“Has it really been nine years?” Millions of people will express some form of that sentiment today. They will shake their heads and stare off into space. Nine years is a long time, enough to accept most things that happen. But because so many of us still can’t believe it, still can’t fathom the deaths of so many that occurred at the hands of so few, the idea that nearly a decade has passed seems equally hard to comprehend.
Nearly two thousand years ago, on another beautiful late summer day, rock and ash and searing heat fell from the sky between Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples. Within a few hours, several thousand people were either vaporized where they stood or buried where they dropped. This past March, our family visited Pompeii for the second time, and the nearby town of Herculaneum for the first. Both were destroyed by the volcano’s eruption in 79 AD. Walking through the streets and what remains of the homes and businesses of the two ancient towns, I was overcome mostly by the stillness. Both sites are in the middle of modern cities, so in order to get to them you have to make your way through traffic and pedestrians, past shops and restaurants, bombarded by the noise and color and motion of daily life. And then you’re met by gray stone and silence, and scattered signs of excavation.
Homes, stores, places of worship, streets, athletic fields, bakeries, public baths, and even fast food establishments are there, wide open and lifeless. Many of the walls and roofs are gone, so walking the streets is like strolling through a cut-away diagram. And for me, there was an odd mixture of emotions, as though I were paying my respects and feeling guilty about it at the same time. People lived in this place, conducted business here, raised families. I felt as though we were trespassing, invading their privacy, pawing through their graves. I could imagine the residents of both Herculaneum and Pompeii rushing in and out of these buildings, standing where we stood, talking, laughing, running errands, yelling to one another. And then, in the middle of an otherwise normal day, the mountain exploded, sending a cloud of dust, rock, ash, and hot gases several miles into the sky. Many of the inhabitants followed their instincts and fled to safety. Others stayed indoors. And some chose to gather outside in groups. Those decisions, made in minutes, were the difference between life and death. When the cloud of debris began to collapse, the cities themselves endured withering heat and an onslaught of falling stones and a tidal wave of mud. Over the course of a few days they were covered, silenced, and forgotten for sixteen hundred years. The only account we have of the catastrophe was written by a man named Pliny the Younger. Those few pages, and the quick and massive burial, preserved the memory of these places and the people who once lived there.
Before the eruption, Herculaneum had been on the shore. In fact, dozens of people died cowering in the boathouse near the outer walls. The boiling mud that overwhelmed the city also pushed back the water, so that now Herculaneum is a mile
from the bay.
When construction of the World Trade Center complex was begun in the mid-1960s, earth and rock excavated from the site were used to fill in the adjacent land along the Hudson River, where Battery Park City now stands. In effect, the river was pushed back by the buildings’ creation.
On September 11, 2001, men and women went to work in the Pentagon, just outside of Washington, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Without warning, airplanes struck all three buildings, incinerating anyone within range. The resulting fire and falling debris caused people to seek safety in one of several ways. Many fled. Others stayed indoors, either because they couldn’t get out or because they thought it unwise. A few, faced with the intense heat, jumped from windows
to the concrete far below.
Unlike the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried and forgotten save for one lone witness, New York and Washington were headline news around the world. Minute by minute reports seized the attention of people everywhere, and the event became the most thoroughly covered news story in history.
The people of Pompeii and Herculaneum probably considered the eruption to be a punishment sent by the gods. But the death and destruction caused by the volcano were the result of a natural event, impossible to predict or delay. The image of terrified people, their brains bubbling inside their skulls, or buried under the ash and dust of collapsing roofs, is horrible to contemplate. Some historians believe the very concept of Hell came from the smoking lands around Vesuvius.
On September 11, the terrorists carried out their attacks as part of a perceived obligation to God, as well as the pursuit of eternal reward in Heaven. The human suffering and destruction caused by those acts were part of unnatural events, the result of irrational decisions that could have easily been reversed. Which is why the image of terrified people trapped inside four hijacked planes or those burning buildings, killed by heat or fumes or buried under the ash and dust of collapsing roofs, is all the more unbearable.
Even now, after nine years, it’s still beyond our comprehension.