Perhaps one could say this article is a day late. September 11 is usually a busy day for me. I visit my Grandfather at Riverside Memorial Cemetery. He fought in World War II. I spend time in deep thought. I try to treat the day as a day of mourning. 9/11 has always been a day of mourning for me, but it was 13 months after the act of war against the United States that my feelings about what had happened truly became clear.
Two hijacked jets struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center during the early morning hours of September 11, 2001. When the 110 floors of skyscrapers collapsed, among the missing were 343 firefighters bravely in the process of attempting to save as many lives as possible. In the weeks that followed was an unprecedented recovery effort at a site that became known later as “Ground Zero.”
Another jetliner flew into The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington DC., less than an hour later. A portion of the Pentagon was severely damaged by fire, and one section of the building collapsed.
A fourth aircraft never made it to its destination. United Airlines Flight 93 was on a suicide mission as well, but the crew and passengers attempted to seize control of the plane from the hijackers after learning through phone calls that similarly hijacked planes had been crashed into buildings that morning. “Let’s Roll!” was the rallying cry, and once the hijackers realized they had lost control of the situation they flew the plane into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In California I was on my way to a construction jobsite, listening to CDs, when the events transpired. When I got to the construction site, a fellow construction worker there to help repair our equipment after a break-down, asked, “Did you hear about what happened in New York?”
“No, what happened?” I asked.
“A plane,” he said, “flew into some skyscrapers. Nobody knows why, but one guy on the radio was saying that he believed it was deliberate.”
More and more information leaked to us as the day proceeded, and it became more apparent as the hours passed that not only were the events deliberate, they were an act of war.
I listened to the radio all the way home, receiving a little information here and there, but never really understanding the severity of the attacks, or the reality that it was terrorism.
When I got home, my front door was open. The day was warm, and my wife left the door open to let the air in. As I stepped up on my front porch, and peered into my living room, my eyes caught the television screen. The image was one of a plane flying into an already smoking pair of towers. The impact was incredible, sending flames through the building. People screamed, unable to believe what they were witnessing. It was then that I realized the terror of what had happened. My heart crawled into my throat, and my eyes welled up in tears.
What I was witnessing was an attack against America.
When the September 11 attacks happened, I was speechless. I even attempted to get back into the military, but my injuries I was discharge regarding were severe enough that I was unable to return to military service.
In October of 2002, my wife and I visited Ground Zero in New York City. I bought a hat with an image of the twin towers, and the words “Never Forget,” on it. A small painting with the firemen hoisting the American Flag was on sale nearby, and I bought that too.
When I walked up to the green fencing surrounding the hole that used to be the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never seen the Twin Towers in person. This was my first trip to the northeast, and it happened to be thirteen months after the September 11 attacks. I peered through a hole that had been torn in the green fabric on the construction fencing, and as I looked down I witnessed a huge hole in the ground with twisted subway tracks at the bottom. To my left, on a building that had sustained a little damage, hung a giant mural of the American Flag, and the words “Never Forget.”
A man standing beside me looked through the hole in the fencing as I pulled away from it. After he spent a few moments looking through the hole, I said, “I never saw what they looked like.”
“You mean the towers?” he asked.
“Yeah, the World Trade Center. This is my first trip to New York. I am from Los Angeles, and I never saw what the towers looked like.”
The man lowered his eyes, and said, “The New York skyline is not the same. They dominated the skyline. It’s not the same.”
“Were they tall?” I asked.
“They towered over the other skyscrapers. Now, when you are outside the city, and you look towards the city, you can tell that something is missing. The skyline is not the same.”
We were silent for a moment, then he asked, “Have you seen the Statue of Liberty?”
“Yes,” I replied. “This morning. She’s beautiful.”
My eyes began to well up with tears as I recounted the experience of meeting Lady Liberty for the first time, even though I couldn’t get close enough to touch her, or go inside, because of heightened security.
“Yes,” he said, “she is lovely.”
“I was at the Arlington Cemetery yesterday. Saw the Statue of Liberty this morning. Then we came here.”
The man turned to face me, his eyes were wet. “I worked in the towers,” he said. “I was running late to work, that morning. I watched the planes fly into the towers from my car. I was supposed to be in them that morning. The towers, I mean. I haven’t been back here since. Today is my first visit to the hole that once was the twin towers since it happened.
“I lost a lot of friends, that day,” he continued. “People were running in all directions. We didn’t know what to think. We just knew that what was happening was horrible. When the second plane flew into the tower, I knew it was no accident. They meant to do this. They meant to kill thousands of people.
“It only took a couple hours for the towers to fall. I was far enough away so I wasn’t in danger, but the white cloud after they fell was horrendous. The smoke and dust covered the entire city. It seemed like there was no escape. The people. All of those people in the towers. All of those people in the streets near the towers. They were dead. All of them. They were dead.”
I didn’t know what to say, but as I looked around I noticed that we were no longer alone. A group of about twenty people had surrounded us, listening to the man tell me about the day the towers fell. Some of them were probably locals, but I am guessing most of them were tourists. Nonetheless, they were all crying. They were crying with him, feeling his grief. Feeling his pain.
Reaching over, I placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, and he suddenly, to my surprise, reached over and pulled me into a hug. He wept on my shoulder like a child, releasing the anger and pain of a year’s worth. Nobody walked away. Everyone remained around us, each with their head bowed, mourning with him, praying for all of us.
We stood near that green fence around the hole that used to be the World Trade Center Twin Towers for quite a while, in a tearful embrace. At that moment, I was no longer a Californian, and he was no longer a New Yorker. We were Americans. We were Americans grieving for our fallen.
Afterward, we shook hands, and as he looked me in the eye he said, “Never forget.”
Another tear rolled down his wet cheeks.
I nodded, but said nothing as our hands separated, and the man walked away. The crowd slowly dispersed, and my wife walked up to me after walking up from around the corner asking, “Did I miss something?”
“Yeah,” I said, “But I couldn’t describe it properly if I tried.”
It was at that moment that 9/11 truly became alive to me. The disconnect I had before, being a West Coast Southern Californian, was gone. The image of the hole below became etched in my memory. The tears of the people around me as the man that had lost his skyline wept remains with me still.
A family member later bought a book for me titled “Portraits 9/11/01,” which is the collected “Portraits of Grief” from the New York Times, and I read each and every one of the portraits of the people listed in that book. Another book, given to me by my mother, titled “Report From Ground Zero” by Dennis Smith, who was one of the firefighters on the scene, served to educate me more on what happened that day, and each day that followed.
I have a portrait of the World Trade Center on my office wall. It actually has two images in it, both showing what the skyline looked like before 9/11, with the two towers dominating the scene. At the bottom the words read, “World Trade means World Peace.”
Unfortunately, to those 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, peace was the last thing on their mind. Instead of peace, on that morning, two hijacked jetliners struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The 110 stories of both towers collapsed, and nearly 3,000 men, women and children died that day.
The man who wept told me to never forget.
We Shall Never Forget.