It was a dozen years ago, but every September 11th since 2001, I feel like it is today. I start thinking about it around the 7th and I have to prepare myself mentally for the flood of emotions that will wash over me every year.
I was at work. It was the most beautiful September day you could imagine. 80 degrees and the sky seemed to be bluer than usual. No clouds. It was my second year as a teacher, so we were cut off from the news. Suddenly Ronald Burshtein, a student known for his, well, quirks, began running through the hallways screaming “A plane hit the twin towers! A plane hit the twin towers!” Nobody believed him, because it was Ronald. I thought to myself that if a plane had hit one of the towers, it was one of those little planes. I imagined some scaffolding around the damage.
I had no idea.
As the minutes passed, someone found an old transistor radio and we turned on the news.
It was bad.
Still, we all thought it was an accident. A terrible tragedy. A plane taking off from JFK or LaGuardia broke down above the Manhattan skyline. It had to be. How else could a 747 hit one of the Twin Towers?
It wasn’t long before the second plane hit. We couldn’t see the footage. We could only hear the reporter’s descriptions. Minutes later our entire school was evacuated because some dummy called in a bomb threat. Students were asking teachers if they could use their cell phones to call their parents who worked in downtown Manhattan. Everybody was quiet. Teachers walked to their cars to turn on the news. We all stood underneath that blue, blue sky protected from the death and destruction that was happening in our city.
Then we saw the smoke. From miles and miles away, the blue blue sky suddenly had a trickle of black smoke rising in the distance. We stared at the smoke. Some people started crying. It was still so quiet.
All public transportation was shut down, so the students who could walk home were told to leave and those who didn’t were given rides home by teachers. I got into my own car and drove the short distance to my Mom’s house. The TV was on. It was stunning.
It was hard to watch, but you couldn’t stop looking. You prayed for those above the burning planes, but you also knew-if they weren’t dead yet, they would be soon.
And then the first tower came crashing down. It was horrifying. How could that tower-one of the gems of the New York skyline cone crashing down within seconds? And the people. What about the people on the street and still stuck inside? The firemen who ran into rescue and hit a brick wall?
So many souls were simply vaporized. No traces of their existence left. Not a hair or a tooth or a fingernail or an earring. Others were killed by the falling rubble. Bodies everywhere. I read somewhere that all of the New York hospitals went into emergency mode, expecting tons of triage. Hour after hour passed. Nobody came.
Nobody came because no one was injured.
You escaped or you died.
The second tower fell shortly after the first. My mouth gaping at the television set I couldn’t believe the dust cloud that it produced. How many more people? And what about the people running through the streets? Trying desperately to get away. To save their lives. My sister ran that day. She walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge. So many people walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge. Tired, confused, scared, sad, covered in ash and asbestos, lonesome and lost.
Schools were closed the next day and that’s when the “Missing People” signs started coming out. Family, desperate to find their loved ones made signs, hoping and praying that they just couldn’t get home the night before. Praying and hoping. Nobody knew the body count. It was first estimated at 10,000. It was much less than that, closer to 3,000. But nobody knew at the time. It was complete chaos. Where do you begin to cleanup the rubble of two fallen towers? How do you organize a place to keep body parts, burned clothing, a shoe?
If you’re not from New York, I don’t think you can feel the impact the way we do. It’s painful. Every year it’s painful. I listen to the reading of the names every year and I weep. Gone. They’re all gone and our buildings are gone too.
The Freedom Tower is being built and making beautiful progress, but I remember driving through a part of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, seeing those towers and saying to who ever was in the car– “Best skyline on Earth. Where else can you see a skyline like that?” Every time I drove past before the Freedom Tower started going up, I wanted to cry. It was like looking at a beautiful smile with the two front teeth pulled out.
The Freedom Tower is beautiful and so is the memorial. But it’ll never replace those towers. MY towers. Every New Yorker’s towers. They made us proud.
And I’ll never forget.