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Remembering 9-11

We had front row seats to the tragedies in NYC on September 11, 2001. We were living in Brooklyn Heights at the time, with a skyline view of the World Trade Towers visible at the end of our street.  My husband worked in the center of Manhattan, near Penn Station and the Empire State Building.  He rode the subway in to work every day, often going right under the World Trade Center.  He was on the subway when the first plane hit.  I was in our apartment, dealing with our new baby.  Just a regular morning – until the horrific events unfolded.  We both remember it so vividly, even today – especially today.  When you are living it up-close and personal, each moment becomes stamped in your memory in a way you are not likely to forget. 

A friend from Philadelphia called the apartment shortly after news of the first plane crash.  Just wanted to make sure you guys were OK, his message said.  I found that odd, too odd to ignore.  Finally I got the news; the World Trade Towers were on fire – planes had crashed into them.  Then came the news of the plane crash at the Pentagon, then the reporting that we were actually being attacked.  The panic set in. 

I finally made contact with my husband via cell phone.  He had arrived at work – he was safe.  Rumors in NY were already flying; one scenario was the Brooklyn Bridge might be next.  I was going to walk down and take pictures of the burning towers, the dark smoke billowing against the pale blue sky, but decided against it – too morbid I thought, too inappropriate, and not very safe what with a new baby and all.  My husband called again – he was going to try and make his way home.  Then, right before his eyes, the first building disappeared in a massive cloud of white haze.  Chaos set in. 

I lost telephone reception as the local phone company had antennas on top of one of the towers – which was no longer there.  I couldn’t get through on my cell phone to call my family back in California.  I wrote a quick email, hoping it would get sent off.  All bridges to and from Manhattan were shut down; my husband was stuck in the city, with no way to get home.  Five long hours later he made it, crossing the further-away Manhattan Bridge by foot.  People were covered with ash and dirt; it was like a scene out of a movie of refugees slowly making their way out of a war-torn country, bloodied, torn and tattered.  It was unlike anything he had ever seen.  But we were the lucky ones. 

The next day, NYC had shut down.  The streets in our neighborhood were deserted.  Thick ash from the WTC had been carried over by the breeze and was everywhere, dusting the streets and parked cars like a light snowstorm.  The posters and signs started popping up almost immediately.  “Have you seen my wife?” they pleaded. “She worked on the 87th Floor of the North Tower.”  Every sign had a photograph of the missing loved one – a snapshot of them laughing with family or smiling big for the camera.  Every face on every poster was a constant reminder of the huge loss we as a city, a nation, and a people had suffered. 

All too often you would see little memorials and mini-shrines set up on various brownstone steps, with pictures, flowers and candles marking the place (the house, the family) where tragedy had struck.  It was all around us.  With my son in a Baby Bjorn carrier, we attended candlelight vigils with strangers.  From all different walks of life, we cried and sang and prayed together.  In some ways I had never felt closer to a community at large.

We lived on a primarily dominant Middle Eastern street.  Almost immediately business owners put up big American flags in their storefront windows to show their patriotism, to say it wasn’t us, we are not like that.  Just as immediate, police came and put up barricades on our street, as if to say we don’t want any trouble here – we have enough elsewhere as it is. 

We became jumpy and edgy (not just us, but a lot of New Yorkers in general).  It was not uncommon to hear F-16 fighter jets fly overhead.  Loud outside noises now concerned us; they made us take notice in a way they never had before.  A pipe broke underground on our street a few weeks after the attacks; you have never seen so many people come running out of their buildings (us included).  We needed to know, had to be sure, it wasn’t happening again.

More rumors circulated around.  Talk one day of a supposed credible plot to put toxic gas underground in the subways made me so crazed I made my husband take a $20 cab ride home.  Bridges had security on them, checking cars and screening people.  It was harder to get around, but we were not about to complain.

My friends and family on the west coast did not seem as affected.  They didn’t have this fear in the pit of their stomach that we were still experiencing.  They didn’t have to smell the horrific stench coming from Ground Zero.  They didn’t see all the posters of the missing loved ones still up because families were clinging to hope that maybe some miracle had happened and they had been saved.  They didn’t play the six degrees of separation of who you knew who had lost their life.  If you were not personally affected, then you no doubt knew someone who was.  Or you had your “what if” story like we did; my husband had been down in that area the morning before for a meeting – what if the meeting had been scheduled one day later – how different our lives may or may not have been.  I shudder to think about it, even now.

I still have the NY newspapers from that day.  At some point I think I will show them to my children.  The images are graphic:  people jumping from those burning towers; the massive dust cloud that seemed to just consume everything in its path; New Yorkers – bloodied and bruised – who came together to help each other, illustrating the very best in human nature; the brave firefighters, police and rescue personal, many (too many) of whom gave their lives, showing us the true meaning of a hero.  Right now, my kids are too young to comprehend a tragedy such as this one.  But someday they will ask.  And I will sit with them and share with them what I saw from being there on the sidelines. 

So please, this Zen Mama Wannabe begs you, don’t forget.  Don’t take this day lightly or get too busy to take a moment of silence and remember the deadliest attack on American soil.  Please remember those 3,000 victims and their families, so many heroes dead and alive.  Please remember what I witnessed first-hand – that in the face of such evil we came together.  These are memories I will never forget.  Neither should anyone else.

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2 Responses to “Remembering 9-11”

  1. LarkLady Says:
    September 11th, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    I was one of those in California. I was getting dressed that morning when my husband came in and said, oh so very seriously, A plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

    Okay, I thought. Some stupid fool of a Cessma pilot was flying where he shouldn’t have been. What a jerk! I hope no one was near the windows where he hit the building.

    He repeated himself: “A plane hit the tower. The building’s on fire.”

    I still wasn’t reacting like he thought I should — I’m still thinking “Plane – single engine; fire: not good, but why is he making this out to be a big deal?” I’m finally beginning to clue into the fact that we have some cross-communication going, but I still don’t have any idea why his face looks like it does… deadly serious, preternaturally calm. It doesn’t hit me until he takes me out to the den, where the TV is on, and I see the tower on fire — and as I watch, a second jet hits the other tower.

    And we watched in silence as first one building implodes and collapses, then the second.

    We watched our neighborhood sprout American flags — big ones on flagpoles, little ones on lawns and in bushes. And they stayed up. When a friend returned from a vacation to Italy a week later, she expressed some discomfort at the excessive (to her) displays of patriotism. House after house, street after street, all with flags displayed. July 4th didn’t have that much red, white and blue out, not by a long shot! All I could say to her was, You weren’t here. She had the intellectual understanding of what happened — it took nearly a week for her to find alternate travel arrangements home, after all — but she didn’t have a clue of the emotional impact.

    And I suspect that we here on the West Coast don’t — can’t! — understand how much more impact that day had for you, Zen Mama, and others living in NYC, in Washington, and in Pennsylvania. The impact on our lives was buffered by distance.

    I wondered this morning what my grandchildren will read about the 11th of September, 2001, in their history books. My children were in 3rd and 6th grade at the time; what will they remember? We’ll talk about it over dinner tonight, I’m sure. When they left the house this morning for school, did they know why the flag was flying from the pole on the garage?

  2. Auntie Glo Says:
    September 12th, 2008 at 11:10 am

    I had NO idea that you were there Zen Mama –thanks so much for the beautiful essay–hard to type with tears and mascara running down my face!!

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