Where were you on March 11, 2004? If you are American, you probably don’t remember. If you are Spanish — or, like me, living in Spain — you will probably never forget. This is what I remember:
It is morning. I have just come back from a trip to the corner market and am putting away the groceries in the kitchen. The phone rings. It’s my husband, with news: Terrorists have blown up commuter trains to Madrid, the very trains he used to ride to work every day before he switched to taking the car a couple of months ago. The very trains our next-door neighbor still rides every day.
“Tell María José that Javier rode in with me this morning,” he said. “He happened to be walking out the door as I was leaving, so I offered him a ride.”
As I write, we are coming up on the first anniversary of what is referred to here as “11-M,” the eleventh of March. There will be countless events in remembrance of the tragedy, and I want to add my own voice about that time, written shortly afterward:
March 11. After word of the train bombings had spread, the news turned to testimony from those who saw it happen live in front of them and those who saw images of the devastation later on their TV screens. In the midst of their shock, horror, and indignation, when asked for their reaction, people replied, “No hay palabras.” Words cannot express it.
Safe in my home outside of Madrid, in the very town where the bombers boarded the trains to leave their deadly cargo, I watch the news obsessively despite pleas from my 19-month-old son — “Pooh, Pooh!” — for his favorite DVD. There are images of the aftermath — the exploded train cars melded to the tracks, bloody people waiting to be attended to by emergency workers, bodies beyond help. These images are repeated endlessly, along with eyewitness accounts of people who helped the victims, people who narrowly escaped severe injury, people who were on the trains but rode in cars that didn’t explode.
March 12. Day two, all channels are still covering the attacks. More of the same images, and new ones. They are all horrible — many wouldn’t have made it past censors to TV screens in the United States — yet, even so, we are spared what must be the worst of them. People with missing limbs or twisted into impossible positions, body parts along the rails — these we are left to imagine.
Still, if a picture is worth a thousand words, it is still words — the stories — that cause the greatest impact. I buy three newspapers but can’t bring myself to read them. Talk on the TV turns to family members desperately searching for their loved ones at the various hospitals and, finally, at the improvised morgue at the convention center. Everyone has a story, and they are all heartbreaking. The woman who has just identified her son, 25 years old and married only three months. The man from Peru whose brother had only been in the country for three weeks before boarding that train. The Polish woman whose seven-month-old niece was in critical condition at the hospital, the mother still missing. The health worker describing the rows of cadavers with their cell phones ringing endlessly into the silence. The teacher at the elementary school next to one of the stations that was hit, where parents leave their kids for school and continue on the trains to work. At that school, eight of those children were left orphaned.
Demonstrations are called in every Spanish capital for 7:00 that evening. At noon, workers all over the country leave their posts to gather outside their buildings for 15 minutes of silent solidarity.
I try to get my son out of the house to distract him (and myself) from the tension he surely senses. Whenever he hears a car going by, he clamors, “Papa, coche, papa!” I blink back tears, knowing that we are lucky that he is not one of those kids whose daddy or mommy will not be coming home again, ever.
March 13. We all have a story. Some of them are happier: the owners of the newsstand where I buy my newspapers, whose daughter always rides those trains but didn’t that day because there was a teachers’ strike at the university and classes were canceled. People who overslept and missed their usual train. People who had to turn back for a forgotten item and arrived at the station late.
This is our story: My husband used to take those trains to work but for the past six months had been driving our car instead. His company had given him a parking spot, and the time he saved by taking the car meant a precious extra half hour with our son before bedtime. Our next-door neighbor always takes those trains, but that day, he happened to be leaving the house at the same time as my husband and rode with him in the car. That evening, when our neighbor got home, wordless, he gave my husband a hug, tears in his eyes.
March 14. There are no words that can fully express what has happened, yet each story adds to the effort. All we can do is listen, remember, and go on. The clouds and rain of the past few days have given way to brighter skies. News anchors have shed the black suits worn in mourning and have returned to more hopeful attire.
From our window, a black ribbon of mourning and remembrance waves gently, silently, in the breeze.