Sunday, September 11, 2011 - It's so hard to believe, but it's been ten whole years since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. For me, as for many of us, that day will forever be burned in my memory. It was a day just like today, clear blue skies and beautiful, crisp September air, yet it was probably the ugliest day in our history.
Where was I?
That morning I was home, getting ready for school. At the time I was enrolled in Stony Brook University studying to be a teacher and I'd had a class at 9:15. I was upstairs in the bathroom and Joe was downstairs watching TV. It was around a quarter to nine.
"Hey John, there's a fire in the Twin Towers," Joe yelled up.
Already all of the TV stations were tuned into the scene, many of the news reporters speculating that a small plane had crashed into the North Tower. I'd heard before about small planes crashing into buildings and so I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I said goodbye to Joe and headed out to school.
I was in the car, on Nicoll's Rd. in Stony Brook, when I heard the most chilling of news. I was listening to WABC Radio and Ron Kuby and Curtis Sliwa had been talking on the phone with talk show host Richard Bey, who lived in an apartment with a clear view of the World Trade Center. During the conversation, Bey shouted, “Oh My God!” It was 9:03 a.m. We all know what happened next.
As soon as I heard what had happened at 9:03, I knew what was going on. Everybody did. Still I continued on to school and went to my class, where everyone was talking. The professor tried to run the class, seemingly oblivious to what was going on just 60 miles to the west. I couldn't focus. All I wanted to do was get out of there and get home. I couldn't believe they weren't cancelling school altogether. During the class break, I decided that home was where I needed to be and that's where I headed.
For the rest of the day Joe and I sat in front of the television, glued to the events that unfolded as the world watched in horror.
9:37 AM - Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon.
9:59 AM - The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
10:03 AM - Flight 93 crashes on the ground in Shankesville, Pennsylvania.
10:28 AM - The North Tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
The entire day was surreal. As these horrific events unfolded, we couldn't help but be afraid that more things were going to happen as the day progressed. By nightfall, it was evident that it was over, for the time being, but enough had been done already.
Having lived in New York all my life, I was especially affected by what happened on September 11th, 2001. I had been to the World Trade Center once, in the summer of 1983 with my cousin Jeannie. I remember going to the observation deck and being disappointed that it was glass enclosed, unlike the open-air observation deck of the Empire State Building. Jeannie and I pressed our bodies against the floor to ceiling windows and looked down,, feeling dizzy at the sheer height we were at. Though I hadn't been impressed at the time, I am happy that I had the chance to do that.
There is so much that can be said about that pivotal day in our history. Many heroes were made that day, from the firefighters, policemen and women, EMT workers and other emergency personnel to the brave souls that brought down United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, saving who knows how many lives.
A couple of weeks after the attacks, Joe and I had had tickets to see "Rent" on Broadway. The show had an 8 p.m. start, but almost without discussion, we decided to make a day of it. We took the LIRR into Penn Station and got on a subway going downtown. Now I've always been a little confused about any sort of direction south of Houston Street, and I guessed which station to get off at, I believe it was Chambers Street. No matter, I guessed right.
As Joe and I exited the train and headed towards the street, we felt it. Just a few short weeks earlier, we would have faced the Twin Towers as we climbed the steps out of the station on to the street level. Instead, there was an eerie void, a clear shot of blue sky where the buildings had once stood.
He and I spent the next few hours just walking...walking and crying. The stench in the air was like nothing I had ever experienced before, even two weeks later. Of course, the perimeter of what had been the World Trade Center was fenced off, and we could only make out tiny glimpses of the devastation that lay behind them. As we neared St. Paul's Chapel on Wall Street, a recovery spot for relief efforts that day, the enormity of it all hit us like a ton of bricks.
Impromptu well wishes and memorials littered the walls around St. Paul's, interspersed with missing person's posters. They came from everywhere, Kansas, Nebraska and Hawaii, and even India, England and Germany. One grouping of memorials that touched me especially was a collection of drawings from a kindergarten class somewhere out west. The scene overwhelmed me with tears not only of sorrow, but of joy at the compassion that had come out of this terrible tragedy. For the very first time in my memory, it seemed the world had forgotten about all of its problems and was united in purpose.
So here we are, ten years later. Though I haven't thought about it too much until the past couple of days, I'm glad this anniversary came so that we are all reminded not only of the horror of that day, but of the hope that seemed to come out of the terrible tragedy. It is my wish that the compassion and unity that existed in the months ensuing the 9/11 attacks will return to this world one day, only without the precursor of such a terrifying event.
There is a spot on the Long Island Expressway, right before you reach the Queens Midtown Tunnel. There is a bridge on the approach to the crossing and from its highest point, the view of the New York City skyline is magnificently laid out directly ahead. For several years after 9/11/01, that void left by the majestic towers to the left, or south, of that skyline was eerily omnipresent. Today, the skyline has a different look, and it's not so strange anymore, but every year, on the anniversary of the attacks, two great beaming lights illuminate the sky where the towers once stood, and we can all remember what used to be.
Check out a piece I wrote this time last year about a trip into New York City amusement parks with my friend Rich on yet another, crisp September 11th day:
Coney Island, Rye Playland and 911: Enjoying and Remembering a Very Special City