomb went off that morning. Some people said they could hear the explosion from that far away. I couldn't. Maybe that was because I was indoors.

Anyway, on that occasion, I had that dodged–a–bullet kind of feeling. I had been to Oklahoma City many times. Frequently I went to do some research at the Oklahoma City library, which was just a few blocks from the federal building. I had walked past the federal building several times.

I thought of those occasions early on, when speculation centered on the possibility that a gas line had blown up or something like that, and I thought, that gas line could have blown up when I was walking past that building. Of course, we know now that it was a bomb — and that a young man named Timothy McVeigh was responsible.

That was the extent of my connection to the federal building.

Many of my students, though, came from Oklahoma City. It was much more personal for them than it was for me, whether they had been to the federal building or not. One of my students, who now works in the Dallas broadcasting media market, lost her father in the bombing.

Even so, I still had that ground zero feeling. There were many people in that building who lost limbs — or lives — simply because they were there, however briefly, for some reason that day.

And, as the unofficial adviser for the newspaper, I was proud of my students for putting their personal feelings aside and producing all their own coverage — their own articles, their own photos, their own graphics — in reporting on a once–in–a–lifetime news event. A journalist must find ways to remain detached from a story, no matter how difficult that may be.

And I know how difficult it was for my students. In addition to unofficially advising the newspaper staff, I was the unofficial counselor for many of them, too.

When you observe from afar, you have no idea how rough it gets, how raw emotions can become at ground zero. Perhaps that is why I hear so many speak so disparagingly of the fears of people here on the front lines — and I am angered and frustrated.

Those of us here at ground zero have never been through anything like this before. We've heard about Ebola, how so many people who get it die, and not long after the original patient died came word that two of the nurses who cared for him were infected. The news sent a wave of fear through this city; we turned to our "leaders" for reassurance, and we encountered what appeared to be an indifferent president — who appointed a political flunky with no medical background to be the Ebola czar — and an equally unconcerned director of the CDC, who could only keep repeating talking points like "we know how Ebola is spread" ad nauseam.

No one to whom I have spoken was the least bit reassured by any of that.

Well, now we're reaching the point where people who were isolated because they came in contact with the original patient have made it through the 21–day incubation period without showing any signs of infection and are free to resume their lives. I hope that continues and that no one else is diagnosed with this disease. Perhaps that will reassure people that it really is difficult to catch this disease, that perhaps we have contained it here.

Because the people who are supposed to reassure us at a time like this have let us down. Big time.

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