Remembering September 11, 2001

Writing this blog was not an easy task. I have started and stopped several times trying to organize my thoughts and collect my emotions. As one of the numerous professionals who responded to the tragic events of September 11th, I did not want to sound too preachy nor did I want to come across as pretentious. My hope for the blog was to give personal accounts, recollections, and thoughts about the day and the ten years that followed. I realized, as I jotted ideas down, every first responder who went to New York has a story and my story is not unlike anyone else. There are some memories I will keep private and others I discuss. September 11th, 2001 was a day I will never forget, but, at times, wish I never remember. It was a day the world, as most of us knew it, changed. We can all recall where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing as the attacks began. My time spent in New York City helping people to recover from the tragedy opened my eyes wider than they were ever opened before. From the moment the attacks occurred to the last day of my several months helping in New York, I saw, experienced, and felt things I would never forget. As I think about that day and the ten years after, five very distinct words come to mind: anger, sadness, love, hope, and admiration.

Anger, for me, came a long time after the initial attack. I held back feeling angry because of all the work that needed to be done. I had to keep my game face on and help those affected by the tragedy. I do not recall feeling anything other than compassion my first month in New York City. I almost felt ashamed to be angry because of the loss and devastation. I remember talking with a Port Authority Officer and he told me he had no time to be angry because of the job he has to do. I’m not saying people were not angry. Trust me, there were a lot of angry people. I just placed my anger on hold for awhile. Anger is a normal and essential human emotion. It is easy for all us to be angry at the group of people responsible for the tragedies of 9/11, but I think the anger felt is more of a constant reminder of how the world changed. Shortly after 9/11, I had to take a business trip requiring me to fly. If you can remember, air travel was, at best, a surreal experience during the first few years post 9/11. Security was intense and lines were very long. I booked my flight and was notified to give at least three hours to go through security and check my bags. I will be the first to admit, time has always been a problem for me, but I knew it would be beneficial to adhere to the new security standards. As I arrived at my gate, the line was already a mile long. Soldiers with weapons were standing at the gate and mostly everyone was silent in line. I took my place and waited for my turn to pass through the security. As I stood there, an older couple hurried into line obviously in a rush not to miss their flight. I tried to keep to myself, but they were making their displeasure about the wait known to everyone. Twenty minutes in line felt like two hours. The more we waited, the more the older couple complained. I gathered from their loud conversation, they had only given themselves forty-five minutes to check in. I was wearing a fire house job shirt which is a very distinctive shirt with the fire company’s insignia and logo. A soldier walked down the line and nodded to me. Recognition, maybe. Being friendly, more likely. His simple act of acknowledgement was all the couple needed to launch into their tirade of ridicule and disdain for the military. And then it happened, the older man turned to me and said, “I bet you will get special privileges because of what you are wearing.” An explosion went off in my brain. The pain, the anger, the sadness from the recent tragic events came to me in one single blow. I have no idea what made me so angry at this little old man, but the anger was intense. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry sir that the deaths of 343 fire fighters created an inconvenience for you today.” I did not know what else to say or do. I said what I said and turned around. Defiant, angry, appropriate, I’m not sure but it quieted them down. The gentleman in front of me turned and thanked me. I went through security and life went on. I think back to that moment and realized that little old man gave me my personal definition of anger for 9/11. The senseless deaths of over 3000 people created an inconvenience for others. It still gets me angry to think about it ten years later.

We all experience sadness in our own unique ways. Some are sad because of the loss of loved ones. Some are sad because of how the world changed. Some are sad because of the horrible memories of the attacks. Some are sad because they had to watch loved ones go off to war. My sadness stems from the overall sense of loss. The national pride and unity was incredible following 9/11. People seemed more kind and caring. For a moment in time, we all acknowledged our American pride. We flew our flags proudly. We had our flags on our houses and our vehicles. Flag makers could not produce them fast enough. But, our myopic view as a society reared its ugly head. After a short period of time, flags came down. I remember seeing a few tattered flags on the roadside and thinking how sad of a thing that was. A few flags turned into many forgotten worn flags on the roadside and, eventually, seeing a flag displayed with pride became a rarity. The sadness I feel is not because people do not fly flags, but it is because we, as a society, went back, for the most part, to what we were before. It is sad we only come together in times of tragedy. I remember a trip to New York City as a kid. I was only about 8 years old at the time. My first thoughts of the Twin Towers were ones of amazement and curiosity. The shear enormity of the Towers, for an 8 year old, was staggering. I am sad my children did not get to see them and experience what I experienced. I am sad all the children born after that day will not get to see the Twin Towers and marvel at their size. I am sad at the senseless loss of life and the pain the families of the deceased feel. This sadness started when I encountered the empty helmets worn by firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers never to come back. 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority Police officers, 23 police officers, 3000 civilians died and an additional 6000 people injured for no good reason. Not a single person killed that day imagined that would be their last day on earth. The world changed for everyone that day. This is where my sadness lies.

About nine days after the attacks, I emerged from an area where I had been talking to several firefighters. I was covered in ash and dirt feeling exhausted. I sat down on a bench and held my head in my hands. I was looking for a moment of peace, comfort, maybe even some absolution. A young girl walked up to me without saying a word and hugged me. I had no idea who she was nor did I ever see her again, but in that moment of exhaustion and inner pain, she gave me a glimpse of peace. Her simple act of a hug, whether she meant it or not, helped me to understand the sadness of the situation would eventually dissipate. When I think of the past ten years, the feeling of love comes from a deep place which was forged by those random acts of kindness. Compassion and caring about others seemed to take shape. I remember the Campbell’s soup trucks lining up near Ground Zero to offer a hot meal to the workers. Restaurants would open their doors for you and people would shake your hand just to say they appreciated you. I do not think that feeling was ever lost. To me, that is a feeling of love. The mere fact people appreciated what you have done for others helped me grow as a person. I have tried not to take people in my life for granted, but after 9/11, I tried even harder to show my love for the people in my life. There have been times where I was left flat with those feelings but, for the most part, I have remained true to those feelings. I have been accused of giving people too many chances or holding on to things too tightly, but I firmly believe you get what you give. If I give a second chance, maybe I will get one in return.

Moments after watching the Twin Towers fall, I was given the task of assessing and speaking to a group of children who had just lost one or both parents in the attacks. These were the children in the day care centers in the towers on the lower floors. I gathered them around and found some paper, pencils, and crayons. I asked the kids to draw whatever came to mind. Most of the kids created pictures of the planes going into the towers or the towers on fire, but one little girl’s picture was a rabbit in a grassy field. I leaned down, a bit befuddled by the picture, and asked the little girl, “Who’s that?” The little girl looked up at me and said, “That’s Max. He’s my bunny. I hope someone will feed him tonight because he is home all alone and I don’t want him to be scared.” Needless to say, I was touched and a bit choked up. Hope is the emotional state which promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one’s life. It is the “feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best” or the act of “looking forward to with desire and reasonable confidence” or “feeling that something desired may happen”. Even in the midst of the tragedy of that day, this little girl retained a sense of hope. My hope stems from similar feelings. Not that her bunny Max was fed, even though that would have been a nice thing, but, rather, there is something beyond this event. Hope we continue to grow as a nation. Hope all the troops come home safe and alive. Hope the tragedies of 9/11 never occur again. Hope for the families of the deceased to find some sort of peace some day. Hope for the members of the emergency services to continue doing their jobs while staying and keeping us safe. I have tremendous hope I can continue to do my job helping people during disasters.

If you served or are serving in the armed forces, the quote, “All gave some, some gave all” has a very distinct and special meaning. With the utmost respect for our military personnel, I believe this phrase can also be used for the first responders of 9/11. There were thousands of men and women who responded to New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania with the sole purpose of helping those in need. These people did not know if there would be injured or dead or even other perils waiting for them. They wanted to help. They wanted to help the victims and they wanted to help their nation. I remember meeting other disaster workers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians from as far as California and even Hawaii who offered to help during the months after the attacks. As the work progressed, there were new faces to relieve the exhausted and weary. I admire the businessmen and women who continue to work day after day following the attacks. I admire the construction workers who are now rebuilding WTC1, the Freedom Tower. I admire the resolve of the citizens of the United States. Most of all, I admire my rough and ready crew who joined me during the relief efforts a few minutes after the attacks until the very last one of us went home months later and who join me every year in New York for the memorial services.

We cannot change what happened on September 11th, 2001. We can only learn from it. My thoughts and prayers are and will always be with the friends and families of all the victims of 9/11.