18 years later, a retrospective on 9/11
For the past 18 years, since the morning of September 11th, 2001 when horror and unspeakable tragedy struck Manhattan, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Penn., I’ve done more remembering than forgetting and shed more tears than I ever imagined possible. But no matter how hard I have tried to tell myself that I was a bystander and not a victim, I have been permanently scarred by this horrific day.
I arrived in Manhattan for a normal day of work on that Tuesday morning and decided to take advantage of the cool temperatures and vivid blue sky to walk down to my office on Park Avenue South. An editorial this week in the Connecticut Post reminded me of that day. “Close your eyes and ponder the colors of 9/11. Of course, the first color that comes to mind for many people will always be that morning’s azure sky. The color of hope, the endless horizon, those last few hours when everything still seemed clear.”
Within an hour of my arrival that peaceful, routine morning exploded into chaos and carnage as two jetliners crashed in short order into the north and south towers of the original World Trade Center. My colleagues and I watched those events, thinking they were surreal. Soon after, a third jetliner crashed into the lower portion of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing and injuring hundreds. Both towers collapsed just after 10 a.m. and all of us watched aghast as clouds of dust shot into the air and the open spaces became two infernos.
As these events unfolded, I fielded a phone call from the son of our receptionist. He had been at work on the 105th floor of the north tower when the first plane hit and his office was filled with smoke. I handed the phone to his mom when she breezed in, sounding very cheery. That call became a goodbye call and our receptionist collapsed in our conference room. The gravity of the day hit me very quickly.
My boss locked down our offices very quickly and it wasn’t until well after 4 that I emerged from our building with colleagues into what resembled a giant cloud of smog. As I began to walk toward Grand Central, I joined what must have been hundreds of commuters, covered in soot from the fallen towers and were trudging in silence toward the station. Most looked shell shocked and zombie like from the ordeal of this worst terrorist attack in domestic history.
After spending an eternity on a packed Metro North train that made every stop between Manhattan and Fairfield, I drove home engulfed in my own fog, trying to make some sense of the day and what had happened to all of us. I was probably in a mild state of shock.
Once home, I quietly joined my wife as she watched the ongoing coverage. When my wife asked how I was doing, I slowly shared my feelings, trying not to choke up as I described our receptionist’s grief when she lost contact with her son on the 105th floor of the north tower along with the collapse of several colleagues who arrived after having watched the towers fall. Later, we took a break from the coverage to grab a bite at Stella’s in Fairfield, but the events of the day confronted us again when we met a young family where the dad had thankfully escaped from the north tower, saving himself and others in his office. This dad shared that he had escaped once before in the 1993 bombing of the garage in the World Trade Center.
He told us that earlier that day when a part of an engine dropped in front of his third-floor office window in the north tower, he instinctively jumped up and started rounding up his office mates, directing them to leave immediately. The man had no idea what was actually happening above him, he just knew that he needed to get people out quickly and safely.
For weeks after the tragedy, I was consumed by some 2,000+ vignettes of victims’ lives that were published daily in The New York Times. As I read those briefs during my daily commute from Fairfield, I was touched and consistently moved to tears as I read about people like me who had been commuting to the city, trying to make a living, and whose lives were suddenly snuffed out, leaving families without parents or relatives.
For weeks after the tragedy, thousands of hopeful loved ones and friends of victims, wandered aimlessly with posters or pictures and contacted hospitals and eventually mortuaries for answers.
This week, as has been the practice for these 18 years, loved ones read the names of the 2,996 victims in Manhattan ceremonies, while the same activities occurred at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
And memorials commemorate the tragedy while a new Freedom Tower reaches for the sky. And we all have moved on in our own way. For me, the pain and sense of loss will never go away, but my pain is mild compared to the grief of so many others impacted by this horrific tragedy.
The bottom line - we must never forget 9/11 and we must keep fighting against terrorism. That is how the victims would have wanted it!
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.