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A window on September 11

Producer Rose Arce covered the September 11 attacks for CNN and was near Ground Zero when the towers collapsed.
Producer Rose Arce covered the September 11 attacks for CNN and was near Ground Zero when the towers collapsed.  

By Rose Arce
CNN New York Bureau

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Jim Huibregtse has some super home video of September 11. It shows his 3-year-old son, Clyde, sipping hot chocolate at the kitchen table, all excited about his first day of school. The next segment features Emma, his 6-year-old, lining up at P.S. 234 with other first-graders marching into class.

Then, all of a sudden, you hear that horrible rumble in the sky.

I met Jim and his wife, Julie, and their kids that day because I needed a phone to call CNN. The window of their apartment faced the World Trade Center's north tower. They take still photos for a living, of smiling children and stuff like shiny fruit. Jim calls his subjects "things that don't move." But that day he had a video camera to capture his happy kids.

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So while I called CNN anchors with live reports, Jim rolled beyond the pictures of his smiling children and tightened his lens on two raging fires encircling the top of the towers. Terrified people trapped in the floors above, waved desperately toward us. Then they began to smash the windows and leap.

At first they fell like swans with purpose and grace, but then there were more frantic jumpers, flailing against the wind, clutching each other's hands, their shoes tumbling into the crowds far below.

I think I remember Emma screaming something, and then some inner parent took hold of Jim, and he spoke. "Maybe they're birds, honey," he said calmly, and he ushered his children into the back of the apartment. And then we all shut up for the children.

The building collapsed like a slow-motion sand castle toppling into a heap of dust. Then came a tumbleweed of pieces: two American landmarks, nearly 3,000 people and those dear little objects that make us human -- photos, handbags and stuff. Things that would later qualify as "remains."

Afterward, it was so calm and dark. And there was suddenly time -- to exhale our fear, for Jim and Julie to leave for safety with the kids, for the searching and counting to begin. I began a slow march from sad story to sad story in some kind of slow-motion trance.

Emma had these dreams months later. "The people just sort of floated off and landed and ran away," she told Jim. He just lets her believe that. It's hard to make sense of something for a kid that you can't make sense of yourself.

They have watched the recovery from their window, the fire and smoke, then the huge open space. My own corner is featured this week in Time magazine, pictures of "before" and "after." Our lives have become the "after."

This September 11 is the first day of school all over again for Emma and Clyde. Clyde's school will not recognize the day. Emma and her class will sing happy songs at the moment the planes struck.

"I'll be looking up at the sky," Jim said. "I'll be looking for the next plane, just the way I do from my home every day since it happened."

Dust and ash cover a patio in lower Manhattan after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
Dust and ash cover a patio in lower Manhattan after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.  

Maybe it will be easier after the first year. This time Christmas can be just Christmas, not the first Christmas since. For the people who saw this, the people whose lives ring those two terrible footprints, or worse for the loved ones of the people inside, that word "anniversary" has become something bleak.

They say that on September 11 America "remembers," but we never forgot. We can't return to Clyde eating ice cream or join Emma in some little kid's song. We are trapped in that time called "after" -- when all those happy images turned dark.

Rose Arce is a CNN producer based in New York. She covered the events of September 11 for CNN.




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