With this post we welcome Krystal Loh as one of our contributors, our Baker Street Irregulars if you will. This post is beautiful, meaningful and deeply personal but for many of us graphic depictions of the events of 9/11 can be difficult, so this is a gentle warning before you begin. She tells her memories of that day and they are not pleasant nor are they abstract.
I was always sort of a nerd, whether it was over video games or cartoons, but trauma does unusual things to people, and the tragedy of 9/11 brought out the geek in me and drove me to the warm embrace of fandom like nothing else.
But I’ll come back to that.
My life has a distinct Before & After — before September 11th and after it. The event itself feels like a guillotine cutting through space-time, it is tactile and real, where the part before the cut is my body and the part after is just my head rolling around trying to find shoulders to rest on again. My last memory before the cut is feeling a deep sadness over R&B singer Aaliyah’s death. She was one of my favorite artists growing up, and to this day I feel it pertinent that one of the most memorable women I’ve ever (not) known died before this juncture in my life. In a bitter show of irony, she died in a plane crash.
Yes, yes — it was a clear, brilliantly blue day, as they say. Honestly, I don’t remember that at all. Everyone says they remember that about the day, but I certainly don’t. I can’t remember any colors except hot yellows and reds and grey and black. Nothing blue. It was my first week of high school, and I was in social studies class with Mr. Drayer. We were in the middle of the lesson — the subject lost to memory — and there was a tube TV on a stand in the room. I remember the television because when it started to happen, I desperately wanted to turn on the TV, but it only played VHS tapes.
Suddenly, things got chaotic as soon as Mr. Drayer glanced at his phone. His face instantly darkened, and he was quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time. Once he snapped out of it, he peered up with an empty gaze and told us that something happened at the World Trade Center, that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. A friend of mine started to cry. She had an uncle that worked down there. Everyone was quietly panicking. An announcement on the PA system vaguely mentioned an accident in Lower Manhattan. Then the parents and guardians started to show up to take people home. It wasn’t until I saw my mom in the doorway that I started to panic. The last thing I remember doing in that classroom was looking out the window; there was a huge, black plume of smoke coming from Manhattan, which was about 9 miles away from my high school.
People hurried around the otherwise dead, silent halls of my school. My mom didn’t really say anything to me, other than the fact that we had to go home. That tense, nervous energy permeated the day and is still with me 15 years later. It all came to a head when I stepped outside.
The smell hit me first — it was sharp, burning, chemical in nature. Then it dawned on me: the distance. Lower Manhattan was so close, I could smell the burning as if it were across the street. The sun was gone, replaced by a grey sky, that wasn’t clouds, but choked with thick, black smoke. I felt my skin crawl and my eyes sting; not from the smell, but from the debris that was starting to fall like snow and what the implication was. In a moment of detachment, I imagined it was snow, or ash, because it hit me violently that I was breathing in death.
The television stayed on all day. A family friend was in the New York Police Department Emergency Services Unit helicopter that most people recognize from that day, circling the site and capturing footage. I watched TV all day long. Bodies flung like dolls out of windows; they didn’t seem like humans anymore. Once they’d left the towers and were at the mercy of gravity, it was like their souls were sucked out of them and ascended while their flesh and bones fell.
The sounds of those bodies slamming into the ground, like miniature explosions, still makes me shudder.
A day or so later, my mom and I went to the Brooklyn promenade and were joined by a vigil of people just looking at Manhattan island. Normally, the promenade is a great place to take in the skyline of Lower Manhattan. This time, the skyline was gone. The island was gone. It was just a giant, floating smoke monster hovering over the east river. We stood out there for a long time. It could have been half hour, or three hours — I have no idea. You couldn’t see any buildings, roads, nothing. Just a floating island of black smoke. We finally had to leave because it was getting difficult to breathe.
My aunt is now retired from the NYPD. But, for a few days after 9/11, I went to work with her on weekends at Floyd Bennet Field, which is where the Emergency Services Unit is headquartered. I watched weary men coming back from their shift, covered in ash and soot and smelling like the black smoke that permeated the city. They looked like soldiers returning home from a war zone. Some elementary schools sent in hand drawings as gifts to the guys. It was a colorful, innocent, and disturbing contrast to all of the other images I’d seen in the last few days.
Sometimes officers would come into her office (she was a civilian who did clerical work) just to hug her and cry. It was the first time I’d ever seen a man cry like that — I’m talking full body heaves. My aunt prayed with them. It was eerie, hearing them plead to God after something so terrible had just happened.
The site was still smoldering a month later when my father and I went to visit. He had a friend in security that worked nearby. We went through security checkpoints to get close to the site; all the while my throat burned from the smell of the smoldering rubble. It was so strong. We climbed to the rooftop of my father’s friend’s building with a clear view of the destruction. I’d only seen things like that in movies. There was jutting steel, crater-like holes that seemed to stretch into the abyss, and paper. The paper was just as plentiful as the smoke, and every piece was a reminder that people worked in those buildings, either hated or loved their 9 to 5 jobs, and now all that was left was paperwork that littered the area like dead leaves. Everything was grey, black, dead, hot. It wasn’t my home anymore.
The Emergency Services Unit (ESU) is an elite group within the NYPD. In the 71 years since its inception, they had lost 10 men. On 9/11, thirty ESU officers went into the tower. 14 were killed. As a kid, I had grown up knowing about these officers and how they trained to be the ones that cops would call when they were in trouble.
Tommy Langone was an ESU officer, and was lost that day, along with his brother Peter, a firefighter. Months before the attacks, Tommy came into my aunt’s office one day to say hello (he always took the time to speak to me when I was around). I was drawing something. He wanted to see it, but I was embarrassed to show him — it was a picture of Team Rocket from Pokémon. Finally, I relented. Tommy smiled at me and said that I was really good, that I could do something with my art, that he wanted to go see my art when it was in galleries in Manhattan. I was probably around 12 or 13. It left an indelible impression. My parents always said nice things about my art, as did my teachers, but this was a guy that worked crazy long hours and could do water rescues and scale buildings and save people, and he wanted to see my art. When I found Tommy’s name at the memorial site, I completely lost it.
I cry every time I think about Tommy.
Admittedly, I didn’t mean for this post to become such a brain-vomit of how that day affected me, but here we are. It’s been fifteen years and I’ve never written this out, nor have I shared all of this in its entirety. I still think about Tommy watching me draw Pokémon fanart and his words of encouragement. I was doing something I enjoyed, something that I was excited about, and someone I respected took special note of it. I still like Pokémon, and every so often I still have an association with him whenever it becomes a topic of conversation. I’m a firm believer that people recognize things that we’re passionate about, even if they don’t quite realize it.
It’s important for me to set the stage and to share my story, because what I’m about to tell you is very important.
It’s okay to get lost in your geeky vices to cope.
It’s the only way I could cope. There’s no coincidence in the fact that 2001 was also the first year I really started fangirling over stuff. I got really into Hellsing. I RPed Alucard and watched a ton of anime and started reading manga. I made new friends that were into fandom like me. I started to draw more. I branched out and listened to all kinds of foreign music, played video games for hours, and let myself be inspired by things that would later on define me as an adult.
This summer, along with a few close friends, I spoke on a panel about fanfiction at FlameCon in Brooklyn. It was a wonderful experience, because I knew that we all — my fellow panelists and our awesome audience — had something in common: fandom was our way of finding ourselves. Playing hours of Katamari Damacy during my trying times in high school was my way of centering myself. Writing fanfic in the weeks after 9/11 was my way of coping and taking a break from my own surroundings and my own mind. I was in therapy for a little while, but the only thing that really calmed my nerves and brought me back to myself was being a geek.
At fourteen-years-old, September 11th, 2001 was the first day that I felt a sense of real emptiness and a need to withdraw for the world. It was too much. Nothing felt familiar. My city felt like an alien world. My apartment was the only place I felt safe. I attended bodiless funerals of my aunt’s coworkers and friends, and stood in lines with sobbing officers with helicopter flybys overhead. On the outside, I pretended to be fine, because it didn’t feel fair to express any sort of fear or sadness when there were people around me who had lost fathers and sisters and best friends, but I felt like I was rotting inside. Like that day had implanted something rancid inside of me, and it was consuming me.
To this day, I still get anxious when a plane flies overhead, and I have to watch it in the sky until it’s out of view to make that anxiety go away. Every single time. I still have nightmares about falling bodies and the sounds they make. When the Chitauri are attacking Manhattan and there’s that slowmo shot of first responders running around a smoke-filled street in Joss Whedon’s Avengers, I always look away. But every year, when September 11th rolls around, I force myself to look at photos and videos from that day. I still haven’t really figured out why. If it’s cathartic, or if I use it as a reminder to myself (of what, I’m not sure of either), but I feel a sense of deep guilt and remorse if I don’t look.
If you’re a geek and 9/11 is rough for you, I understand. While I can’t say for sure that being a geek has completely saved me from myself, I do feel whole again. There’s a community of awesome people out there, writing fanfic and drawing fanart and healing themselves through channels that have nothing to do with what happened that day. Embrace it. Embrace each other. Collective creativity and excitement is soothing. There’s a misconception that geeks are weird, self-centered, and don’t know how to communicate, but I’ve found that we’re the most open, patient, and caring people I’ve ever come to know. People are hesitant to embrace their geekiness because it feels like becoming an outlier, but this world of fandom is bigger than any violence, hatred, or fear out there. I think Tommy knew it back then, even if he didn’t know what Pokémon was. Doing something you love always gives off a positive energy.
So turn on your PlayStation (or your console of choice) and relax. Indulge in your favorite ship. Shuffle your Magic cards and invite your friends over. Self-care as a geek is the greatest gift I could have ever discovered.
A previous version of this post was published on Medium.