Even twenty years later, it is still hard to write about the events of 9/11. My parents’ generation could tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news that the Second World War had started, but our generation will always recall clearly what they were doing when they first heard the news that the World Trade Center had been attacked.
If you did not live in New York at that time, it’s hard to appreciate how the twin skyscrapers simply dominated the skyline. As I walked home toward the East River along Calyer Street, their hulking presence always loomed over Greenpoint.
Professor Robin Rogers, who lived on Russell Street recalled them: “From my kitchen, they were the clear focal point in the skyline. Beautiful. I remember the first night my husband and I spent in the house the year before. We saw the towers light up. How lucky we were. We didn’t know it when we bought the house, but we had a perfect view. They were glorious. They were New York.”
I recall returning on a flight from North Carolina just ten days before the attack, our plane’s flight path brought us quite near the twin towers. Never could I have imagined that they would soon come down and cause so much death, not just in New York, but halfway around the world.
Professor Rogers recalled the morning of the attacks. She noticed a puff of smoke coming from one of them. “How odd”, she thought, “It is on fire.” She took another sip of coffee and went to turn on the TV, but there was only static. By now, people were running up and down Russell Street yelling, more with confusion than panic. What was happening. “A plane hit the towers!” people shouted.
She watched the tower burning in horror.“ Boom!” she heard. Smoke was coming from the other tower now too. Her infant son was mad because the TV stations weren’t working. He wanted to watch his shows. She put a VHS tape of Barney the Dinosaur on for him. “How odd”, she thought, “That the fire jumped from one building to the other.” Her mind was getting hazy. Things weren’t making sense. Fire can’t jump, can it? Now the shouts up and down the street were panicked. “It was another plane!” “We are at war!”
Barbara McGlamery from Milton Street was working in Midtown. She walked out of her office and looked down 5th Avenue and saw the first tower fall. After that, everything really started to change. Before, when the towers were just on fire. she saw people happily chatting on cell phones, oblivious to the disaster. That is, until the towers fell. Then she saw everyone kind of go blank, the horror finally registering.
I was teaching school at Newtown High School in Queens and on the morning of September 11th I was getting ready for school. That morning the sky was exceptionally blue and cloudless, ironically giving everyone a perfect view of the terror that was about to unfold. I turned on the car radio and the disc jockey erroneously said that a small plane had hit the world Trade Center North Tower and that a fire had broken out. It was not until I got to school that someone told me the truth. I was teaching a class entirely composed of foreign kids at the time and I will never forget the looks of fear on the faces of the children, especially those of Muslim children, who must have wondered if Americans would take reprisals out on them. I had a break in my schedule and headed for the roof of the school, which sitting on a hill afforded a perfect view of the towers. The South Tower had just collapsed and the North Tower was on fire, filling the clear blue sky with plumes of dark smoke. “One of the teachers commented ominously, “Let’s make the Middle East a parking lot.” I hadn’t yet realized that the attacks would mean war.
The school was in total panic. Some other children had parents who worked in the towers, and they were frantic. The principal was unsure what action to take regarding closing the school. These were days before people carried cell phones with internet, so we all turned on the television news to see the scenes of unfolding horror not five miles away.
It became clear that hundreds of firefighters had perished in the building when it fell. Professor Rogers recalled a meeting September 9th just two days before at the Greenpoint Avenue Firehouse. It was her son Nick’s fourth birthday party, and she had gone over the top in full first-time-mother fashion. She recalled a dozen three and four year-olds dressed in bedraggled hand me downs and sporting unkempt hair gathered around the firetruck in the middle of the room. Next to the truck a tall and handsome fireman was dressed in full firefighter gear. She and the other mothers and gazed adoringly at him as he said to the children: “This is what firemen wear to fight a fire.”. He showed them the helmet and the heat protective clothing. Finally, he put a mask over his face.
“I look a little scary, don’t I?” The children nodded.
“I look like I might be a monster or a space alien.” He said in a big scary voice.
The children’s eyes widened and there were more nods.
“But I am not!”, he said taking off his mask and helmet to show his handsome young face. “I am a fire fighter! I am here to help you if there is a fire” he grinned. Then the handsome young firefighter got very serious. He did not take the fake serious tone that adults sometimes take with children. “If you see me in my uniform, you might get scared and run away from me or hide.” More nods from the children.
“I don’t want you to run away or to hide. That is very dangerous in a fire. Fire fighters are good guys. We are here to help you.” He had his audience of little faces’ attention. “So” he said brightly, “If you see a fire fighter and he is in his protective gear, do you know what I want you to do?”
“No”, their little heads shook. “Run up and give him a big hug so he can scoop you up and take you away from the fire.”
In the days after the tragedy she wondered repeatedly what had become of the handsome fire fighter.
I headed home to Greenpoint, but the Long Island Expressway was jammed with fire trucks and other emergency, grinding traffic to a standstill. Though I tried to look at the road, it was hard to keep my eyes off the huge smoke clouds billowing up from Manhattan.
Barbara McGlamery ended up walking home over the 59th Street bridge behind a guy wearing a black Exodus t-shirt. When she got home to Milton Street a fine dust was settling on everything. The dust of people and computers and building materials. The next day she went to a bodega where a Middle Eastern man was in tears. He was terrified of retaliation or of being kicked out of the country. Theywept together and she wished him luck.
The next few days are hazy. I recall posters everywhere looking for the missing, but I knew from my cousin who was doing his internship at a Manhattan hospital that few survivors had arrived at the hospital. I particularly remember a huge tribute of images of the missing and flowers in the Union Square Subway station, but most of all I remember that horrible stench of burning flesh that permeated the air for days after the fire. A few days later, when we had returned to school, we had the windows open and then that stench invaded the classroom and its horror registered on every face in the class. Someone got up and silently closed the window.
It is hard to believe that twenty years have passed.