(with collaboration from Jennifer Blue)
There was nothing unusual about that morning. I was preparing at home for my class and was running a tad late to get to the Center where my office was located. When I finally got upstairs and entered the reception area, the staff and some of the student workers were watching television. A few of them in unison informed me I had to join them. I barely paid attention, for I was intent on putting the finishing touches on my upcoming lecture and ensuing discussion questions. It was a little after 8:00 on Tuesday, fSeptember 11, 2001. For some reason, I had on the local affiliate of public radio while driving to the university—which was my custom—but I was not listening. It only served as background noise as I reflected on my day’s schedule.
Engrossed over perfecting my lecture notes and refining my presentation, I did not immediately comprehend the horror and gravity of the live coverage. I insisted the staff and students get back to work and disregard whatever current event was capturing their attention. However, the tone of voice of one of the students assigned to me shook and took me away from my routine: she informed me that two planes had plowed into the Twin Towers in New York City and news reporters were speculating that the incidents had the markings of terrorist attacks. I could no longer ignore the matter with that characterization, and with little resistance I, too, became momentarily transfixed by what I was viewing on the screen.
After nearly a half-hour of watching the special report, I decided to return to my office to focus on what was going on—removing myself from the hullabaloo in the reception area. It wasn’t until it was closer to 9:00 than 8:30 that it eventually dawned on me I was uncertain where my eldest sister, J. Vicki Blackwell Ogundipe, worked in Manhattan. She lived in South Orange, NJ, and took a commuter train into the Big Apple; but I had no idea where her place of employment was located.
Consequently, I telephoned my younger brother, Kevin, who had lived in the city for some time in the past and hailed it as the greatest metropolis in the world. Now, in Durham, NC, he was the first person I contacted since he was very familiar with all the landscape and landmarks of the five boroughs as well as the intricacies of the public transportation system there. He informed me that she did not work at the World Trade Center per se, but it was customary for her to have meetings there and to enjoy the quiet before the business day began with a cup of coffee and the Bloomberg Report.
My call prompted him to do his own investigation. By the time I needed to report to class, he had discovered from our older sister, Lydia, that Vicki was speaking to her via payphone when the former abruptly dropped the phone. Vicki had heard a peculiarly loud noise, but was unaware of its cause. In a few minutes, she and many others were confronted by first responders urging them to exit the building. Even though she possessed a cellular phone, Vicki had an aversion to using it. Meanwhile, Lydia was horrified by the sudden disconnection. Knowing she could not reach Vicki through public access, she tried to reach her via cell phone as a last resort from her postmaster’s office . . . to no avail.
I went through the tunnel to my classroom building in a complete daze. People passing by were mere shadows: I could not recognize anyone; and if anyone sought to greet me, I was deaf and unresponsive. I kept rolling over in my mind whether or not she had escaped what I imagined to be an embroiling inferno. The lack of knowledge of her whereabouts was distressing, and it became increasingly scary when repeated attempts to reach her by some of my siblings were unsuccessful. All we could do was commiserate with speculations of Vicki’s whereabouts. Our typical family conversations were remembrances of childhood traumas with our authoritarian, tyrannical, and abusive father. Any pleasure of simple sibling relationships was frequently precluded by the residual effects of adverse childhood experiences.
Vicki was an accomplished individual. She skipped two grades before graduating from high school and entered Barnard College at a young age. Gifted with natural intelligence and patience to study diligently, she majored in Economics and went on to Stanford University, where she earned a master’s in Business Administration. She was absurdly sharp-witted—to an intimidating degree for most, even her siblings—which made many perceive her as aloof, which she was definitely not to her familiars. Like her father, she was captious in her analysis; and she frequently seemed to come at a subject from an unexpected angle. She read quickly and voraciously, and she always amazed others with her breadth of knowledge outside of her business acumen.
On numerous occasions, she would ask me, a former movie buff, whether I had seen a particular film. She knew I had, for it was my wont to go to all opening features during the weekend to de-stress and relax. It never failed that she would know the flick just as or even better than I. After a couple years of this happening to me, I summoned up the nerve to ask her where she found the time to frequent the cinema as much as me. Her reply? She did not go to new movies at all. She would, instead, read at least one critical review and discuss that movie with me with a confidence that often left me nonplussed. Her confession helped me to realize she was not exactly cheating, for I did not get the sense she was passing ideas not of her own making. She had absorbed the material substantively and with alacrity. I attempted to hone that craft in my perusal of books not physically a part of my massive library.
She encouraged me to become an astute user of the Internet and to do fact-checking speedily and effectively. Such came in handy in my administrative and academic endeavors. Even now, though I am retired, I still seek to emulate her research expertise in a variety of pursuits on my bucket list.
Phone lines were out of order or malfunctioning in New York and New Jersey, so much so that none of us siblings was able to reach Vicki in any way. Watching the developments as they transpired on the news kept us individually busy. Not knowing what had happened to her was traumatic for us siblings. We could hardly carry on a conversation when we were on the phone with each other because we had no detailed information to go on. A few of us got intermittently upset because we could not understand why Vicki did not attempt to reach one of us. Needless to say, her being incommunicado deepened our feeling of tragedy—albeit we had no idea of the facts surrounding her perceived reticence. Surely, we thought, she could not know how challenging it was for us to be completely unaware whether or not she had escaped. Unbeknownst to each other, we repeatedly combed the videos and snapshots of the scene in desperate efforts to catch a glimpse of the frame and cadence with which we were well acquainted amid the escaping throngs—perishing any notion that she did not make it out of the mezzanine when the emergency personnel commanded the patrons to depart. To this day, some of us still perform that search as if it were a religious ritual!
While at Barnard, Vicki had purchased a Schwinn 10-speed bicycle. One summer, right before my sophomore year of high school, she entrusted me with the pedaled vehicle. I had never ridden a bicycle before, let alone any knowledge of gear shifts. She tried to give me a quick course on balance, negotiating traffic, tire pressure, and safety measures. I didn’t take it seriously. I vividly recall riding on a four-lane city road and being very nervous. The anxiety became so great, I decided my best bet was to turn around and go back home. Not knowing how to navigate a safe and efficient U-turn, I simply relied on my peripheral vision, did not see any car coming up behind me, and made the 180°—narrowly missing getting run over by a car from opposite directions—their blaring horns not helping to assuage my diffidence.
Years later, with her MBA degree in tow, Vicki returned to the borough of Manhattan, where she worked as a financial analyst and CFO, and last worked at the NY State Insurance Department—located on Beaver Street, a good 10-15-minute walk from Ground Zero on that fateful day in September 2001. Her financial success was the rage of my parents: they longed to hear from her via telephone and to see her whenever she would make a rare visit by commuter train.
On December 24, 1977, my grounded younger brother, relegated primarily to his bedroom, elected, in the spirit of the Christmas season, to ask our father for a gift: a reprieve from punishment. I suggested to him that, knowing our controlling and repressive dad, he should realize his request would be greeted with a peremptory negative. When the rejection came, Kevin sought to persist. My father’s anger was palpable. In the living room, I had just finished speaking with my two younger sisters, both eight, about the importance of standing for justice, fairness, and truth no matter the consequences. The dynamic between our father and brother was an appropriate object lesson. As my brother left rejected from our parents’ bedroom, I shouted an “I told you so” from my living-room berth, and my father overheard the disdain in my voice. Before I had the chance to anticipate anything, he rushed to where I was and confronted me with a sarcasm and bait that made very real the practicable nature of my moral instruction to the girls.
In a matter of a few minutes, I stood to face my father on equal footing, whereupon he sucker-punched me and sought to wrestle me to the ground. The Christmas tree came crashing down upon us as my frightened sisters ran out of the room. My dad put me in a neck hold in an attempt to break my back, and I strained myself to pull away and run out of the living room, down the hall to the kitchen toward the side door exit. My feet felt like bricks in cement with every step. When I finally made it to the egress, the screen door was locked, and my fumbling fingers could not release it as my enraged father quickly approached me from behind. I was able to maneuver the kitchen table in between us, and in his frustration, my father rifled through the silverware drawer and grabbed a sharp knife. As he thrusted the knife across the table to stab me, my mother came stealthily in the kitchen and unlocked the screen door—allowing me barely to escape from the homicidal maniac into the bitter cold without a sweater or a winter coat. I ran up the avenue and then a few more blocks to the Howard Johnson’s hotel and restaurant, where there was a conveniently located phone booth. I called Lydia, now living a few miles away in a suburb of New Haven, to tell her the tragic news when my mother drove by with the two girls, Kevin, and some of his belongings in tow. My back and neck were throbbing; but we made it safely to Lydia’s apartment where Kevin and I stayed for a few days.
Eventually, Lydia reached Vicki to inform her of the latest familial development. And it was almost as if Vicki had already thought of a solution to a problem of what would be the new living arrangements for Kevin and me before the day’s circumstances were yet revealed to her. She would help me get permission to return early to the Wesleyan campus, where I was a student, over the remaining winter break, and orchestrate the paperwork needed to obtain admission for Kevin into the five-year engineering program at her alma mater at the precious age of fifteen! Success! Returning home for Kevin and me—both personae non gratae to our father—was no longer plausible.
A risk-management specialist, Vicki was more of a problem-solver than she was a compassionate soul, or so it seemed. She appeared more at ease in making pedantic, nit-picking, and pettifogging remarks that sensitive individuals could scarcely handle, than offering encouragement and positive statements about possibilities. However, one thing was clear: she cared deeply enough to do what it took to make opportunities a reality and to set a person on the path to potential success depending on one’s ability to receive her baton and run vigorously after the prize, the finish line.
On Memorial Day, in 1996, our mother had reached the end of her race. Over the years, the abuse of her significant other forced her into an agreeable submission that made their seven children cringe in perpetuity. In the spring of 1992, the first day of her husband’s retirement—a day that our mother dreaded—she had a heart attack; for the next four years, she had other heart problems, breast cancer, and probably most importantly, emergent severe complications from her insufficiently monitored Type II diabetes. Her left leg was amputated twice: once below the knee, and then above the knee; a year-and-a-half later, her right leg was amputated above the knee. Her skin was darkening from chemotherapy, her nerves were shot, and she became enormously dependent on the man who had continually threatened her with verbal and physical violence, prohibited her from pursuing a career as a registered nurse, and generally treated her as inferior.
It had come as a surprise to us siblings that Vicki would ever settle down with a man. In 1980, working in New York, she met a Nigerian, Oladele Ogundipe. Within a year, they were married, much to everyone’s surprise. He seemed a very quiet, yet determined, individual with an entrepreneurial spirit. His dream was to help West Africans enter into the rapidly advancing technological age. To do so meant that the couple would ultimately have to live overseas. For a few years, they called Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and England home. Despite their exciting and experimental traveling, they finally settled in South Orange, New Jersey. Its relative proximity to New York City made it convenient for business, entertainment, and adventure.
With the death of our mother, Vicki, who was evidently our father’s favorite progeny, took charge. She paid my way from Iowa to Connecticut and put me up in a hotel, and fixed me up with a limousine service to get around. In a way, she inculcated us into assuming that if any of us had a financial need, she could and would provide the relief. And it did not alter that perception after she gave birth to her two sons. She did not complain about the giving away of money; rather, she appeared increasingly incredulous over our inability to make do for ourselves. On more than one occasion, she had encouraged me to make as much money as I could before the age of forty, so that I would have the freedom to pursue my genuine ambitions and leisure activities. Regrettably, I did not take her advice. She admired my social activism, but cautioned me about the slowness of structural and environmental change. She was well-off, but she seemed always to regard her financial stability and solvency as a vehicle to attaining what she wanted for herself and her familiars.
But the year 1996 was merely the beginning! Our maternal grandfather had passed away in 1979, and his wife, our grandmother, briefly lived at our parents’ house in Stratford before being moved into a nursing home in Bridgeport because my father did not appreciate her being in the house. Our mother was their only child, and it is understandable why our grandmother wanted to be close to her posterity. When our mother died, our grandmother became despondent and forlorn. She died a year later, content with joining her beloved husband and her beautiful daughter. Later that year, Dele contracted some unidentifiable parasitic virus that invaded his stomach. No physician or surgeon Vicki and he visited around the world, including in the United States, was able to ascertain the exact cause, diagnosis, or prognosis of his illness. He deteriorated rapidly and passed away in 1998.
Vicki pressed on, seeking to provide a nurturing home for her two sons despite their grief. Needless to say, her financial well-being did not mitigate the burden of raising two boys in a society that did not value the humanity of black males. After seeing them off to school, she would catch the PATH train to the stop at the World Trade Center. She’d go up to the mezzanine level to wake up fully and to mollify the stress that the workaday world inevitably elicit. When she had the time, she would catch up with some people, including Lydia, and check out the latest news in print or on television.
The cause of the thunderous noise at 8:46 a.m. was not immediately determinable. Vicki had come up from the PATH and gone above the lobby to the mezzanine level to psych herself up for a day of work. She called to chat with Lydia, but it did not last long. From her position, she could not tell where the noise emanated and, at the moment, Lydia had not seen the developing story on the television. There have been discrepancies regarding advice given by first responders: some were told to stay where they were; others were encouraged to go to lower levels, but not to exit the building; and still others were told to leave immediately. Vicki, often high-strung and ready for action, did not second-guess that police and security guard. She ran down the stairs, stumbling, but not falling, over shoes people dislodged as they sought to depart as quickly as possible.
Once out of the South Tower, she was able to see the outline of the jet that had plowed into the North Tower. At first, those in the same position as she was were told to head north. However, the falling debris from the jet-propelled damage suggested that heading southward was the better choice. And so they did. Vicki headed towards the state insurance department in the financial district where she worked and experienced the impact of the plane on the South Tower. The crash made it presumptively clear that these collisions were not accidental, but deliberate. Vicki did not know what to think, but she could not help but to reflect upon the terrorist bombing of the WTC back in 1993. Surely, this had to be orchestrated by a group, she surmised. In other words, she felt the United States was at war—meaning she was on the battlefield without a military-grade weapon to fight back.
There was a strange camaraderie of coworkers and others huddled together. On the contrary, when the South Tower collapsed, the smoke and debris spread throughout the financial district, and the department personnel soon felt trapped and unable to figure out what the next steps should be. Their freethinking and attempt at logic became meaningless when thirty minutes later the North Tower fell and the thickness of the smoke, fumes, and multifarious particles forced them to leave the precarious confines of their building in order to try to save their nasal passages and lungs. For many, the best bet seemed to try to make it out of New York City and one of the salient options was to board a Staten Island ferry and depart the rottenness of Manhattan.
The thousands of people with the same conclusion made the egress on the Hudson jampacked. The normal capacity of rush hour traffic between New Jersey and New York City was insufficient to transport the quizzical an frightened souls in the midst of what seemed to be the Armageddon of guerilla warfare. Many sailors with smaller vessels heroically came to the rescue while they also seized the opportunity to make some extra cash.
In different parts of the country, we siblings looked feverishly for any signs of Vicki. Deep down, we each felt it was a wild goose chase, so to speak, for there were many interviewed by reporters who were not even in the WTC complex who were suffering from the poisonously polluted air. How could we believe that Vicki had made it out when people who were not within the facilities were themselves in terrible shape? We hoped for the best, but steeled ourselves for the worse.
I could not keep the class for the entire period, for I thought it was unfair to keep them so confined while America was under siege. Immediately, it reminded me of the time when I was eight years old and in the third grade on November 22, 1963. It was decided fairly quickly that the best bet for the students was to send them home to the comfort of their families since such a unique situation seemed to require group commiseration. This experience led me to suspend the class session and to continue my own efforts to learn Vicki’s whereabouts.
Just looking at the clouds of dust, metals, and gas filling block after block in all directions ed us to believe that the air was dangerously toxic. We were certain that Vicki’s already weakened physical condition battling the effects of cancer could only deteriorate further through the intake of the multidimensional fumes. If she made it out of the WTC, who could suggest that she would be fine in the pestilential atmosphere?
We hunkered down for a long day that stretched into the evening, night, and morning. We were informed of the problems with the cell phones that extended in some parts to landlines and other types of communications. The agony of another loss swept over all of us. We began to broach the subject of funeral arrangements and interment sites—despite our hope that to do so was premature and false.
Eventually, by mid-morning on September 12, there was light at the end of the tunnel for me in particular. I discovered then that contact had been made late the previous night with Vicki by my other sisters. Now, she was at home recuperating. She had just made it there after miles of walking, hitch-hiking, and disbelieving—her braided hair still covered in the unsanitary, debris-filled ash. All she wanted to do was put behind her the awful tragedy and to make some lifestyle changes that would enhance her safety protocols. She developed an antipathy for elevators, escalators, tall buildings, subways—you name it!—for the level of her anxieties and fears rose exponentially as she bravely struggled with a post-traumatic stress disorder.
She did not trust the government for some time. She always questioned the hatred and jealousy of other nations, while also realizing the arrogance of our superpower status, our imperialism, our exploitation of so-called Third World countries, and our racial and sexual oppression here at home. She felt going into Afghanistan would have no constructive purpose and would simply cost the unnecessary loss of more lives. She recognized the fallacies involved in the decision to go to Iraq, a country that was not directly tied to the disasters of 9/11. The widening gap in income inequality on the domestic front was more important to her than the establishment of another campaign against “axes of evil.” She was all too familiar with the lack of access to quality health care for those struggling on the economic ladder—so much so that she supported a single-payer plan during the election cycle of 2007-2008, and expressed disappointment over Pres. Barack Obama’s reneging on universal health care in favor of the lesser affordable care program.
After 9/11, Vicki became more involved in spearheading sibling reunions in the summers and learning more about our genealogical charts. She began to intersperse her cool language with pious greetings, sendoffs, and cliches—“God bless,” “Peace,” “Glory to God,” and so forth—that her sisters and brothers were surprised to read and hear. Before our eyes, she was changing—all reflective of her perceptions of evils derivative of the 9/11 attacks and the unclear role the United States played in forging freedom and democracy around the globe.
Her transformation was noticeable, despite the fact we would catch glimpses of her old critical bent and her incredulity over her siblings’ inability to make adequate livings for themselves. She failed to realize that her level of determination was greater than most and that her preparation afforded her the opportunities that many others did not have. Her ostensible obliviousness to the plights of others she’d deemed capable of equalizing her achievements was nevertheless mutating to a less acerbic edge in her voice. Her generosity to family and friends scarcely wavered, albeit she became more selective of who would be the beneficiaries of her largess.
As time marched on past the devastation of that September morning, she longed to commemorate that day in special ways. However, she, like some family members who had intermittent battles with cancer, she experienced the emotional ups-and-downs with moving from remission to return. During the late winter and early spring of 2011, it seems, in retrospect, that she had travailed against and despite the odds to be present at successive remembrance anniversaries. With the passage of time, she had enough. Constructive change in our society continued to be elusive, and her return to health was likewise evasive. Her zest for life waxed and waned. Even though her body was declining, speculatively in part because of the infestation the inhalation of noxious fumes during 9/11 eviscerated in her, she was intent on being present at ground zero for the tenth anniversary that year.
She spoke unrealistically of trips she would make that summer and of our sibling reunion in the park before the season’s demise. She turned fifty-nine on April 15, a bittersweet occasion indeed. A few days later, after the birthday of my older sister and seven days prior to the birthday of my older brother, Eric, Vicki succumbed to cancer. Her dream of scaling the mountain of deliverance momentarily struck me as God denying Moses of the latter’s entrance to the promised land and of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, which seemed to be a premonition of his being struck down by an assassin’s bullet in less than twenty-four hours. Vicki was unable to bear witness to her making it out of the WTC to live another day on the tenth commemoration of the tragedy; however, nobody who knew her could ignore the fact that the event had profoundly affected her every living thought and action.
Our father, by then only a shadow of himself, met the Grim Reaper the following year. There were many things he had not divulged to his children about his declining health; but it was clear that he mourned the death of his firstborn in a way that forced him to face his own demons, so to speak. As he neared the end of his life, he, too, began to pepper his conversation with religious imagery—something that was completely absent during most of our association with him. As far as we knew, he had never become a member of a congregation during his adult life. Perhaps, his newfound appreciation for the spiritual was of a compensatory nature, although each moment struck a strange chord within us children.
What follows is an email Vicki had sent to a friend that she forwarded to me to enlighten us siblings about what happened on that fateful day when terrorists attacked us here at home.
This is what I wrote to a friend with whom I attended college and worked. It was what my fingers could quickly type. At some point, when I can, I will ponder that day and its meaning and write something that hopefully would go beyond a mere recount of that horrific act.
Again, thanks for your prayers and concern. God bless.
I was coming into the WTC on the PATH as I usually do since I moved back to my house in South Orange. I was looking for a magazine in the lower level. I went up the escalator and heard the policeman yelling to get out of the building. I ran over abandoned shoes and ran as fast as I could. I exited the building to hear someone say that a jet had hit the tower. I turned around and saw the crater in the building, which was on fire and smoking. It was terrible. The policeman outside said to go north. I started north, but feared that the building would fall like a giant tree. God told me south, and I started to run south and just before I got to my office building, the second plane hit the second tower. However, I thought I was hearing a bomb or that the first tower had indeed fallen.
When the second hit tower fell, our building shook and we were evacuated into the dark soot and ash. We couldn’t breathe or see well and went back into the building that we just evacuated. We were strategizing as if we really could and left the building after the soot had settled somewhat. We were going towards the water. Well, after we left the building and were on our way, the second building crumbled and then, we were being pursued by a cloud of furious smoke. We ran and ran and ran to the Staten Island ferry terminal, boarded the boat and got safely to Staten Island. I had been running al morning. I managed to hitchhike across the bridge to NJ after taking a taxi with six other people to Outerbridge Crossing near Perth Amboy, NJ. A policeman picked us up to take three of us to the NJ side, where I called friends to pick me up. They took me back to their place in central NJ. I got home on Wednesday at 11:30 AM and went to church at noon to thank God.
Anyway, through the wonderful mercy of the almighty Lord, I was delivered from the clutches of evil. Alleluia. Thank You, Lord.
Thanks for your concern and prayers because I was indeed in the midst of a horror and was protected by HIM.
On March 19, 2003, I completed what I called “A Litany Against the War.” That night, we all learned of the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. armed forces: a preemptive strike, a “decapitation” air exercise against a location where it was believed that Saddam Hussein and some of his entourage was assembled in Baghdad. The litany was printed in the local newspaper, and I was almost instantly asked to recite it across the state at protest rallies. After each reason given, I concluded with “I am opposed to this war.” One of the lines reads: “As my sister was in the World Trade Center when the first plane struck, I am opposed to this war.”
I had included that line because I still was profoundly affected by that terrible twenty-four hours of not knowing whether our eldest sibling was dead or alive. I felt she deserved mention, despite the fact that she had survived, while three thousand had died. For the most part, I had muted that reality for I believed it was insensitive to share when so many had suffered loss. In a way though, from my current vantage point, I felt I suffered loss initially, but definitely conclude that ten years later, my sister had to some degree acquiesced to the poisoning of her lungs and body by the lethal, pernicious fumes. Her story has the right to be told.
It was bittersweet, after Vicki was laid to rest, to learn of the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Whereas I cannot comment with any certainty upon a hypothesis contrary to the facts, I feel certain the U.S. intelligence operation that successfully ended in the violent showdown would not have pleased our eldest sibling. Although not an avowed nonviolence advocate or antiwar activist, she had attenuated to me often enough her agreement that violence begets violence. Nevertheless, we siblings are ever so grateful for the nine-and-a-half years we had with Vicki ensuing that horrible tragedy on September 11, 2001. Twenty years subsequent to that fateful debacle, we still scream with excitement, “She made it out!”