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Shortly after a conversation ensues with most locals, I’m usually asked, “You’re from up North ain’t ya?” While I smirk at both the recognition that I “ain’t” from around here and the grammatical structure of the question itself, I’m also happy to relate that I’m actually from out East…a little place with the nicknames “The Big Apple” and “The Melting Pot.”
Most people immediately think of the hustle and bustle of New York City with images of crowded sidewalks, the blaring horns of taxi cabs, and the sardine effect of the renowned subway system.
However, far from all of that chaos, I grew up in a little town called Center Moriches. Now imagine if you will the quiet serenity of waking up to the gentle sound of waves lapping in at high tide, gulls squawking and the distant sound of the occasional foghorn. This certainly paints a different picture, doesn’t it? (Speaking of painting, if you’re familiar with the famous painter Norman Rockwell and all of the covers he did for The Saturday Evening Post, you’ll get a succinct image that conjures up in my mind of what it was like growing up in a small seaside community nestled on the bank of South Suffolk County, Long Island.)
However, one of the most exciting things to do was to take a trip into New York City. The City that’s larger than life and filled with the sights and sounds I wasn’t exposed to in everyday life. For me, it was exhilarating and intriguing…even more exciting than Christmas morning, dare I say. You can’t take in New York in one fell swoop and blitz everything there is to see. There is just way too much to cover in one trip. So over the years, even into my adulthood, I found myself gravitating back to visit with friends. Obviously, as with many things, you experience the City much differently when you’re 21 (or, ahem, older) than you did at 12. The memories get richer, more cherished and meaningful.
The opportunity to see the likes of The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, visit Broadway and see all the big-show billboards up in lights…back when I was a kid it was Cats (I’ll let you guess my age from here), Radio City Music Hall, take in a game at Shea or Yankee Stadium, (box seats suck!…only New Yorkers will get that joke) ice skating at Rockefeller Center or Central Park, Coney Island, South Street Seaport, The Empire State Building, The Brooklyn Bridge…and the majestic Twin Towers rising up in the horizon like guardians of the City itself.
Like most of you, I remember exactly where I was on that fateful morning. I literally started a new job for a top 10 homebuilder in St. Louis, MO, on 9/10/01. The usual introductions were made and an offer was made for my beverage of choice, to which I responded cawffee. The dead giveaway that I “ain’t” from around there either. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when I received word that the World Trade Center was hit by a plane, I immediately thought it was just a little puddle jumper or Cessna. I was then told it was a 767. My immediate response was “I’m sorry, but that’s not funny.” The backdrop to the story is that friends of mine were working in the building when the bomb went off in the basement in ’93. So, naturally, when I heard that New York’s beacons of trade and commerce were hit, I assumed it was a joke because of the revelation of where I called home the day before.
Now, all of a sudden, the memories that I had built over the course of the years all came flooding back to me. Taking in the sights from the observation decks to see the expanse of the City, meeting up with friends to have a cocktail and reminisce about the “old neighborhood,” having a Nathan’s hotdog on top of the Towers (just because I could…even though they seem to taste better at Coney Island), hanging with the guys for the one last hoorah for bachelor parties, or any number of reasons you could come up with just to get to the top of The World Trade Center.
On September 11, two planes hijacked by terrorists’ deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers, destroying the complex. One World Trade Center is struck at 8:46 a.m., Two World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. (The complex was so large that it had its own zip code: 10048). A childhood friend of mine, who lives in Columbia Heights (Brooklyn) was standing on the top of his building when the second plane hit. He related to me, “Geno, it was like watching a Bruce Willis movie, but in slow motion…you just couldn’t believe it was happening.” That’s the first and last time we ever talked about it.
Early on, the likes of CNN and other global networks were reporting that the smoke, dust and paper from the buildings was being carried across the East River into Brooklyn. Emergency responders were everywhere; pedestrians watched in confusion and utter disbelief, those that were fortunate to be on the lower levels were exiting the buildings; and sheer chaos was apparent from every camera angle.
The once stoic pillars that held their prominence in the skyline were now bowing their heads while every New Yorker, the country and the world watched in helplessness at the scenes unfolding before them. At 9:59 a.m. EST the South Tower finally buckled at her knees and collapsed to her demise. Its destruction is viewed and heard by a vast television and radio audience. As the roar of the collapse goes silent, tremendous gray-white clouds of pulverized concrete and gypsum rush through the streets, coupled with pedestrians who were looking on as anxious as the rest of the world. A mere half-hour later, the North Tower followed her sister and yielded to the wounds of terrorism.
Two distinct traumas occurred on September 11, 2001: one for those in and around the sites who felt and breathed the attacks firsthand, and another for the hundreds of millions who experienced the day’s events as a TV show broadcasting close-ups of death and destruction on an infinite loop. The world watched as new information came to us with every passing hour. The following day, the steady winds began blowing smoke and dust away from the World Trade campus by changing direction, and Brooklyn experienced 9/11 in new ways: smelling the stench of burning jet fuel, tasting the acrid grit of demolished buildings, squinting through the murky brown haze of thousands of lives reduced to ash.
Many men and women died on that day. They had no idea that their fates were sealed. They had no time for goodbyes, no time to put their affairs in order. They simply had no time. While that was the general consensus of most of the world as they sat and watched from the comfort of their living rooms, or conversed about it amongst their co-workers, or prayed about it at church, there was much more taking place than the tragedy that unfolded.
For out of every tragedy, there is generally a triumph. What I saw that day was New Yorkers…Americans…humans, helping anyone they could, helping one another. Beyond the scenes of emergency responders who arrived in droves, average citizens became heroes. We witnessed people from every walk of life helping those they wouldn’t even so much as look up from a newspaper on the subway to say “hi” to on any other given day. We witnessed black men helping Hasidic Jews, Latino men helping well-dressed business women, white officers helping Asians…humans helping their fellow man, regardless of the social and societal bridges that separated them before.
Many of the world’s population are dubious of what they don’t understand. They are cautious of those who don’t look like the majority, or who happen to act a little differently. On this fated day, all of the veils of insecurities, bigotries, racism and hate dropped along with the Twin Towers. The stories of sacrifice, valor and bravery that remained yet untold.
However, as an additional measure of triumph and display of the power of the American Spirit, we witnessed, rising out of the New York skyline on November 3, 2014, One World Trade Center opened.
“Bigger. Bolder. Better than ever. The revitalized World Trade Center is Manhattans new center of gravity—a vision of tomorrow, realized today”—wtc.com
As an interesting side note: Aboard the Skypod elevators of WTC 1…
“Guests board one of five dedicated elevators to ascend to the 102nd floor in under 60 seconds. Immersive, floor-to-ceiling LED technology in each cab invites Guests to experience a virtual time-lapse that recreates the development of New York City’s skyline from the 1500s to present day.”
What rose out of the ash and rubble on September 11, 2001? New Yorkers…the American Spirit…WE did. As we dawn on the 15th anniversary of the attack on this great country of ours, I am both proud and saddened. Proud that the “City that Never Sleeps” showed the World that we will not back down, that we will not cower to cowardice and that we will come back “Bigger. Bolder. Better than ever.” I am also saddened that the memories that I have of the City I hold so dear are tainted by the stains of terrorism.
THAT is New York on 9/11, the way I remember…and I will NEVER FORGET!