My 9/11 Bummer Birthday in Chile

My Chilean ID card

By Marcia E. Gawecki

It’s nearly impossible to watch the news these days without hearing about the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, the day in which Al-Qaeda crashed our planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Philadelphia.

Some of the stories focus on the brave firefighters, their now-grown children, or near-misses, like the U.S. Navy petty officer from Escondido who left the Pentagon only seconds before the plane crash.

For me, the 10th Anniversary brings back guilt mixed with some joy. You see, 9/11 is my birthday, and I spent it in Santiago, Chile, the first week of a one-year stint as an English instructor.

That morning, I turned on the TV, and started getting ready for work. I had a one-bedroom apartment in Santiago, near the school. Then I saw the Twin Towers burning and my blood ran cold. The Chilean newscaster was standing below the scene, explaining what had just happened. At this point, my Spanish was marginal, but I did my best to translate. Who caused this? No one seemed to know.

Just as she was explaining about the plane crash, the second plane hit. Dear God, I saw it live on Chilean TV! It was such a surreal moment! Then the guy from the news desk asked her about the second plane, and she had no idea what just had happened. They spent a long time trying to figure that out.

I sat on the bed and felt sick. Another teacher called to say there wouldn’t be any classes that day. Then, as the story unfolded, they mentioned the plane crash at the Pentagon, where my sister, Laura, a Marine, was stationed. Again, there was a lot of confusion in the news.

I tried calling home, at $10 dollars a minute, but the lines were busy for hours. Later, I learned that no one could get through, not even online. My sister could have been dead, for all I knew. I cried, talked with other teachers, and waited. Days later, an email came from my mom. Laura had been taking a class in another city, away from the Pentagon. She was OK.

Chilean caribineros (police) often used water cannons to disperse student demonstrations like this one at Plaza Italia

This year, with the death of Osama bin Laden, Laura mentioned the Pentagon. She said that the devastation was inexplicable. The plane had hit the wing where many U.S. Army officers had worked. Hundreds had died, and she knew many of them. Like other survivors, it was difficult for her to talk about it. How could we, who weren’t there, possibly understand? It was like explaining combat to a baby.

Laura added that it took a long time for the Pentagon to become fully functional again. At that time, Laura was writing for some generals, an incredibly stressful job that was just made worse by the crash. She wrote from a remote location for months.

She said that she was lucky, but felt guilty because she wasn’t there when the plane hit.

As for me and the rest of my family, we are thankful that she was spared.

“None of them deserved to die,” Laura said flatly. “I’m glad Osama bin Laden is dead.”

That’s when my old guilt rushed back in. I couldn’t understand her satisfaction. He was an old man who died without a gun in his hand. Yet, my version of 9/11 and hers were worlds apart. Bin Laden’s life replaced all of her fallen camarades who didn’t deserve to die.

I wasn’t there. I didn’t watch the aftermath of that horrific day, how everything unfolded, how the nation healed itself, and became stronger. I missed all the stories of sadness, victory and triumph. I wasn’t there, and even now, the guilt still rises up in my throat.

The author at Vina del Mar, Chile.

The other weird part of 9/11, or Sept. 11, is that it’s an unpopular day in Chile too. It was the day that General Pinochet overthrew the Allende government and dictated for 20 years. Even though Chile had a president and been a democracy for 10 years, many student demonstrators protested against Pinochet’s freedom. On the evening of Sept. 11, they set cars on fire and broke store windows. The Chilean government responded with tanks equipped with water cannons.

“I don’t think it’s a good night to go out and celebrate your birthday,” my friend said.

I agreed. It was a dark time to be in Santiago, Chile.

On Sept. 12, I had to teach classes. I remember getting on the subway and feeling like people were looking at me. You see, I have dark hair and eyes, and could easily pass for a Chilean, as long as I didn’t open my mouth. But Chileans were giving up their seats to me on two different trains. Perhaps I had an aura of sadness about me.

In my classes, my Chilean students, mostly businessmen and women, all wanted to know if I knew of anyone who had worked at the Twin Towers. At that time, I didn’t know my sister’s fate, and when I mentioned her, tears welled up in my eyes. Everyone got pretty quiet, and it was hard to teach.

“Come home right away!” my brother Mark wrote to me that week. “It’s not safe there!”

I instinctively knew that anywhere but the United States would be a safe place to be. I didn’t even think about packing up and heading home. I had given up too much to get there. At home, I would be lost.

The Chilean media did their best to recount the events. Yet, weeks later, the U.S. Embassy asked them to quit showing the Twin Towers plane crash. It would make sense if it related to a news story about 9/11, but they would show the crash at every turn.

For example, an upstart Chilean tennis player was supposed to go to a tournament in the United States, but couldn’t because of the crash, so they showed the guy hitting a few balls, and the Twin Towers crash about four times. It was gratuitous and unnecessary and painful to watch.

Now that the 10th Anniversary will arrive in a few days, along with another birthday, I’m headed to Solvang, about two hours from LA. It’s the wine-tasting town made popular in the movie, “Sideways.” I plan to be far away from any TV, newspapers and 9/11 memorials.

I will drink good wine, toast to my sister’s good fortune and hope this horror never happens again.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.


the attachments to this post:

ME Vina del Mar

11 Chile Water cannons

11 Chile Water cannons

11 BD Carnet

11 BD ME & Maddy

11 BD ME & Maddy

11 BD ME & Maddy

11 BD ME & Maddy

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