Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Remembrance of 9/11 and of Rene Davila

I know everyone has crystal clear vivid memories of exactly what they were doing on 9/11, as if they experienced it yesterday. Here is my story.

Seven years ago today, three of us had just finished a bike ride in Tuscany. We were scouting a new ride and writing the route notes for a bike tour that was scheduled to start the next day. I was a guide on the tour, and the other two were "clients" who paid half price if they helped out on the tour (carrying luggage, etc) as it was a fairly large sized group of 21 guests. One was my boyfriend Jeff (his first time in Europe) and the other was Eric, an architect from Vail who was good friends with Bill, the owner of the company. (This was a few years before I started my own bicycle tour company). Bill and his wife Barb were out scouting a different route that day.

Our ride was fantastic, meandering over rolling hills through olive groves, wineries and into several quintessentially Tuscan villages, and the weather couldn't have been nicer. Towards the finish of the ride, we stopped at a little bar to celebrate with some beers, in the little town near the B&B where we were staying. We later figured the first plane hit the tower just as we were toasting a wonderful week of cycling.

The actual road to the agriturismo (an Italian farm stay) was a rough dirt road so we had to walk the 1/2 mile to the inn. We weren't very far when Roberto, the owner of the inn, drove up behind us in his little Fiat, honking wildly and waving his arm out the window. "Wonder what's up?" we thought. He stopped, frantically repeating "Il torre sorrelli, il torre sorrelli," and I think I heard the word aeroplano. With my limited Italian, I knew sorrelli meant sister and torre meant tower...but none of this made sense. Roberto does speak a little English, but when one is agitated, it's hard to speak another language.

Jeff and Eric took my bike to walk it the rest of the way and suggested I go in the car with Roberto. Once there, we ran into the kitchen, and there crowded around the only television in the house (a very small TV at that) were 4 of the other guests and Marie-Sylvie, Roberto's wife. All had tears in their eyes and hands over their mouths as they watched in horror. A few minutes later, Jeff and Eric joined us and we watched as the second plane flew into the second tower. I remember our screams of disbelief as we watched the first tower crumble to the ground.

We were watching CNN but in Italian. It was a very surreal experience because we were trying to get them to translate, but their broken English and emotions hindered their ability to do so. I imagine there wasn't much explanation for the Americans who watched it live on TV back home as well, at least until well after the event. 

This was the kind of agriturismo where you eat dinner with the family, and Marie-Sylvie was in the middle of her preparations when everything started. At some point they had to shuttle us out of the kitchen so she could complete the meal. 

Dinner was sullen. We were all seated at a long table, with Roberto at one end and his wife at the other end. There were two other Americans staying there, and a Belgian and Dutch couple, and our group numbered five. We all offered our prayers and thoughts, but mostly dinner was silent. That night we didn't get much sleep. Jeff and I had actually placed an offer on a townhouse that was accepted after we had departed for Italy. Now we worried (like many Americans) that the economy would fall apart and wondered how we could manage the payments on a new home. (Thankfully that didn't turn out to be a problem).

Our tour? Well, every one of the clients had arrived a day early to enjoy Florence prior to the start of the tour, so there was no other choice but to continue as planned. We picked up our 21 guests on September 12th, and went to our first luxury hotel of the tour, a renovated castle in the heart of Chianti. Many in the group had children at home, so you can imagine their anxiety. But no one was going anywhere for awhile, since all flights to the US were cancelled, so we all agreed at that first dinner together that we had no choice but to enjoy the week and to make the most of it.

I must say that it turned into a fabulous and memorable week, not just the riding, the meals and the accommodation, but everywhere we went, when anyone found out we were American, there was an incredible outpouring of support and love. One hotel put a hand written note from the director of the hotel on every pillow, sharing his concern, and offering any help should it be needed. Storefronts posted signs saying, "To our American friends, our hearts go out to you." We got gentle pats on the back and sincere smiles of acknowledgment from waiters in restaurants. Some people asked us, often with teary eyes, if we knew anyone in New York who might have been there. 

Following the tour, everyone was thankfully able to take their scheduled flights back to the US. Jeff and I had 4 days together where we had planned to explore the region on our own before he had to fly back to work. I was scheduled to go on to Provence to lead a second tour with Bill and Barb. 

Jeff and I were able to get a room in a luxury boutique hotel that had previously been completely booked by a group of Americans that couldn't make it, at less than half price. I had been secretly hoping that he would use this time to propose to me...but under the circumstances it didn't seem like the right moment (he later told me). That day would arrive about 5 months later, after we had settled into our new home.

As I'm sure you all feel about your memories, this day will live vividly in my memory for the rest of my life. My second deepest regret and sorrow, aside from the horrific loss of life and pain that the families of the victims experience to this day, is the loss of respect and good will that our country has caused over the past 7 years through our military actions and snubbing of the international global community. We had an amazing opportunity to collaborate with our allies who truly felt sympathy for our nation and wanted to help us; but our government squandered it. I have returned to Europe almost every year since then, and have seen a growing doubt, concern and even disdain towards the US. NOT towards the American people, mind you - Italians and French still really do sincerely like Americans. But towards our government and its policies and its unilateral actions.

This is my dream and my prayer, that the next administration can work on healing these international wounds and stop acting like a tough playground bully, while also working to heal our own deep wounds as a nation, and take care of the policemen, firemen and other individuals who were the first to respond at this tragedy. Sadly, we have not.

LT Rene Davila was a NYFD medic who was a first responder at ground zero, and was an avid Spinning instructor, and very good friend of Johnny G. I remember his smiling face, infectious laughter and loving demeanor from many WSSCs, and enjoyed his company at a group dinner in NY a few years ago following ECANY. You can only imagine the horrors he saw and experienced on that morning seven years ago, and it continued to fester inside him. Rene suffered from PTSD and his happy demeanor was rarely seen the past two years, his depression had become so intense. 

Rene passed away this past March. His mental and physical health deteriorated over the past few years, and he was unable to work, yet he received very little care or support from the US government. His finances and his life crumbled around him. According to a post on by an instructor who knew him, "...Rene was just as heroic as any Army/Police/Fireman who died in the line of duty. ... Every one of us should be ashamed of how he was treated by the very citizens he heroically served. We all need to listen carefully to politicians bellowing 'support the troops' rhetoric and hold them accountable."


Rene, today I am thinking of your smiling face on that Spinner bike!

Here is the farm-house agriturismo where we experienced 9/11. I will never forget their hospitality.

1 comment:

Kyra said...

My experience on 9-11 has many similarities to your story. I was in Ecuador on a college program. I had only been there a month so my Spanish wasn't great. The college that ran the program brought all the Americans together to watch CNN. It was so frustrating not understanding what was going on in my home city.
There was so much fear but he Ecuadorians were kind--everyone reached out. An old Quechuan homeless man told me he was sorry later that week.
I live in Brooklyn now. I watched the towers of light all last week and remembered how far away i was. So sad to hear about Rene..I know many people in NYC that are still struggling.