Where Were You?


(This column was first published in the September 16, 2002 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Many responses to that inquiry, "Where were you on that fateful morning of September 11, 2001?" have been recounted in the media as we passed the anniversary of that terrible morning.


Among those thousands of answers I cite one here that is especially appropriate for this natural history column.


But first some background.


Everyone has heard of Central Park in New York City, that remarkable Olmstead-designed square mile block of greenery set down in the middle of Manhattan Island and enclosed on all sides by rank upon rank of urban architecture.


This wonderful park has a terrible reputation after dark. I know no one who would venture there at night. But dawn brings an abrupt change to a wholesome atmosphere and among the first to enter the park to take advantage of this are bird watchers.


You need only look at a map of the eastern seaboard to see why Central Park is a haven for birds. Migrants flying along the coast have few suitable stopping places and this park is one of the best. I have spent hours recording birds there in a stony woodland glade called The Ramble.


And so it was that on 9/11 Robert DeCandido led a group into the park. He has written movingly about his experience in the current Linnaean News-Letter.


"For the first hour or so," he tells us, "things were normal. Then we began to hear sirens outside the park and then on park drives. The wailing was relentless.


We finally learned what had happened when Joanne Wassmer turned on a radio. The first news we heard was that both World Trade Center towers had collapsed. Like everyone else, we were stunned. Some of us cried.


"As a group we became puzzled about what to do next. We wanted quiet, and we wanted calm, but sirens kept wailing. A few of us wanted to go home; others wanted to walk south in the park. Some wanted to be alone and others needed to be close to friends.


"Emotions ran high, then low. I remember watching a black-and-white warbler on a green leaf just a couple of feet away and thinking that it didn't matter. Other warblers surrounded us chittering. We were immersed in a small bird wave in those north woods, but we still felt desolate. Time seemed to slow down and the light cutting through the trees onto our path was surreal, like the light from an eclipse. It was difficult to decide what to do next. In some ways we wanted to hide."


The birders moved slowly south through the park, watching F-16s escort airliners away, high above migrating hawks. "Other raptors appeared over us but counting them began to lose meaning."


After the group broke up and to see how his fellow New Yorkers were reacting, Candido hiked twelve miles through Harlem and over the Madison Avenue Bridge to his home in the Bronx. He has told me separately about that walk.


"On the way up Madison Avenue," he says, "people in Harlem were outside of their houses (and schools) encouraging people and giving out water, soda and candy."


Then as he crossed the bridge, "I could see black smoke rising from the tower area far in the distance."


"I walked home in the warm late day sun through the south Bronx. It was quiet, but the further I got from Manhattan, the more things seemed normal. It was such a nice, late summer day (warm, sunshine and no humidity nor clouds) it was difficult to comprehend how such a thing could have happened on that day."


A quite different reminder of a very sad episode.-- Gerry Rising