The attacks on the World Trade Center found me living in New York. I was part of the Venezuelan foreign service, assigned to the Permanent Mission to the UN. What happened that day is widely known. There’s nothing I can add to alleviate that horror. But, since then, I have been accompanied by an anecdote that I have seldom dared to tell out of respect for the victims, including, of course, those who were viciously massacred and wounded, but also their families. After all, their lives were never the same after that day in September 2001. With the distance, and the experience and perspective that only time grants, I stand in a moment of my life in which I have learned that telling what happened out of respect and empathy, is also a way of honoring the victims.
Like most people that day, I was shaken by the events. I was in the building of the Permanent Mission, just a few steps from the UN headquarters in the heart of Manhattan. I had come to work early like any other day, when I came across the television images live broadcasting the attacks. Telephones collapsed, including mobile communications.
Shortly before noon, the city was an apocalyptic scene. A dazed crowd walked down the street. There is no other way to describe it than as a state of collective commotion. Most of the people I worked with had already left. The tunnels and bridges to New Jersey, where I lived, were closed, so I had to wait. Sitting in my office, the phone rang. It was an outside call. I took it. I knew there was no one to take the call at the front desk. On the other end of the line, a woman spoke to me in Spanish with a broken voice. The beginning of the conversation was awkward. She clearly wanted to say something that she couldn’t phrase. Her son was in one of the towers. A Venezuelan.
I was surprised. The call was totally unexpected, as was also unexpected that someone from Venezuela was inside the towers when the attack happened.
She wanted to know if we could help her. I don’t remember replying, but I do remember asking myself how I could help her in that moment of confusion. Little by little, she gained the confidence to speak. She told me her son’s name, but I only heard the last name: Boulton. Somehow, she knew that he and a young man of Indian origin, who worked in the same firm, were together trying to go down the towers. He and his wife had recently had a baby. She asked me to help her find him.
She asked if we had contact with city authorities and if we could somehow assist her. Her voice was broken again. I could feel her weeping discreetly. I had nothing to offer her. There were only a few of us left at the office, and the Ambassador had gone home. Supporting nationals in need of assistance are Consulates’ responsibilities, not UN’s missions’, so we had no contacts with local authorities. The telephones did not work, and the television showed images of the emergency services and the city personnel overwhelmed by the crisis.
The only thing I could think of was to help her include both her son’s and his friend’s names on an online portal that the City of New York enabled to report those who were missing. She thanked me for the gesture and I assured her that I would include their names in as many sites that would become available. At this point of the conversation, there was enormous sadness in the air, as if we both knew there was no turning back. I tried to keep calm. I used a couple of cliches to encourage her. I told her she shouldn’t lose hope, that her son would turn up alive. We both said goodbye. I didn’t tell her my name. She didn’t tell me hers. But she did ask me to write her son’s name: Howard Boulton.
Before long, I learned that Howard was one of the victims. And I thought of his mom. Her voice. The despair behind that call. Her suffering. How life brought us together in that painful moment. I always remember her. Every year, on every anniversary. Now that I am a mother, I understand her more.
Fate put me back in New York now that 20 years have passed since the attacks. At a memorial to the victims of September 11 near where I live, I look up the name of J. Howard Boulton. I take a moment to think about him and his mother. The thought of them and the other victims fills me with deep sorrow. Although I never met them, they are both part of my memory of that day.
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