Image Credits: Courtesy of the author
Nineteen years have passed since the September 11th terror attacks rocked our entire nation and left us reeling. 2,977 Americans lost their lives that day and many more since then have passed due to health complications from the clean-up of Ground Zero. Overall, 2,753 Americans were lost in New York and 184 at the Pentagon, those numbers including the flight passengers. 412 emergency workers, 343 firefighters, 60 police officers, eight emergency medical technicians and one patrol officer lost their lives. 40 people heroically overthrew the hijackers and crashed Flight 93 into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, thwarting the terrorists’ plot to destroy the U.S. Capitol building.
This day has had a profound impact on my life as my Dad was working in the Pentagon during the time of the attacks. My sister and I were only seven at the time so we were at school on that crisp, sunny September day. There were rumors of a bomb going off at some big building in New York. Teachers and administrators were scurrying around, trying to phone parents to pick up their children. My mom, meanwhile, was racing to pick us up. She helped other students leave with their parents to keep busy and distract herself from the news. As we drove away from our school, we saw military members out on guard and cordoning off entryways and bridges as we lived close to the Naval Academy. My mom said something to the effect of “Girls, there has been a terrible attack where your Dad works. Some people wanted to hurt Americans, but Daddy is okay”. She barely squeaked the words out as she was still frantically processing all that had just unfolded within a couple hours.
We then headed home to wait for an indeterminable amount of time for my dad. After what seemed like the longest evening of our lives waiting and waiting, we finally heard a car pull up and a door shut. My dad had made it home. He bused home part of the way and was then dropped off by a caring stranger as the trains from Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia were shut down that day. I can still remember reaching up to give my dad a hug and telling him that he smelled like smoke. What he did not want to share at the time with his young daughter was that his business suit was not filled with just the smell of “smoke”. It carried on it the remains of the charred Pentagon and all who were in it: ash, smoke, building debris and even burnt flesh. It is quite a chilling detail that still to this day rocks me to my core.
My grandma from the west coast had called my mom early that morning when the World Trade Center was hit informing her of what was going on. Then, moments before the Pentagon was targeted my mom called my dad advising him to be safe, maybe having a premonition that we were under attack as a nation. My dad was watching coverage of what was unfolding in New York City with other military personnel when he felt the impact of Flight 77 penetrate the Pentagon. They all smelled the jet fuel and knew that this was no coincidence. Roughly 23,000 military personnel and civilians evacuated the Pentagon within minutes. As the Pentagon is the largest building to house our country’s military, they had conducted many emergency evacuation drills. Their efficiency and preparedness definitely saved lives during the terror attacks. My dad flagged down a kind gentleman in the parking lot to use his cellphone and call my mom as all of his personal belongings had been left in the building. It took a minute to shake her from her hysteria and convince her that he was alive. All she had seen on the news were aerial shots of the Pentagon with dark plumes of smoke engulfing the entire building.
Some news estimates originally had the count of missing persons as high as 20,000 so it was hard to believe that Dad had made it out alive. Others were not able to get in touch with their loved ones, waiting and wondering for hours and days whether they had safely made it out of the war zones. My dad said that after everyone ran out of the Pentagon, many of the survivors made their way to the Pentagon City mall. As he walked into a nearby coffee shop, he had this eerie feeling when only seeing one of the Twin Towers still standing on television. All his life growing up in the Big Apple, he had known the two-tower World Trade Center, a symbol and American epicenter of free market capitalism and liberty. That symbol had been shattered by Muslim extremists that day, aiming to destroy our way of life. That never-ending night, we all watched the news coverage of the aftermath of the terror attacks. My sister and I did not really understand the underlying horror of it all as children, though our parents tried to explain some of the day’s events to us. The next day, my dad returned to work. They had all received orders to go back to the site of destruction and work to protect our nation. Military personnel were to now wear their uniforms at the Pentagon. In the past, they had not been required to and could dress as civilians. I believe that the Department of Defense knew that we were now at war and that we needed to prove we were ready to fight on the frontlines as a nation. Both the Pentagon and World Trade Center smelled of burning ash, flesh and other debris and yet heroes showed up to salvage remains and stand strong in the face of terror. We would not be defeated.
To add to the trauma of my father surviving that day, I had two other family members working in New York City at the time. My Uncle Bill was working on a retail job uptown at 86th Street and Third Avenue with ten other union construction electricians. He was contacted by his supervisor that Manhattan was being evacuated and hitched a ride home as the city trains were all shut down. While he could not reach his wife on the phone to tell her he was okay, he was thankful to hear from my dad at the Pentagon. Three days later, he and other electricians were given security badges to work at vacant spaces on Wall Street. Contractors and data company workers were building desks and installing temporary lighting, data cables and power to try and get Wall Street up and running again. It took a few days to get radio and cell phone service, and power was out for a long time. For weeks, they met at St. Paul’s Chapel across the street from the World Trade Center to continue their mission in Manhattan. Once subway service was partially restored, the trains only could travel some of the way to Ground Zero. My uncle and others had to walk the rest of the way past “The Pile” and the overpowering smell of destruction. Thirteen union brother electricians lost their lives on September 11 at the World Trade Center. For my uncle and other crew members, they found comfort in meeting at the church every morning and having a moment of silence and prayer.
My cousin Kevin, son of my uncle who was downtown, served as a police officer on Long Island at the time and was also recruited to assist in the Ground Zero operations. He said that his experience was overwhelming as he sifted through piles of debris, looking for anything or anyone. Previously, he had served as an officer in the city and had crucial knowledge to work the morgue detail and protect high risk locations. So many emergency responders worked on their usual days off or 16-hour tours to assist wherever needed post September 11, never thinking about resting. They were surrounded by controlled chaos and sirens often went off, warning that the surrounding buildings were unstable after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Kevin said that people viewed the police so proudly afterward. “People thanked us, cried with us, ate with us and so many prayed with us. Those acts of kindness did stick around for some time.” It helped those involved to heal some of the sights and sounds that they will never forget.
Both attacks on September 11 had a direct impact on my family and changed our world outlook forever. My dad still struggles with survivor’s guilt, wondering why he was spared when so many others were not. The reminders of loss were constantly present, as my dad would attend memorials and was shocked to see names of those who passed. Several people he had worked with only a few days or weeks before the attacks were now gone. My cousin Kevin checked the roll calls often to see if they found anyone that he knew who had been missing. My sister and I have come to terms with the gravity of the situation and how close we were to losing our father. Attending college in New York City, partaking in annual memorial ceremonies and visiting the memorials both in New York and Washington D.C. reminded us how fortunate we are to have our family intact. My mother went months without continuous sleep, constantly being plagued by nightmares of my dad not making it out alive and thinking of the many others that were lost or missing. We all are still deeply affected and take pause each anniversary to count our blessings and say prayers for those who continue to grieve.
On September 11th and immediately following, Americans opened their hearts to one another. People helped by giving each other a ride home; they made meals for those who lost loved ones or worked long hours for relief efforts; letters of gratitude were sent to first responders; appreciation of cops, firemen, medics, and military personnel was greatly intensified. People banded together at a time of so much heartache. No one cared who you were, where you came from, or whether you voted red or blue, everybody just took care of one another. There was unity. At sporting events, players and fans became more passionate and every game meant more than just a friendly competition- it was a show of togetherness and American pride. Artists commemorated the 9/11 heroes through song like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” and George W. Bush famously threw the first pitch at Game 3 of the World Series in 2001. Unfortunately, I think that some of this remembrance and patriotism has washed away; people forget as the years pass. We must not forget how many people lost their lives on September 11th and how we as a nation rose back up immediately to defend ourselves. Many heroes continue to answer the call of service and fight the war on terror overseas and defend the homeland. As we lose our unity as Americans, we also lose some of the meaning behind “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. This is a disservice to those involved and directly affected by the September 11 attacks, including the Americans who perished in the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack. As Rudy Giuliani said soon after that tragic day in 2001, “The attacks of September 11th were intended to break our spirit. Instead we have emerged stronger and more unified.” I hope that we can, as Americans, find some common ground and love for each other in this time of political tumult and uncertainty as we once did. Never Forget.