Editor's notebook

Editor's notebook McGill University

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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Home > McGill News > 2002 > Fall 2002 > Editor's notebook

Editor's notebook

Our cover story on the McGill Archives is interesting for the reminder it gives of what we like to know of the past. The "big" history, involving dates, royal charters and James McGill's legacy, is absorbing, of course. But what really fascinates us is the material that tells what it was like to be at McGill in a particular era -- to know how people ate, dressed, spent time outside the classroom. Our curiosity transforms mundane documents like a student's letter home, library cards, invitations, course records and yearbook photos into rich and revealing treasures.

That wish to share human experience became something of an imperative on September 11. In a Montreal Gazette column on the anniversary of the attacks, Donna Nebenzahl, BA'75, referred to our "urgent need to know what happened, every last bit of it," allowing us to "travel mentally into the experience." And certainly we were able to do that to a devastating extent a year ago, even eavesdropping on phone conversations between those doomed souls trapped in the World Trade Center and their helpless loved ones.

Alumni in New York also wanted to share what they had witnessed, and the publication of some of their photos in our Spring issue prompted a letter from Peter Klein. He sent a clipping from the New York Times which described the escape of his wife, Melody Belkin, BA'91, and their two young children from the area around Ground Zero.

At the time the first plane hit, Ms. Belkin was in her car under New York harbour with Noah, 4, and Ava, 22 months. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel would bring her out all too close to the World Trade Center. Ambulances and rescue vehicles were already rushing past her. The speed, noise and flashing lights in the tunnel caused Noah to vomit. It was a situation she had to deal with quickly because the child breathed through a tube in his trachea, and the tube had to be kept clear and clean. His mother always travelled with a portable vacuum pump and canned formula because Noah took nourishment through a feeding tube.

Reaching the mouth of the tunnel, Ms. Belkin abandoned her car, grabbed all Noah's gear, and struggled off, carrying her son and pushing his sister in a stroller. Suddenly one tower fell and the smoky air turned to choking clouds of dust.

Over the course of the day, "a wave of strangers" helped the young woman and her children survive. One offered her sanctuary in his truck, another literally gave her the shirt off his back for protection from the dust, restaurant workers offered food and comfort, a man with a cell phone got a message to Ms. Belkin's mother in Vancouver, and a park ranger escorted the trio onto a New Jersey-bound ferry. Once there, emergency medical technicians checked on Noah, and when Ms. Belkin realized she'd left her purse and the children's stroller somewhere across the river, someone nearby peeled off five $20 bills and handed them to her.

A desperately anxious Peter Klein finally learned that his family had survived, thanks to a call from a social worker at the Jersey City Medical Center, and he rushed to bring them home. Within a few days, a scrubbed-clean stroller and Ms. Belkin's purse were returned. She had pressed on the stroller so hard that she was covered in bruises, and had even bent her wedding ring. The couple marvelled at the kindness of strangers, which so impressed them that they decided to postpone a planned move to Canada. As Ms. Belkin told the reporter, it was "because people in New York had saved my son's life." A year later, says McGill history professor Gil Troy, there are "two Americas."

He described them in a recent Gazette essay: "One very small, very sad, very disrupted America...imprisoned in the pain of September 11, while the rest of America roams free." He sees the return to normalcy as "in many ways, a triumph." But he warns against a return of complacency, lest we again ignore warnings of terrorism.

"Let us hope that we learn the right lessons and live the proper paradox -- we all must proceed with our ordinary lives, remaining committed to our highest ideals, even as good people throughout the world mobilize aggressively against this extraordinary threat."

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