Nineteen years. The day that changed my life and our country. And it seems different this year.
I remember a few years ago my son asked me what I remembered about that day for an assignment he was doing for social studies. And for the first time, I told him some details. I was there, guessing I was pregnant with our first child, the son who asked the question, and through a dumb move with broken glass, my husband was at home.
That son now a college freshman. Living through a global pandemic.
Yes, there were two targets, Washington and New York. Washington saw a great institution attacked, and quickly rebuilt, but New York saw a world end. We saw the buildings come down.
That was the difference, I think. We could have taken the Towers being hit, the fire, even some of the other personal horrors we witnessed, The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, five floors were lost, and the next day we were back in business. It sounded and felt like someone dropped a piano a few floors above me.
On September 11, 2001, the buildings came down in front of our eyes. The WTC was a part of our skyline- I remember the cranes on top when they were being built. The Twin Towers were massive, two pillars at the end of the island, and then they were gone. The buildings falling changed everything, it marked a psychic shift and an age of vulnerability because, “how could those buildings be gone?”
When people who were there are asked now what they remember, they start with something big—where they were…because everyone can recall exactly where they were when they heard or saw ... but then they recall smaller things with no idea those memories would stay in mind forever.
The look on the faces of people on Broadway and 33rd Street looking downtown right before I jumped on a path to Hoboken in time to see the first tower fall, the atmosphere on the train as we left Hoboken and hearing that the second tower fell … helping an older man I rode the train with every day try to clean up a little after he walked down from high up in Tower 2 so he wouldn’t scare his wife when he got home, the train suddenly stopping about halfway home and all of us wondering … not being able to get cell service and not knowing until we made it home what was going on elsewhere … candles on the street and the spontaneous shrines that popped up … the photocopied signs that covered every street pole downtown … family pictures from a wedding or a birthday or bar mitzvah. "Have you seen my Dad? Last seen Tuesday morning in Windows on the World."
And the patriotism. And the American flags that showed up everywhere.
The smell that lingered for weeks and the Pompeii-like ash that left a film on everything in in the city, all the way to the Bronx and Hoboken NJ. The spontaneous fleet of ferries that took survivors to New Jersey.
One of the most heartbreaking sights for me was of the doctors and nurses who lined up outside St. Vincent's Hospital with gurneys, thinking thousands would come, and the shock when they didn't.
Cheering the workers who were barreling downtown in trucks to begin the dig-out, and to see if they could find someone still alive.
The notes neighbors left under neighbor’s doors. "Are you OK?" The flags in every bodega, on every storefront, in the windows of apartments, up and down the avenues and on every bridge on every roadway I passed in New Jersey.
In the days following September 11, 2001 we didn't know what to call it. "Do you believe what happened?" "They think he died in what happened." It was months before we called it September 11th. We were all crazy in the days that followed. The trauma on Tuesday was followed by a storm a few days later that shook buildings—and the quiet of NO airplanes overhead.
In the weeks following, we all started hearing the stories - guys who dug themselves out of the rubble, news of people trapped in an air pocket. I will never forget the story of some guy on the 50th floor of Tower one grabbing a steel girder that was flying by, and surfing down unharmed. That wasn't true either. The stories whipped through the town until the funerals started.
343 firemen gave their lives on September 11th … Three hundred forty-three … It was impossible, but true like everything else. The guys who went up the stairs with 50 to 75 pounds of gear and tools on their back...they knew what they were getting into and they made a decision. Probably all of them were scared, you can see it on their faces on the pictures people took in the stairwells. The firemen would be going up one side of the stairs, and the fleeing workers would be going down, and they'd call out, "Good luck, son," and, "Thank you, boys."
Some people tell us to get over it, they say to move on, and they mean it well. I will never get over it. I will not get over the the guy who stayed behind on a high floor with his friend who was in a wheelchair, or the woman by herself with the sign in the darkness, "America You Are Not Alone" or the guys who ran into the fire and not away from the fire or all of the friends that we lost.
Photo was taken from the train platform in Hoboken waiting for the train to board as Tower one fell.
Credits: Brenda A. Nemcek