On the Spot on 9/11

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An account by Varsabhanavi dasi on October 28, 2001, in Visalia, California.

Giriraj Swami: Varsabhanavi dasi works for Merrill Lynch in Johannesburg, and her company offered her a course in New York City to help her develop her skills as a financial analyst. The Merrill Lynch building is just across the street from the World Trade Center, and she was there when the attack on 9/11 took place. She witnessed the terror. And it is not just the people who were injured or killed and their families and friends who were affected; even the people who were just there and saw it were affected profoundly. So we shall ask her to share her experiences and realizations.

Varsabhanavi dasi: Just before the incident took place, there were police sirens unrelated to the attack. We were in the auditorium and the lecturer was speaking. I looked at my watch; it was 8:50 a.m. Within seconds, we all heard a huge bang and the building we were in shook, literally shook. At that stage I was thinking that it was an earthquake—something like that. Then the lecturer mentioned that it felt and sounded like the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. We were stunned, but we still didn’t know what was happening.

Then a few of our tutors ran into the auditorium and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We all thought it was an accident. We didn’t consider that it could have been a terrorist attack. So we went to the next classroom and looked out the window. We could see the World Trade Center—flames were coming out of the building. The airplane was actually in the building, and it was just horrific. Some of my colleagues were hysterical; many were crying. I was just shocked, stunned. Flames were coming out of the building, and I was thinking, “There are so many people suffering in there.” A year ago I had an accident: my feet were burned when hot oil fell onto them, and it was extremely painful. So I could only imagine what they were going through in the building.

Then we saw people jumping out of the building. I remember one person in particular. He wore pants and a shirt and tie, and his tie was flapping. It was really horrible. Some of those who had jumped seemed to be trying to stay afloat; they were flapping their arms. I was thinking, “Oh, Krishna, please help them.” We were witnessing this whole incident, but we were completely helpless. We couldn’t help them or do anything. So I was praying, “Please help them, Krishna.”

About fifteen minutes later, I saw the second airplane, and it was so deliberate. I was thinking that this was evil. The second airplane flew around the corner and just crashed right into the second building. Everyone screamed. Until then, everybody thought it was an accident, but when the second airplane came, we realized, “This is no accident.” We were next to the building, and we were high up, and I was thinking that I could die at any moment. There could be more planes. “I must start chanting,” I thought. “Now is the time; now is the test.” But I couldn’t chant. I was numb. I walked up and down the lecture room thinking that I had to chant, but I couldn’t.

There was one colleague of mine, Patrick, from Brazil. He was sitting down and praying. I really admired him. He had his hand on the table and his head on his hand and he was saying prayers. And I was thinking that it didn’t matter whether he was a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian or whatever; he was praying.

Then the building supervisor came up and told us, “I don’t know what is happening, but you’re not safe up here. Better come down.” We were on the twenty-second floor. Everybody, although they were in shock, was very orderly; no one panicked. Everyone kept their cool, and we all walked down the stairs.

When we got down to the ground floor there were people all around. Outside there were huge crowds everywhere, and police vehicles, ambulances, and fire engines. When I think about it now, those first fire engines—all those firemen died. It was chaos. I was thinking, “Better just stay inside, and if I’m going to leave my body, I’ll just stay here and chant the holy names.” Then I thought of my parents. I phoned my brother and told him what had happened and that I was safe, I was okay, and not to worry about me.

Everyone was dumbfounded and aimless. So, I took my chanting beads and sat on the floor and just chanted. It felt good. One of my colleagues came up to me and said, “It’s really not safe here. We should get out immediately.” He took me out—I was going to stay put and just chant there—and outside was complete chaos. The buildings were in flames, police vehicles coming and going, people just . . . I couldn’t comprehend the disaster. I can still recall the mood of New York before the incident—it was vibrant, happy, and jolly. The entire mood had reversed. Anyway, we walked down the street, away from the disaster, and hoards of people were following.

About five minutes later, one of the towers came crashing down. There was smoke everywhere. We had just missed it. And I was thinking that Krishna had worked through my colleague to get me out of that building. As we were walking down, I didn’t chant verbally, but I was trying to think of Krishna—to some extent. We walked about forty blocks. Most of the people walking with us were very orderly. Almost nobody spoke. Everyone was silent.

When we arrived at our hotel, we sat in the bar inside the entrance. There was a television, and we watched. We still didn’t really know what had happened or who had done it. On the television we heard that the Pentagon had also been hit. Everyone was stunned. Many of the people in the bar were taking shelter of alcohol.

About fifteen minutes later, a person who worked for Morgan Stanley in the South Tower arrived—he had been on the sixty-third floor and had managed to escape. He was shaking all over. He said, “I was there. I was right in the building,” and he told us his story. When the first tower was hit, most of the people in the South Tower started evacuating, but there was a message on the intercom that they should return to their desks. He said that there was no way he was going to stay; something inside him had told him to keep on going. When he was walking down the staircase, he saw a fat lady who was having a heart attack. Another lady was pregnant. I felt very upset and asked him what had happened to them. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just kept on going. Something inside said, ‘Keep on going.’ I don’t know if they made it or not.”

New York after that was just not the same. The whole vibrant mood was lost. One or two days after the terrorist attack, there were many bomb threats. I don’t know who it was—whether it was the same organization or someone else. We were staying in mid-Manhattan. One night, at 10:30—I was taking rest—I was awakened by the hotel alarm. The hotel people told us to evacuate. For me it was the last straw. I was thinking, “What more? This is too much.” It was very intense. I was in my nightwear, and we had to walk down the stairs and outside. We were just walking and walking. I felt so alone, really alone. I had only my beads, and I was chanting. I was just chanting and crying. I was thinking, “It’s just Krishna. It’s just Krishna there.” Srila Prabhupada used to say that you should chant as though you’re a helpless child. It was the first time I experienced that. I had only the holy names. I didn’t even have proper clothing; I didn’t have anything—just my japa beads and the holy names. So, everyone was outside, walking, and many were crying. It was just too much for people to handle.

I also had nightmares about the incident. In one week I had three nightmares. But one, in retrospect, taught me something. I don’t know where I was, but there was a creature coming toward me trying to kill me. I was trying to defend myself, as Draupadi initially did. I was throwing objects at it, but that didn’t work. The creature was coming toward me stronger and stronger. Then I stopped throwing things at it and started screaming, “Krishna! Krishna!” and the creature stopped and laughed. He said, “You do not know Krishna” and walked away. When I turned, I saw my spiritual master standing next to me. Now when I think of it, it’s true: I do not know Krishna. But I have my spiritual master, who knows Srila Prabhupada and Krishna.

I learned a lot from the whole experience—to be more dependent on the Vaisnavas and to take shelter of the holy names. I chant so mechanically. The experience taught me to focus on the holy names and to chant with feeling.

Hare Krishna.

[Adapted by Giriraj Swami for his forthcoming book on death and dying]

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