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9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

Chrilla Wendt

September 11, 2002

Chrilla Wendt, 64, is a teacher of architecture and archeology at Hamburg Technical University in Germany. On a group vacation in Georgia and Armenia on Sept. 11, she watched the events unfold on satellite television from her hotel in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Four days later, Wendt discovered that the suicide pilot who flew the first jetliner into the World Trade Center was Mohamed Atta, the graduate student she had worked with hour upon hour to polish his master's thesis.

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"The first I heard of the attack was from our tour guide when she came to collect our passports as we were about to cross from Armenia to Georgia. She said something about planes flying into New York skyscrapers. We could hardly believe it but were eager to see what was on television when we got to our hotel.

For me, it was really awful. I lived through the Allied bombing of Hamburg, and as I watched those images repeated again and again, I had the same terrified reaction, like the world was ending.

At first we could only get Georgian TV, so we had no idea what [the broadcasters] were saying. Then CNN came on and we all just sat there watching for hours in disbelief.

I came home on Saturday night and still didn't know about any Hamburg connection. I didn't know a thing until I went to a friend's house for lunch the next day, someone who always invites me after I've been away on vacation.

She had saved the newspapers for me, and when I walked into her house, I glanced at them and thought, 'What is Mohamed's picture doing on the front page at a time like this?'

My friend knew he'd attended the technical university, and when she saw my reaction, she said, 'Do you know him?' I still couldn't speak. It was just so unreal. Even today, I can't put the two experiences together--the shock of seeing the planes hitting the buildings, rerun on television again and again, and the later shock of learning it was this calm, polite young man who had sat beside me for so long in this office. It still seems to me to be two experiences that have nothing in common.

I've read and reread his thesis, but there's just nothing there that betrays his thinking. One can detect a tone of regret about what has happened between the Arabs and the Israelis and how that is reflected in Aleppo [the Syrian urban development case study Atta profiled in his thesis]. But there's not a trace of the anger or hate that you'd expect to have motivated such an attack. It was a scientific work, very serious and unemotional.

Oddly, it doesn't haunt me. It still seems too unreal to have affected my thinking. Even now, almost a year later, I still don't have a frame of reference."

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As told to Carol J. Williams

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