In the Suburbs: 19 years later and the wounds still won't close

Firefighters bow their heads during a prayer at the town's annual Sept. 11 ceremony Monday at fire headquarters on Reef Road. Fairfield,CT. 9/11/17

Firefighters bow their heads during a prayer at the town's annual Sept. 11 ceremony Monday at fire headquarters on Reef Road. Fairfield,CT. 9/11/17

Genevieve Reilly / Hearst Connecticut Media

Nineteen years have passed since passenger planes became weapons and the World Trade Center towers and part of the Pentagon fell and a group of courageous passengers stormed the cockpit of another plane on target to destroy the White House and crashed it to the ground in Shanksville, Penn. No matter how hard I try to put the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 behind me, since I was working in Manhattan at the time, I believe that I must always remember that day as if it was yesterday.

And so many of those memories flooded back in as I created a display of 9/11 books at the bookstore. While I haven’t read these books, I certainly know the contents all too well.

While experiencing so many of the horrors of that day vicariously, I became part of the events through the sad experiences of colleagues in my office, like our receptionist, who arrived that morning and spoke to her son, who was trapped on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center, for the last time. Another colleague arrived just as we were watching TV in the conference room while the first tower collapsed. She shrieked and fainted.

My boss did an immediate lock down of the office and it wasn’t until later that the restriction was lifted and I was able to walk with a colleague from our location at 20th and Park Avenue South to Washington Square Park near New York University. It looked like a war zone and the fires from the fallen towers were an indelible reminder of what happened that day.

By mid-afternoon, we had no phone service but when I checked my emails, I discovered an email from my original editor Pat Hines, filled with questions about what was happening and asking whether I could supply her with any email accounts of the day’s happenings. Some were first-hand descriptions and others came from office colleagues and friends who had experienced happenings first hand.

Hours later, I lost count of the number of emails. Those emails became pages 1 and 2 of the Sept. 12 Fairfield Citizen and gave me a stronger sense of connection with my readers.

Another powerful part of 9/11 for me was walking through the front entrance of our building toward Grand Central and joining a caravan of soot-filled people walking in complete silence. The ashen looks on their faces seemed to tell the story of the aftermath of the collapse of the towers. I fell into the formation easily.

Later, when I had finally returned to Fairfield, my wife and I went to a favorite restaurant and met a fellow Fairfield resident and his family. He seemed anxious to talk and shared that he worked on the third floor of the north tower. He shared that when he looked up and saw part of the engine of a plane drop in front of his office window, he rounded up his colleagues in minutes and they all escaped. He expressed gratitude that safety was only three flights below his office.

This gentleman, clearly agitated, added that this was his second bout with danger in the World Trade Center. He was also forced to escape in 1993 when a terrorist attack caused the explosion in the garage of the building.

Over the weeks and even months that followed the 9/11 disaster, I was probably haunted more by the seemingly endless stream of family members and friends wandering through the outdoor photo displays, hoping to find loved ones alive in nearby hospitals. Our office receptionist never found her son, but about two months later searchers found some remains and the family went ahead with a funeral. It was a heart-wrenching experience for all of us.

To remain a part of fund-raising efforts, I volunteered for several months with the Red Cross and often fielded calls from distraught family members about their loved ones. Those calls were the toughest part of my work.

What was truly powerful about the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy was how quickly and powerfully people came together to support each other. With fundraising events for the families of fallen heroes, huge memorials and genuine caring, Americans put their lives back together.

Ironically, 19 years later, as we remember 9/11 in this new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found some parallels to how quickly people came together to help each other. While circumstances were different, both events were catastrophic in their own way and filled with so much loss of life and destruction of families. We have been reminded by the actions of first responders in both cases that the American people are not afraid to risk their lives and pitch in to help each other.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears occasionally on Fridays. He can be reached at