This is my personal story of September 11, 2001 and what happened after – as I experienced it 60 miles away from Ground Zero…
My father’s grandparents, (both sets) Irish Catholics, somehow managed to survive the Famine in Ireland which killed so many. They came to America to escape the oppression in Ireland and landed in New York City. It would be a hundred years before anyone in that family line ever moved out of the City to other places.
My mother is from a tiny country called Grenada. She saw there were few opportunities for a young lady there, so she packed her bags and came to find the “American Dream” in New York City. She found it. She also found my father and it was love at first sight. They met at the famous Rainbow Room in NYC and were married a few months later.
They started their family in New York City and they started with nothing.
My parents managed to find success in their lives and eventually moved out of the City to give us kids some fresh air and a taste of the “good life”.
My father continued to work for the City until his retirement despite moving to the country and then the suburbs.
I grew up on Long Island in the shadow of New York City and made frequent trips into the City to see relatives and also to have fun. In sixth grade it was a rite of passage at my school to take a field trip to NYC. I got to go to South Street Seaport, and the Empire State Building. The highlight of the entire day was going up to the top floors of the magnificent World Trade Center, the Twin Towers. The view was incredible. To be at the top of the City looking down on the world is a memory I will always cherish. Even from the ground looking up at those buildings was an experience in itself. Nearly twice as tall as the tallest buildings, they were! As a teen, taking the train into Manhattan and wandering around the village or seeing a concert at Madison Square Garden was the most fun you could have on a Friday or Saturday night.
When I grew up, I eventually left the Island and moved to where I live now, in the Hudson Valley, about 45 minutes north of the City.
You can tell a person is a New Yorker by the way we refer to it as “the City” and are understood that “the City” means no other City but New York City itself.
I remember well that terrible day when the world as we knew it was changed forever. The day we collectively lost our innocence – September 11, 2001. This is the day as I experienced it…
It was a beautiful morning and a day like any other as far as I knew at the time. My car was broken, so I borrowed my mom’s to get to work. The car had no radio, so I had no idea why cars were stopping and drivers looked so pale behind the wheel. Only when I stopped at the gas station near my job did I begin to learn that today would be unlike any day I ever had before and a day whose likes I hope to never see again.
As I filled up my coffee cup in the gas station, a woman came in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. It appeared to be an accident.
I went to work (I worked at a kiosk in the mall) and was opening up my store when my phone started ringing. It was my mom and she was hysterical. Did I hear about the Twin Towers? Yes, I said, a terrible accident. “NO!” She says, “A second plane has hit, it’s no accident! We are under attack!”
I turned on the radio and heard the screams, sirens and chaos in the streets, the station was broadcasting live sound from the site of the disaster. Reporters were still trying to piece it together.
Employees at other stores were talking about the apocalypse and that a whole bunch of planes had gone missing and that we were indeed under attack by terrorists. A store nearby had a television and I went to stand and watch with many others in horrified silence, jaws agape, as the first building fell. A man next to me said that over 50 thousand people are known to work in that building. My God, how many just died?
I saw people falling from the sky as they jumped from the buildings to their deaths to escape the inferno. My eyes did not want to believe what I was seeing.
Young people who worked in the mall were crying because they had parents working in those buildings and the mall management would not let anyone close up shop and leave. My mom called again, the Pentagon was burning and there were still planes unaccounted for in the air. Her sisters and cousins have children working there, and she could not get any calls to go through outside of our local area. We had just buried my father less than eight months before and this was all just too much for her to take.
I called my employer and learned that they had a kiosk in one of the towers, and her brother’s fiance was working there – nobody could reach her. I told her about the mall’s insistence on business as usual despite the fact that as far as we knew, the USA was under attack. She told me to disregard the mall rules, close up shop, and go be with my mom who needed me. So I did.
The ride home was incredibly spooky. No radio in the car, so I had no idea if any worse was happening than what I’d already witnessed. I drove down Route 9 which is normally congested 24/7 and was the only car on the road. I kept looking up at the clear blue sky wondering what next? It was one of the nicest days, weather wise, that I’d ever seen. It seemed a cruel joke that such a lovely day could hold such terrible events.
Eventually I got home to be with my mom. Before my dad died, he was in a coma for eight days. The whole time he was in that hospital bed I had a lump in my throat so bad that I couldn’t eat a thing. I gagged on every morsel I tried to consume. The whole time hoping for good news which never came. I had that same feeling now, and it wouldn’t leave me for a very long time. All media all the time was around this terrible thing which happened in OUR City, I kept hoping for survivors, but there were few.
Now it is thirteen years later. Every time I see a TV show or movie made before that day, and catch a glimpse of those buildings, tears fall from my eyes. Even if the image is up for only a second, it doesn’t matter, the heartbreak returns as if it were happening all over again. Nobody I know has been left untouched my that day, and nobody I know will ever be able to forget what happened. The horror and the heroism will be with us forever. I will probably always cry when I see pictures of the World Trade Center as it was before, and I guess that’s OK; it is my scar and my reminder that I AM a New Yorker and regardless of where I live, I will ALWAYS be a New Yorker.
I had to write this because one day, I happened to catch the end of the movie the Gangs of NY – they showed the NY skyline as it developed over the years. The last picture showed the Twin Towers, and I cried, as I always do when I see those buildings as they were. NY is in my blood, in my genes, and in my heart. I could move halfway around the world, and I would still be a New Yorker.
On September 12, 2001 I went to work just like everyone else who was able to did. It was at the urging of our President that we do so, as a massive act of defiance to those who sought to destroy our way of life. It was not easy going into work with such a heavy heart, but it WAS the right thing to do. I was greeted at the door to the mall by another worker who looked just as down as I felt, and she said “great day to be an American, huh?” with tears in her eyes. I don’t remember what I said to her, but we did talk for a while before starting the day.
The mall was like a ghost town. Who the hell would want to shop today?
So I read the papers, as difficult as it was, because I felt it was my duty as a human being to read, remember and reflect, and I listened to my little radio which was no longer playing music, just broadcasting more sad news all day long. The NY Daily News the day before had hit the newsstands hours before those terrible events – the front page story was Mariah Carey’s meltdown. Oh My God, I thought to myself, how much the world we knew had changed in just a few hours! I saved that paper, and all the ones which followed in the days ahead so one day I could show my children and help them understand what had happened to my City, my Country, and my World.
I never wrote about this before, I never could, I rarely speak of such things and I don’t like thinking about it, but it is always in my mind and in my heart – I guess it always will be.
On September 12, 2001 I went back to work along with everyone else who was able to in an open act of defiance against those who murdered so many of my brothers and sisters and who would love nothing more than to see us crumble. We stood up the best way we could, we showed up and in our grief and we fought the good fight in our own small ways. Halfway through the day I found it intolerable not to be able to do more. I called the Red Cross and other relief agencies to see how I could help. I had no money, but I had time and a strong desire to put something positive back into my shattered world.
I found out what was needed by the rescue and recovery workers and the survivors who were still Downtown. They needed fresh bottled water, eye wash, clothes, bandages, and more. They needed shoes, because the people working in the “Pit” had the bottoms of their own shoes melted from the heat of the fires which still burned and would continue to burn for a very long time. I consulted my employer who was still trying to get her mind around the fact that so many people she loved had died, and she gave me permission for what I would do next.
I took a big empty box and put it in front of my kiosk with a sign asking for donations of things our Heroes needed. By the end of the day the box was full, and I took it to the nearest drop off point where they would be shipping supplies to Manhattan from. I told the local radio station and newspaper what we were doing and they informed the public how they could help. I was listed among the other groups who were collecting needed items to send down to the city. I left an empty box for the next shift to collect after I went home.
The next morning that box was full and another was halfway full. Older people came silently with tears in their eyes and dropped supplies in the box. Younger people came with shoes and clothes in all kinds of sizes with the tags still on them. They purchased these items themselves with their minimum wage paychecks.
Cases and cases of fresh bottled water appeared before me, and the boxes continued to pile up. I filled my truck completely at the end of the day with supplies and there was still more. Two and three trips a day I would make and I still needed others to move the donations to the drop off points!
My mother contacted her ophthalmologist, and he donated cases and cases of eyewash! The response was utterly overwhelming and touched my heart in a way few things in this life ever could.
Mothers whose sons were cops and firemen working in the Pit told me what else was needed and I updated the supply list regularly. Whatever we asked for, we got tenfold!
It was a small thing we could all do to help, but it meant the world to me to be able to do it and have so many people open their hearts to help our Ground Zero Heroes.
As long as I live, I will never forget it.
Even in our darkest hours, we managed to find some light, and some hope.
Along with the tales of horror and destruction, the news also started to bring us amazing stories of bravery and heroism which reminded us all of the quality of humanity. A reminder that though evil acts may befall us, good will not be suppressed for very long.
As New Yorkers, as Americans, and as humans, we will ALWAYS fight the darkness and one way or another find a way to bring light back into the world we live in.
God Bless America, and God Bless New York!
*** I originally wrote this back in 2005, and have published it in one place or another every year since, so if it looks familiar to you, that is why.***
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