By ANN HOOG (Photos By JAMES HARDIN)
On Sept. 12, 2001, Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center, called a meeting so that staff could share their thoughts and feelings about the day before–a day that the Library of Congress was evacuated in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Folklorists and ethnomusicologists talked about the stories they had heard from other people, describing their experiences of the event. It was the sharing of these stories that reminded this writer of a collection in the Library's Archive of Folk Culture, made in the first days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Sixty years ago, on Dec. 8, 1941, Alan Lomax, then in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song, sent an urgent message to folklorists to collect "man on the street" reactions to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war by the United States. Recordings were made in all parts of the United States in which people expressed their immediate reactions to the cataclysmic event. Interviews were conducted with shoemakers, electricians, janitors, oilmen, cab drivers, housewives, students, soldiers and physicians. People of many ethnic groups and ages expressed their opinions on the political, social, economic and military aspects of the attack. The recordings were sent to the Library of Congress, where they were used to create a radio documentary program which was broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
"Why don't we do that today?" asked this author at the meeting. "We could send an e-mail to folklore listservs and ask our colleagues to interview people about September 11." By 4 p.m. that day, the center had prepared a call for participation for Publore, a listserv of 350 public folklorists and other ethnographers across the nation. Folklorists were asked to record the reactions of people in their communities to the tragic events. What were they doing when they heard of the attacks? How have their lives been changed? Almost immediately the center began receiving e-mails from folklorists expressing enthusiasm for the project. And although the center's staff had no resources and no formal plan, they knew there was a need to record and preserve these stories.
The American Folklife Center has now received approximately 600 interviews (500 hours), a three-foot stack of accompanying manuscript materials, and more than 200 photographs of memorials from 22 states and a U.S. military base in Naples, Italy. Although the center's original call was to folklore professionals trained in ethnographic documentation, the word quickly spread to others, and the center also received interviews from high school teachers, film students, librarians and local historical societies.
Many of those contacted originally used the project as a way to teach oral history and fieldwork techniques in their college classes; at the same time, they recognized that it also could be an exercise in healing. As a result, several of the interviews were conducted by college students. With such a diversity of participation, the center has received recordings made with professional equipment and others made on 20-dollar tape recorders. Some people decided to videotape their interviews. Whatever format the participants chose and whatever the sound quality, the center has kept all the narratives that were submitted. They are all valuable pieces of the full story of September 11.
The collection is as diverse as the center had hoped. There are interviews from people who were in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon during the attacks, but also from people living in East Sullivan, Maine; Cambridge, Mass.; Durham, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; Lansing, Mich.; Des Moines, Iowa; Norman, Okla.; Boulder, Colo.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Los Angeles, Calif., and many other towns and cities across the country–both small and large. The center received interviews with teachers and students, from elementary to graduate school; police officers, firemen and other emergency workers; office workers, security guards, librarians and mayors; citizens whose families have lived in the United States for generations and those who had arrived from other countries only days before.
With 600 interviews and more than 500 hours of material, it is difficult to provide a general description of the collection and to adequately express its diversity. The voices speak for themselves, and the following is a small sampling of some of the moving narratives represented in the collection. The first excerpt is from a New York police officer who was called to the World Trade Center immediately after the first plane hit:
"I was assigned to a station one block away from the World Trade Center and a call came over the radio of an ‘unknown condition at the World Trade Center.' I had a partner, and [we] responded to the World Trade Center. And when we emerged from the [subway] station people were running frantically in the street area, and there was debris of all sorts everywhere. People were pointing, ‘It's over there, it's over there.' And as we ran up the road up towards the World Trade Center, I saw a plane sticking out of the building and I could not believe my eyes. … I basically just thought that it was not real, seeing a plane sticking out of the building on fire and people frantically crying, running, etc. and so on. And I called over the radio that a plane had confirmed [sic] hit the World Trade Center and let them know that we were there and just began the evacuation of the second building because there was so much debris falling from the first building. … We started evacuation of the second building because people were coming out, and stuff was flying down. And there was an overhang underneath the Borders bookstore, and we kept people underneath that overhang and told them just to go down the street, get out of the area, don't look up, continue to walk. And people [were] running, people were crying. People were injured coming out of this building, and I went down to the lower level of the escalator because they were saying people needed to be helped out. I helped a woman that had MS, I didn't get her name, I don't know who she was, or where she was from or anything like that, but I carried her out of the building and brought her down to Broadway, away from the front of the building … and I got halfway down … and there was a big, tall gentleman there in [Army] camouflage, fatigues, and I asked him to carry her the rest of the way around the corner, and I told all the people on the block to get out of here. … we knew it wasn't safe."
The collection includes many stories of people who experienced the events at Ground Zero, and other stories from New York neighborhoods some distance away.
"I have a bar, a saloon in Red Hook [Brooklyn] called Lillie's. I went back and I started immediately calling my friends to invite them over. We couldn't get reception on the television so we took it to the garden and turned on the news. By that time, 15 people were in my garden, still in disbelief of course. And we just watched TV all day. So as night fell I decided to close the bar because I couldn't really entertain people too well. And then about 12-midnight the back door started to open and people started flooding in the bar. We had about 50 people in the bar. And then the firemen came in from our local ladder companies. We have two houses here and collectively they had been coming to the bar before, so I knew a good many of them. And they started coming in the door. And the smell that was on their bodies, the soot, the burning smell, and their ears were blackened and they had burns. They came in and they asked me how I was, which I thought was just phenomenal, being that they had just been in the midst of a catastrophe that we've never known in our history in this country, especially in New York. So they began popping open beers, and we gave them buckets of beers in the garden. My friends started circling around them, and everybody just wanted to be with them. And that was the closest that really, anybody that was here had gotten to this disaster. And so we decided, let's just give it a go, let's just all be together, stay close together. They cried, they laughed–mostly laughed which I couldn't believe because they really just tried to find some kind of comfort in laughter. And we rang in the night, probably all night, and took care of them. I'll never forget that day, and those guys' faces. And I looked, I looked at guys coming in, and I kept looking for certain guys, and I didn't see their faces. And of course I assumed the worst. And I asked the other firemen, ‘Where's Christian, where's Sal, where's [sic] these guys.' And they were among the missing. And that was my day of September 11, 2001."
The Folklife Center has approximately 200 interviews from New York City and Arlington, Va., but the majority of this collection is from other parts of the country; for example, from those who heard about the news from the television, a phone call, or teachers in their classrooms.
"I fell asleep on the couch with the TV on, woke up because the dog wanted to go out. And looked at the TV, and there was a movie on that I didn't want to watch. So I switched the channel, the movie was on the next channel, and I switched again and it was on the next channel and I realized it was not a movie. And so I watched for a little while–this was like 7:30 in the morning, maybe a little earlier–and I wanted specifics so I flashed on all the channels and everyone pretty much had all the same information. And I realized when I saw the films of the second plane hit, that it was not an accident, and I called my mother down in Santa Rosa. The first thing that occurred to me was that it was not an accident, the second thing was that if they hit the East Coast, they could hit the West Coast and so I started thinking of targets on the West Coast."
Five states away, in Iowa, family connections to the affected cities were registered.
"[My husband] and I live on a farm in western Iowa, Harrison County, outside a small town called Woodbine. Our youngest daughter lives in Brooklyn, New York. At the time of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City … she worked in a building approximately two blocks from the towers. We usually watch the ‘Good Morning America' broadcast from Manhattan because we can see what the weather is and since we have visited the city several times we enjoy seeing the places we visited. … [The announcers] reported the first plane had hit a tower. I was concerned and asked my husband to come into the house and watch with me. We were watching when the second plane hit and heard reports of the other hijacked planes. We had spoken to [our daughter] the preceding night because her birthday is September 11, and we knew she was going [to be out of town that day]. We wished her a happy birthday, but neglected to ask her how she was traveling. We kept reassuring each other that she was probably not in the city. … However, we were both apprehensive because we weren't sure where she was. We continued to watch, glued to the TV set. Finally we decided to try to call her at her office, but we were unable to get through because of busy circuits. We then tried her home phone in Brooklyn, with the same result. We watched in horror as we saw the people hurrying across the Brooklyn Bridge, saw the first tower crumble, and then later the second tower collapse. Because of the excellent coverage by the media cameras it was as if you were there. We did not know that our daughter was in the hoard of people crossing over to Brooklyn."
The contents of the interviews go beyond feelings experienced that day. They include views on international relations, politics, economics, patriotism, charity efforts, family, fears of flying, prejudices and life changes.
Though collecting audio recordings was the primary goal of this project, the center also collected photographic documentation of the spontaneous memorial tributes created near the Pentagon, as well as in other parts of the country. In addition to photographs taken near Arlington Cemetery, the center received photos of memorials from other states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
These reactions from communities across the United States help to complete the story of how this nation experienced and reacted to the events of September 11. Audio field recordings are especially valuable elements of our historical record. Storytelling and other forms of expression help people to manage their feelings.
Excerpts from these interviews make up the half-hour presentation called "Soundscape," which is part of the Library's "Witness and Response" exhibition; the presentation will run continuously from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday, in the Orientation Theater of the Jefferson Building, from Sept. 7 to Nov. 2.
"It is cathartic to tell stories [about] where you were when you heard about the attacks," says Peggy Bulger. "Nothing replaces the recorded voice; when you listen to those voices from 1941, along with the street noises in the background, you are better able to imagine the whole context of that particular time and place. I hope that someone listening to the September 11 collection 60 years from now learns as much as researchers have learned from our Pearl Harbor Collection, by listening to ordinary people reacting to extraordinary events."
Ann Hoog is a folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center.