Sept 11, 2011 - My Story as an American Expat in Venezuela
(Scanned front page of "The Daily Journal," Caracas, Sept. 12, 2001. Click to enlarge.)
In September, 2001, Mark and I had lived a little over a year as expatriates in Caracas, Venezuela. Unexpectedly, we had just gotten the marching orders to return to the 'States by the end of September. On September 11, Mark happened to be abroad, in Indiana with family; he had been sight seeing in DC on September 10--the had visited the area near the pentagon just 20 hours before the attacks of 9/11.
The following is my story…
I felt overwhelmed the morning of Tuesday, September 11: I was balancing several things: offloading my old job, onboarding my new job and working the relocation back to the United States. I felt like I was under the gun to finish paperwork for the house we were to buy. I was having problems getting the fax machines to work. The relocation process was so painful and time consuming.
André, a fellow American, poked his head out of his cube and said, “Hey, Matt. Where’s Mark at? He still in DC?”
“No,” I said. “He returned to Indiana yesterday.”
“Well, that’s good,” he replied. “A plane just hit the Pentagon. And another has already hit the World Trade Center.”
What a jerk, I thought. What a sick joke!
I needed to focus. Walking to the fax, I noticed that the HR people who worked next to us were talking low, in groups. Something was weird with the situation. Perhaps it was that they were talking low. I overheard mumblings “un avión…. contra el World Trade Center… si,.. en Neuva York.”
No. It couldn’t be.
I dropped the paperwork on my desk and I walked into André’s cube. He was at his computer and he had a picture of one of the World Trade Center towers spewing forth smoke on CNN.com.
“Yeah, and another airplane hit the other tower and the pentagon!” André said.
I was in shock. I just couldn't believe it.
André told me that there was a television in a conference room on the 5th floor that had live coverage. I wanted to see for myself. We walked upstairs to a fuzzy TV and a mix of a dozen or so Americans and Venezuelans. The coverage was in Spanish but it didn’t take much to understand what was happening. By then, both towers were smoking heavily.
As we watched, the first tower fell to the ground.
“My God. It’s 9:00 am. There’s probably 10,000 people in the office by now,” I said. There was silence in the room.
At some point, André said something on the effect that this is an act of war. That we would declare war on the responsible. Little did he know how true these words would be.
It was gruesome and sad and I was overwhelmed with emotion. I had had enough, for the moment. I was kind of worried and wanted to get to a phone, as I was really worried about Nark and my family who lived in Tampa and Boston.
At some point, we walked back downstairs to our cubes. On the way back to my desk, I had heard a couple of rumors: There were a half dozen more planes in the air, California was the next target, etc. At my computer, I tried to pull up CNN.com. It was slow but brought up the picture. I was thirsty for information. I had to know what was happening.
A MIXTURE OF FEELINGS
Here I was in Latin America, a continent known for its poverty, crime and political disorder. Throughout my time in Venezuela, I was always conscious of this in the back of my mind. I had the strangest feeling right then. For a brief moment, I felt completely safe in the rolling tropical hills of Caracas. Despite the obvious crime of the city, I was hidden from terrorists…
At the same time, I felt so very disconnected. I picked up the office phone and tried to get through to Mark, at his mom’s house in Indiana. To my dismay, there were no available lines at work. My cell phone service didn’t have service, either.
I was beginning to get a bit panicky. I checked my email and attempted to do work. But, even with the paperwork deadline, I tried to work, but I just couldn’t focus. André and I walked back and forth between offices, sharing tidbits of information. Productivity was low. I had gotten email and other messages from coworkers as far away as Poland asking if I was ok and if my family was ok.
LACK OF FOCUS, NEED FOR INFORMATION
At 10am, I decided I needed to leave the office. André invited me to join he and his wife in their apartment which was nearby. I needed to leave. Without consent from my boss, I picked up my laptop, current paperwork, crammed them into my backpack and headed out.
On the way out, before reaching the “bridge” to the other building, I caught glance of my Venezuelan coworkers, in a group. Desiree was in the group smiling. She made some comment to the effect that “the US deserved it.”
I lost it. I had to get out of the office.
I stomped out and sped my tiny Chevy Corsa up the hill to La Lagunita, to Jen and André’s apartment. I knew one thing: I needed to be around Americans.
I tried to call Mark again on my cell phone and I was so happy I got through! I talked with him very briefly and was so happy to know that he and his family was safe in the small town in Connersville, Indiana. I didn’t know what I would have done if I had lost him.
Like most Americans, we were glued to the TV. Fortunately, in Caracas, the DirecTV signal was very reliable. We watched CNN and other US news channels and got the latest news.
At one point, there was a break in the normal pictures of death and desolation. A person from the “Taliban” had a news conference. They claimed to have no part in the plot. Who were the “Taliban?” And why would they be worried about being blamed? I remember the name “Osama Bin Laden” coming up before in the past. The name was being mentioned repeatedly.
Some time during the day, I realized that there were a lot of bad things associated with being in Venezuela during this “time.” Although it wasn’t to clear who had committed these crimes, it was obvious that the Middle East was to blame.
A series of bad thoughts and questions went through my head: Will I ever get home? Will my belongings ever arrive back?
I ate with Jen and André, and, as dark came, I decided to head back to my apartment. They had invited me to take the bed in the spare bedroom, but I wanted to get home, talk to Mark and get some sleep.
At home, I lit three candles: “for the victims,” “for the families,” and the “those who mourn.” I cried, alone, in the candle light.
The next weekend, André, Jenn and I visited the US embassy. Since we couldn't find too many flowers on that particular day, we picked flowers from my apartment complex and from my own planters. Beautiful hibiscus and other flowers. We made a bouquet and left it outside the embassy gates.