January 19, 2021

3,652 days

Posted on 09. Sep, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Politics, Social/Cultural

Ten years have not completely removed the pain felt by all Americans from that horrible day in September of 2001. Each of us in our way has dealt with the loss we suffered as a country, but nothing can compare with the abject sorrow felt at the loss of a family member or a friend by the surviving families. We do their loss honor by remembering them and by trying to examine how we as a nation have found the strength to carry on without them.

Thousands of words will be added to the thousands of pages written by journalists to solemnly commemorate this event, and while many will share a common theme, each one on its own will be a tribute to the innocent victims of that day when America lost its innocence at the hands of terrorists.

There are still those among us who remember President Roosevelt’s ‘Day of Infamy’ speech in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th and many more that remember Walter Cronkite’s emotional announcement that President Kennedy was killed in Dallas on a sunny day in November of 1963. Events that rob us of our precious young men and women like wars are perhaps a bit easier to reconcile, though no less painful, while senseless killings like those that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 require a journey to the very core of our souls to understand.

Each of us remembers where we were when those announcements were made. They were burned into us like a brand that we will wear all our lives. For me, personally, I was working in the American Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark when my staff came into my office and told me to turn on the television that ‘something terrible happened in New York City.’ We crowded around to watch the horrendous scenes of an unbelievable nature unfolding before our very eyes. Our momentary shock was interrupted by the Marine Security Guards who burst into my office, clad in flak jackets and helmets and carrying automatic weapons. We were swiftly ushered out into the corridor and told to proceed to the ‘safe area’ of the Embassy where others were gathered.

A few minutes passed and the Ambassador came down to us flanked by his security team and told us that ‘America’s been attacked.’ We were told to stay put, away from the windows. The sound of people’s movements outside the Embassy walls was unmistakable. We could see from our vantage point that hundreds of Danes were gathering in front of the main entrance. Many were walking as if in a procession, without talking and with heads bowed in an eerie reverence.

This went on for some time until the Danish police had to finally expand the perimeter for the crowd. The gray September afternoon provided a somber backdrop for what was soon to become an even more somber evening. After receiving a briefing from the Danish police that the crowd was  not a hostile one, the Ambassador told us that the Danish people were grieving with all of us. I asked him if I could go outside and speak with them, and the Ambassador said that the Public Affairs Officer and I could engage the crowd which we immediately did.

I was not prepared for what I saw. The concrete steps of the main entrance were festooned with bouquets of flowers and lit candles. Framed photographs of the World Trade Center were amidst the flowers. People of every age and persuasion stood vigil, wanting to somehow show their solidarity with those of us who were inside the heavily guarded walls of the Embassy.

I spoke to the first few who immediately grasped my hand and with tears in their eyes said, “Vi er så kede af det” (we’re so sorry for it – the attack). I will never forget their eyes that looked beyond me and directly into my heart. It was all I could do not to break down with my own grief and sadness at what we then knew was an enormous loss of life from three separate attacks.

One woman came up to me and touched me on the shoulder. She was carrying a single flower and a picture of Tower One. I asked her, “Did you lose someone in the attack?” She said, “No.” I then asked her if she had been to the tower. She said, “No, I’ve never been to the United States.” She continued, and said something that probably passed the lips of many foreigners that day in many different languages, “I dag er vi allesammen amerikaner.” Today we’re all Americans.

This was especially poignant for me as earlier that same day, well before the attacks, I spoke at an American Chamber of Commerce breakfast to 40 or 50 representatives of American companies. One of my duties was to pass on to them a Security Alert that the State Department provided to us. It stated there was reason to believe that American companies might be at risk from a security threat. Little did I know at the time that that threat would come true… but in my own country.

The days that followed were a blur as they must have been for everybody around the world. While the rubble has been cleared from ‘Ground Zero’ and the re-building is taking place, the scars we all bear and that tear at us every time we hear 9/11 will never fade away, nor should they. They are a reminder that our world is a fragile and often times confusing place, but one that is still populated by more people of goodwill than those who do not hold human life sacred. Rest in peace, victims of 9/11.

- The Editor

Stephan J. Helgesen



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