by SS Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa, New York NY
2021 (Third Quarter)
SS Sat Jivan Singh was in New York on September 11, 2001. He shared with us his experience of attending an interfaith memorial service on October 11, 2001. He also shared some reminiscences about the events that took place in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, looking back at his role as a Minister in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
October 11, 2001 New York, NY
The taxi let me out on 7th Avenue just above Chambers Street, about six or seven blocks North of where the World Trade Center Towers once stood. I really did not know what to expect as I began my pilgrimage on foot toward Ground Zero. My goal was simple: to say a prayer on behalf of Sikhs throughout the world and for those who lost their lives on 9/11. Getting there would be anything but simple.
Only an hour and a half earlier, my wife had seen on the morning news that there was to be an interfaith memorial service at Ground Zero beginning at 8:30 a.m. for the firefighters, police, and civilians killed one month ago today. Her only comment to me was “You’ve got to be there.”
My initial reaction was: “No way I’m going to get on that podium with the Mayor without an invitation, so why bother?” But I knew she was right and I knew I had to try. I sensed it was my responsibility and my duty to be there. I thought: “Well, if God wants me there it will happen.” So I started making calls to my connections at 7:15 a.m. to see if I could manage a legitimate invitation. After 30 minutes, I realized that was not going to happen. I figured I’d just have to do it the hard way.
A New York Attitude
Attitude is what makes one a New Yorker. New Yorkers all over the world know what I mean. You can take a New Yorker out of the City, but you can’t take the City out of the New Yorker. New York is arguably the world’s capital for financial markets, business, industry, arts, theater, the culinary arts, sports, and so much more.
As a result, New Yorkers just develop attitude. So, with no invitation but with plenty of attitude and my Sikh Dharma Ministers’ card, I set out for Ground Zero. I just set my mind on my task and hoped that my determination and God’s hand would get me there.
As I left the house at about 8:10 a.m. my negative mind shifted into high gear: “Right! A guy with a turban, beard, and white robes, lacking both invitation and credentials, is going to make it through the incredible ring of security surrounding Ground Zero and be allowed to pray with the Mayor while the City is on the highest security alert possible! No way!” I laughed at the thought but set out anyway, leaving it to the hand of God, because I surely couldn’t see it happening.
As I got into the cab driven by a Muslim man from Pakistan, the day immediately took on a surreal quality. While talking with him about how we each had been affected by the events of 9/11, I mentioned that a Sikh cab driver had recently been shot at in Manhattan at 57th Street and 3rd Avenue.
I told him how astonished I was that such a thing could actually happen in Manhattan. He turned to look at me and said that this was the cab that he shared with Surinder Singh Jolly, the Sikh man who had been shot. It was then that I began to feel God’s hand beginning to push me forward.
As I got out of the cab I instinctively looked south, where the beautiful Towers had stood only 30 days before. But now I saw only smoke or mist. For an extremely brief moment, the thought passed through my mind that maybe an enchanted fog had descended over the Towers, rendering them invisible. But I caught myself. I felt my chest tighten.
Not a Fairy Tale
This was not a fairy tale. There was nothing enchanted here, no sorcerers, no spells, and definitely no invisible Towers. Just mind-numbing, heart-wrenching reality. They were gone and so were over 3,000 souls.
With that realization came the awareness of an even greater loss—that of our innocence. I hear everyone saying we’ll never be the same. Instinctively I know they are right. Innocence, like a snowflake, is fragile, unique, beautiful, but fleeting. Once lost, it can never be regained. I felt disoriented.
As I saw the cab move off down Duane Street I realized I had left my glasses in it. I don’t do that. I don’t lose things or leave them behind. I was not all together yet.
I collected myself as quickly as I could, put on my long vest over my kurta, and set off toward the barricade and the police officer guarding it. I had made a decision to wear one of my favorite and most regal-looking outfits. I was representing all of the Sikh Americans and wanted to make a statement. Attitude.
The officer stopped me and asked, “Where do you think you are going?” My response was to hold up my Sikh Dharma International Minister ID card and say, “I am going to the interfaith service at Ground Zero as the representative of the Sikh faith.”
He thought for a moment and then pulled the barricade aside and said, “Go ahead to the West Side Highway and turn left.” I said, “God bless you,” to the officer and headed west.
This routine was repeated more than a dozen times over the next half hour as I moved ever closer to my goal. Each police officer or National Guardsman would look at me, look at my ID, look at me again, and say “Okay, go ahead.” The hand of God kept pushing.
My route could not be direct. I walked for blocks and blocks west in order to skirt the damage, then south along the West Side Highway to gain access through the only corridor available to civilians. My feeling that the morning had a surreal quality kept growing.
The buildings left standing around Ground Zero were shrouded in a mist or clouds or smoke, behind which was a sky as perfectly blue as it had been 30 days previous. Weather-wise, September 11 was possibly one of the year’s ten best in New York. And today was right up there too.
A Somber Mood
All of the streets were wet, although we had no rain for days. I presume this was to keep the wicked dust down. They were wet in much the way movie studios wet streets for a movie shoot. Somehow that enhances the way the camera captures the images.
But today, the only images to capture belonged in a horror movie. You could see smoke rising from the general area of Ground Zero, but the air was amazingly devoid of the smell of the fires which rage even now in the rubble. Nevertheless, the air had a very heavy quality to it.
As I made my way around the perimeter and down toward the devastation, I must have passed hundreds of workers, teenagers on their way to school, and residents on their way to work. I sensed something unusual as I walked by them but couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. I just passed it off as my sensing their bewilderment at seeing me there.
It was only in retrospect that I realized what it was. There were no smiles or laughter. The mood was serious and somber. A great depression had settled over the area. Anyone penetrating from the outside risked being sucked into it, like a black hole.
Everyone had been indelibly scarred by the tragedy. So much pain. And so little hope now that the rescue effort had turned into one of recovery. My heart ached as I felt their pain, but I would like to think I was a bright light helping to dispel some of the darkness that had descended there.
So much had changed since my last visit two weeks before 9/11. The area had been bustling and thriving. Clean and new—New York new. No more. My cab driver had used a Punjabi word which we decided meant “ghost town” to describe the area now. It’s going to take so much money, time, and commitment to bring this area, possibly the city itself, back to life.
As I walked I started thinking about what to say in my prayer. I had a pretty good idea what that would be if I made it onto the platform. But now security wasn’t my greatest challenge—it was time. At 9:10 a.m. I finally cleared the last security checkpoint, but as fate would have it the memorial service had just ended.
However, Mayor Giuliani was still there and God’s hand pushed me past his security up onto the podium. He immediately came over to me and shook my hand, welcoming me. Although uninvited, I apologized for being late and wished him well, congratulating him on behalf of all Sikh Americans for the fabulous work he had been doing. I also related how much the Sikhs appreciated his frequent calls for tolerance.
Vision of Destruction
After the Mayor left, the reality of Ground Zero hit me hard. No amount of video footage could prepare me for the extent of the destruction. Its magnitude was more than my mind could grasp. I tried to make very careful mental notes of the area so I could accurately describe what I saw.
I felt a responsibility to be able to tell what I had seen. But like a dream, the images faded after I left, as if stored in my short-term memory, never to be clearly accessed again. They were just too much to comprehend or fathom.
What became so apparent was just how much reality differs from TV or the movies. Somehow, those images have an antiseptic quality. I think Hollywood has made disaster seem slick. Reality is not like that. There was nothing slick about this place.
Ground Zero has a hell-like quality to it—people toiling unceasingly amid fire and smoke, dirt, mud, rubble, and stench. In one sense it was an image right out of Dante’s Inferno. However, on the positive side, those toiling were anything but lost souls—they were heroes, through and through.
As I write (on October 11, 2001), I find the hardest task is finding the right words to accurately convey what Ground Zero really was. For some reason they elude me. And I make my living with words. I can see it all in my mind’s eye but how to describe it keeps slipping from me.
I can see the beautiful buildings lying in heaps higher than the tallest buildings in most small towns. I can see the workers toiling like small ants on mountains of rubble eight stories high. I can see what is left of the framework of the two Towers listing cockeyed. I can see the ground covered with fragments, dust, dirt, and mud.
But beyond that, I just cannot describe. Like a dream that remains ever so close to the conscious mind but just eludes the ability to remember and portray it accurately, my experience at Ground Zero still eludes my ability to express it. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day. Soon, I hope.
Prayer is the Healer
Standing at Ground Zero, I was experiencing overload, so I closed my eyes and started to pray. I thanked God for allowing me to be there. I thanked Him for His hand pushing me on despite my doubts. I thanked Him for my safe passage. I thanked Him for allowing me to accomplish what I had set out to do for my community.
I prayed for those who had lost their lives. I prayed for their families and loved ones. I prayed for those who survived. I prayed for Sikh Americans and Sikhs worldwide. I prayed for everyone affected by this tragedy. I prayed for healing from the pain. I prayed for tolerance. And I prayed for peace.
I finished praying and stepped off the stage. An extremely large fireman in full gear was looking at me. He approached within a foot or two of me, looked at me, and sweetly asked, “Can I have a hug?” After a brief moment to process what he said, I replied, “God bless you. Of course, you can!”
And then he gave me a fantastic hug. It was wonderful. He was a chaplain from the Chicago Fire Department. We talked for a few minutes and then he asked again, “Can I have another hug?” What an amazing man of God, love, and peace in the midst of hell. A real hero.
It’s funny, but at the time I had no doubt he needed the hug. God knows, everyone down there could use all they could get. It sure could have been for him. And, it could have been for both of us. But in retrospect, I believe it was for me. I know that I needed it. I needed it badly.
I think that he saw me beginning to go into distress and, just as sure as if he had run into a burning building to rescue me, he pulled me back from that dark place where I go when I get depressed or upset. He was such a sweet and sensitive man, a man of God who saw the pain that had enveloped my being and rescued me with his warmth, his humanity, and his love.
I know that at that moment I needed to be brought back. I required the human touch. That hug meant so much to me. All the pain and emotion washed away from me because he wasn’t afraid to reach out to a person in distress. God bless him! And God bless God for His hand again at work.
He inspired me. And God inspired me. I believe this to be a metaphor for what we need to be doing now. Healing each other with heart-to-heart contact.
Prayer is a great healer and we should all continue to do it as often as we can. But now, more than ever, I think what we really need is heart-felt, loving contact.
The pain that we’ve been left with in the wake of 9/11 is so great. And so many people are on overload just as I was. This would help us put the tragedy behind us and allow us to move into the healing process.
It is going to take a lot of people being courageous enough to share their warmth, humanness, and love with those in pain. It will benefit all of us.
Just like the fireman did for me, we should all be ready to rescue those in need. We can all be heroes if we can overcome our shyness and our fear and step out and touch someone. Let the hand of God work for you as it worked for me. And let the love flow. God knows, we can all use it.
2021: Remembering 9/11
On the morning of September 11th, my sister phoned and said, “Are you watching TV?” And so my wife Sardarni Sahiba Sat Jivan Kaur and I began to watch in horror and disbelief, along with millions of others, as the World Trade Centers crumbled before our eyes.
Soon afterward we started to see the dazed throngs of dust-covered people walking north up Park Avenue South, just outside our apartment on 22nd Street. It was a post-apocalyptic movie scene brought to life.
Survivors of a catastrophe beyond their comprehension paraded in front of us. No traffic passed on Park Avenue South. Just the anguished, numb masses so covered in dust that you couldn’t determine the color of their skin. Just their eyes and mouths were visible behind the veneer of the dying World Trade Centers plastered to their skin.
At first, we were puzzled, as we watched them cluster around parked cars. Then we understood.
They had no idea what had happened and were listening to news reports on their car radios to try and make some sense of a world turned upside-down. The whole city was shut down. No cars except for emergency vehicles on the street. No subway service or buses.
We realized that people who had come to work that morning would be stuck in Manhattan and that those of us who live there would need to make a place for them to gather, to rest, to eat, and to talk.
By mid-morning, we decided to make Yogi tea and take it to the yoga center. We let the community know that we would be there. We felt that no one should be alone. Over the next week, people would drop by, searching for something that would return them to a sense of normalcy that had been so suddenly lost.
We talked, drank Yogi tea, and chanted Akal. And we prayed. We prayed for all the souls that had been lost, we prayed for their families, and we prayed for all those who survived, including ourselves.
When we began teaching again we started each class with the Meditation for Sudden Shock and ended with chanting Akal. We spent our days ministering to the needs of our community and the people of New York City. Somehow, I kept up through it all.
Healing at the Khalsa Council
Two weeks later, I left the city for the Khalsa Council meetings in New Mexico. As I walked out the door of our apartment building and got into the taxi for the ride to the airport, the magnitude of what I had been through suddenly hit me and I began to cry.
I didn’t stop crying until the Khalsa Council meetings began, and I was surrounded by my Khalsa brothers and sisters. I felt like I had spent two weeks holding it together for everyone. But when I left New York and the responsibility towards others was no longer on my shoulders, it was just me and the floodgates opened.
Attending the Khalsa Council meetings was deeply healing. I was asked to address the Council and share my stories from 9/11. I couldn’t have stood there without the help of my (now-late) brother Singh Sahib Dyal Singh by my side.
I shared my personal experiences and the stories of many others. I shared about a yoga student who was on the 32nd floor of one of the Trade Center buildings chanting Sat Nam as he hurried down the 32 flights of stairs to safety.
Another student shared that she had been asked by her manager to run an errand before she came to work on the top floor of one of the World Trade Center buildings. As she approached the building, she stood aghast as she watched the building where she worked disappear into a giant cloud of dust.
The Sound of Sirens
New Yorkers were still shaken and on edge for quite a while after 9/11. The morgue receiving the bodies and body parts was a few blocks up Park Avenue South from our home. Whenever a body was delivered, there was a caravan of police cars and ambulances, full sirens blaring as they went. We developed an almost Pavlovian shock response to the sirens that even continues today.
New York City being the melting pot that it is—teeming with people from every walk of life—folks don’t think twice about how different people look. After 9/11, however, the city’s response to turbaned Sikhs drastically changed. People became apprehensive and guarded, regarding us very differently.
The threat of more terrorist attacks hung heavily over the city. One week after 9/11, I returned home from work, sat down in my chair, and dozed off. I awoke to the sound of sirens—not unusual at this point. I went to the bathroom and washed my face. As I came back to the living room I realized that the sirens weren’t traveling past our building, but were stopping.
I walked over to the window and looked out. Park Avenue South was blocked by police command vehicles at 21st and 22nd Streets. A dozen or so fire trucks and police cars were parked on Park Avenue South and a crowd was lined up on the far side of the street, looking at our building.
I pulled up the blinds, opened the window, and stuck my head out to see what was happening. I heard the crowd let loose bloodcurdling screams and I saw one woman faint.
I immediately pulled my head back in, closed the window, lowered the blinds, and surmised that a terrorist act must be taking place in my building. I thought about going downstairs to see what was happening—but I figured that if it was a terrorist act, they would arrest me first and ask questions later.
I then thought of calling my manager at the yoga center, 2 ½ blocks away, to ask her to come and see what was happening—but because she also wore a turban I feared that they would arrest her and ask questions later. I decided to call the owner of our favorite restaurant, just around the corner on 22nd Street.
When I reached her she said, “Oh, Mr. Khalsa, we saw you stick your head out the window. What you couldn’t see was that a woman two floors up was on the ledge with her newborn baby, and just as you stuck your head out the window, she jumped. A fireman reached out and grabbed the baby, saving it, but the woman plunged to her death.”
I had never in my life felt so helpless as I did that evening. I decided that I had to do something. The next day I made three appointments: one to meet with the Community Affairs Detective at our local precinct; one to meet with the Assistant Police Commissioner for New York City; and one to meet with the FBI.
I wanted to make sure that if anything ever happened to me or my community, I had all these people on speed dial in my phone.
The Healing Begins
As a result of these meetings, I was asked to join the Joint NYPD/FBI Task Force on Hate Crimes and the Joint NYPD/FBI Task Force on Civil Rights, and to become a member of the FBI Citizens Academy.
The Citizens Academy is an invitation-only community outreach program that the FBI runs throughout the country, bringing together business, community, and religious leaders in order to create a better understanding of the workings of the FBI.
The Academy involves a 14-week course, demonstrating everything that the FBI does and how they do it. It was a fantastic experience. I wholeheartedly recommend it to our Sikh Dharma Ministers throughout the United States.
As a result of my work with the FBI, I was invited to join the Director of the FBI’s Community Advisory Board, which is composed of religious and civil rights leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. We meet with the Director of the FBI two to four times a year to discuss important issues involving our communities.
As the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, the anxiety level was palpable. Sat Jivan Kaur and I wanted to do something special for our students and for New Yorkers.
Beginning 40 days prior to the anniversary, we offered a healing meditation at 8:00 pm each evening after the yoga class, open to everyone to help New York deal with the memories and traumas of the event.
When the news station New York One heard about our event, they sent a team over to interview us and some of our students. They ran the piece, naming Sat Jivan Kaur and me “New Yorkers of the Week” for the whole week.
The positive response was amazing! Whereas after 9/11 we were looked at in a less-than-favorable light, after this piece aired, we could not go anywhere in New York without people telling us they saw us on TV—and thanking us. We were deeply moved.
The experience of 9/11 and its aftermath made me realize the importance of ministering to the needs of not only my sangat, but also my community, and my city as a whole. I learned the importance of connecting and staying connected to my people, my community, law enforcement agencies, and political leaders. 9/11 was a personal wake-up call—a motivation to minister not only to the Sikh community but to all.
My responsibility is to carry to everyone the message of hope and love taught by Guru Nanak and all the Sikh Gurus.
About the Author
SS Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa is an ordained Minister of Sikh Dharma. He has served as Chair of the International Khalsa Council, is an estate lawyer, and is a KRI-certified Kundalini Yoga Teacher. He has served on the boards of the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association and the Kundalini Research Institute, helping to formulate the certification standards for Kundalini Yoga teachers worldwide. He oversees the advancement and growth of Kundalini Yoga globally. He is co-director of Kundalini Yoga East in New York City along with his wife SS Sat Jivan Kaur and is a father and grandfather.