It’s strange how 10 years can change things. Despite the impact 9/11 had on me and my family and the sad losses we faced, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel like a bad, distant dream these days. But as I began to write this months ago, everything came back to me. My heart raced and my eyes teared, because that day was all too real.
So this might be kind of long-winded, but, I thought it was worth writing as a reminder to myself and perhaps as a form of venting.
Moments of Silence
I remember everything about that day. I was 15. I had straightened my hair and was wearing jeans and a striped shirt. The weather was beautiful, cloudless and warm. I was sitting in gym class on the bleachers, doing nothing since it was the first week of my sophomore year.
When they called everybody who had family in the WTC to the library, I didn’t really think much of it. But my dad’s office had moved to the same block, and my aunt had worked across the street for years so I decided to go. As I walked the halls I started hearing rumors of a plane crash.
When I got there, it was confirmed. I called my mother and she said everything was ok. I wouldn’t find out for years that she lied, she had no idea where my dad or aunt were at the time.
The second plane hit and then the pentagon, and then the towers completely fell. We knew it was no accident so I went to my biology class to tell my teacher that I was going to stay in the library until i knew what was happening to my family; my sister and then 5 year old nephew lived in DC and I was a wreck at this point.
When I walked into the classroom, everybody was completely lost. They looked at me, curious and worried. Were we under attack? What had happened? Nobody knew.
This was one of two moments that forever stick out in my mind about 9/11. I will never forget the faces of my classmates as I had to explain that the towers were gone, the pentagon hit, thousands were likely dead, and that we were most definitely under attack. The news was met with silence and shocked faces.
My mom eventually picked me up from school. My cousin and I went to the clay-pits, a big open field in the middle of town and took pictures of the sky where the smoke from the towers could be seen stretching the horizon.
Later that day, we went to pick up my dad at Metropark, the largest commuter train station in our area. The entire ride my eyes were fixed in the direction of New York, unable to look away from the smoke.
Hundreds of people waited as train after train and bus after bus came, unloading passengers from the city hoping their loved ones would be coming. Again, there was dead silence, mostly.
Every now and then, someone would come out covered in dirt and/or blood. Every time the passengers stopped coming, a woman nearby would start wailing, asking “Where is she?!”
This is the second unforgettable moment of that day, that entire scenario and the moment my dad walked out of the station. He cried when re-watching footage of the day; he had seen people jumping to their death in person.
Jeanie’s story is intense and perhaps a big graphic, but it’s amazing and deserves to be told.
She was family by marriage, cousins to my cousins, and very Italian from Brooklyn. I didn’t know her well; she was older and I didn’t see her much outside of family functions. Still, I had spent the previous thanksgiving at her house and her voice (that accent!) and outgoing personality was unforgettable.
She was waiting to transfer buses at the WTC, then a very large commuter hub, when the first plane hit. Burning jet fuel from the impact fell and burned her body severely, over 90% 3rd degree.
She made her way inside the lobby of the hotel between the towers where a good samaritan, Ronald Clifford, saw what had happened to and came to her aid, covering her body with his jacket and eventually getting her to an ambulance. Because of this, he was away from the buildings when the second plane hit and then eventually fell.
The tragedy of his story is that his sister and niece were on the second plane that crashed.
Jeanie lost her battle over a month later, her body unable to recover (official cause of death, as I recall, was kidney failure). Over that month, our family waited anxiously. I remember listening to my aunt on the radio, 1010wins, talking about her progress and their hope for her survival. Her funeral was astounding; hundreds upon hundreds of people came each day. Scores of NYPD officers also came to show their respects, as the Mafeo / Centeo family had many ties with them.
It was a sad moment, but I guess that funeral was sort of the conclusion of that chapter for myself. But the story was far from over.
10 Years of Aftermath
Since then, the rest of this tale comes back in moments.
There were times I suddenly remembered when I was little every time we drove between the Twin Towers to go home through the Holland, I’d stick my head out the window, much to the dismay of my parents, and just look up at the twin towers reaching to the sky. It was particularly amazing at night. I realized I’d never be able to do that again, but perhaps I was lucky to have those memories in the first place.
That Friday, Sept 14th, the country held a candlelight vigil. My best friend and I spent hours walking around town declaring with everybody else that we would not falter in the face of terrorism. Never had I felt so American in my life. Never had I truly felt that despite so many quarrels and differences the people of this country had, we could still stand together.
Next, I recall sitting shocked and appalled as we bombed Baghdad and wondering, in whose mind was this justice? Half of this country thought it was right. The other half was disgusted. This was the first of many splits to come.
There were all the times we’d drive the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to abuela’s house in Bushwick for countless holidays and gaze at a skyline forever changed.
The news that soldier’s caskets returning from the middle east could no longer be shown on TV.
The friend who went to fight in the war right after high school and came back feeling his life was worthless and unable to adjust to normality. He eventually went back, because it was all he knew, and I haven’t heard from him since.
This very year I recall sitting on a train on my way to work in NY and crying, because news of Bin Laden’s death came and I had no idea what to feel but sadness.
It took me five years to garner up the courage to go to the WTC site. I had driven past plenty of times having moved to New York for college 3 years after the attack. The WTC was right by the exit to the Holland Tunnel, so it was impossible to avoid whenever coming to and from school. Downtown NY was still a ghost-town, the streets lined with closed stores, lingering debris, and a haunted, lonely feeling. Back then you couldn’t go within 3 blocks of the area without escort.
Another two years passed and I finally went to pay my respects to Jeannie, and another victim I later learned about, Cathy Smith. I had never met her. She was the domestic partner of a very important family member, though, and it was a situation that brought up the injustices for same-sex couples when it came to aid and compensation. Here we could walk up to the gates surrounding the site in designated areas. It was still a giant hole in the ground. But even then I could see the area starting to bounce back.
I wound up at ground zero this summer by accident, the first time I had been there directly since my last visit. Although I had been downtown a few times and it was.. inspiring, honestly, to see just how much has changed.
The area is alive again, completely. The memorial is well under way, with construction on the surrounding area making great progress. The building my dad worked in is still not open to be used, but it’s starting to look almost completely renovated. People were everywhere having lunch and going about their business.
While seeing this brings a lot of warmth to my heart, there’s a darkness I can’t ignore.
United We Fall?
In my eyes one of the worst tragedies of all is how we’ve changed, because in the past 10 years that unification and togetherness has all but shattered in the face of childish political schisms and abuse of power in the name of security. It’s sad because, in my mind, the terrorists have beat us. Bin Laden may now be dead, but our entire way of life has changed because of the dark intent of himself and his followers. We’ve lost a lot since 9/11. That unity is gone. We turn a blind eye constantly to our basic rights being invaded without question, and yet scoff at the idea of helping one another. We squabble and slow down progress because nobody is willing to yield and compromise for the sake of moving forward. At times I am enraged but moreso I’m heartbroken because I know we can be so much better than this. I know it, because I saw it. I was there, on September 14th, 2001 when an entire nation swelled with pride and support in the face of trauma.
I don’t want to get too political. I understand that has a lot to do with it, but, in it’s basic form, a lot of this is social, too. We live in a world where we’re constantly informed, connected, and provided the outlets to discuss ideas. We have so much power to make a difference, a good difference, but we sit idly by regardless. Why?
I guess in the end, as we solemnly give our respect to the past decade, I hope that people take a moment to remember what it felt like back then and make better choices. And most importantly, not lose faith in our future. Because in the face of that reality, so much of what’s going on seems so petty and useless. I just don’t want it to take yet another tragedy, another natural disaster or attack on our home to bring us together again. We should just do that by default. We should be at our best at all times, not just when we’re in a crisis of any kind.
Anyway, this is for you, Manhattan. For all the years of triumphs and tragedies, you’re still an amazing, resilient kingdom.