Today is the 18th anniversary of 9/11. If a baby was born on 9/11/2001, they are an adult, as of today. It’s kind of wild. 18 years since an event that is one of the definitive moments of my generation. 18 years since the NYC skyline changed. 18 years since the fear and the horror and the despair coursed through me. I still remember that day so clearly.
I was born in New Jersey, but I was living in Georgia when the towers fell. I had just turned 14, I was in my first month of high school, so it may seem like the event had no real bearing on my life. However, my cousin worked on Wall Street, and he’s one of the best people I know, so if he has the chance to be a hero, he’s going to take it (even though he won’t think of it like that). At the same time, my aunt was supposed to be flying to NYC that very morning.
I was in second period health class and we were watching some boring video (I didn’t forget what the video was about, I just read through it and genuinely didn’t know). At the time, my high school still had the vcr-tv set-up – you remember, you’d have to switch the television to channel 3 and put the tape in and fight with it, because very little money goes into classrooms and the equipment never works properly? (And I was in a brand new school – only the second freshman class!). Anyway, this boring video was playing, something my health teacher had taped over something else, and the video stopped. However, it stopped at the exact moment the second tower was hit. I had glanced up because the sound had changed, but there’s a plane hitting New York City, so my entire class just assumed it was a scene from whatever movie he’d taped over. A couple of the boys cheered, someone asked what movie it was, I was going to get back into my book.
As I looked down, I caught a glimpse of my health teacher’s face. He had this look, kind of blank, but it gave me this feeling of dread. I looked back at the television, put my book down, and tried to figure out why the whole situation felt wrong. It took about a minute for the teacher to find his voice, but he told us all to quiet down and he turned up the volume. I remember that the bell rang shortly after, but I didn’t move. Me and one other girl, whose dad was in NYC for a business thing that week. She was going to fly up that weekend to see the city with him. She’d asked me where they could go, what things they could do.
As the classroom was clearing out, I asked my health teacher if this was just some movie – and he said no. Then he chased us off to class – probably because he needed to alert the principal, but at the time, I just remember that I needed to see what was going on, and he was running me off.
I had English next with a teacher I didn’t get along with under the best of circumstances (Sorry not sorry, but if you make me read My Antonia and then argue with me about how it’s not boring, I WILL hate you). I ran up the two flights of stairs to her classroom, tossed my bag on my desk, and told her she needed to turn the television on. She refused, and I tried to explain that a plane had hit New York, but she refused to believe me. I argued with her for about two minutes, and right as another teacher ran in telling her the Twin Towers had been hit, I grabbed my bag again. She started to flip on the news, but I’d started to process again, and I knew I needed to not be at school. I went to the office (hi, girl from Health class!) and demanded they call my mom. The secretary tried to argue with me, but I just said that my cousin is in there (I meant the general area, but she probably assumed I meant the towers) and I was going home, one way or another. I also had this gut feeling that the towers were not the end of it.
My mom was a travel agent, so when I called, she was too swamped trying to find her people to pick me up. But, and I didn’t know this at the time, my aunt’s trip had been moved, and she was home. She picked me up within 15 minutes and we went home. My aunt said it might be easier if I stayed in school, but I continued to insist there was more coming – shortly after we got home, the Pentagon was hit. The rest of the day was just us, sitting in front of the television, and frequently calling Jersey family for updates.
See, my cousin, J, had had knee surgery shortly before 9/11 and it was his first week back at work. If he’d caught the train that morning and followed his normal routine, he would’ve been within blocks of the WTC at the time of the attack. And knee surgery or no, J would have run closer to try to save people.
The phone lines were overwhelmed, the rescuers were overwhelmed, and we could not find J. His boss hadn’t seen him. His wife knew he’d left the house on time. He wasn’t answering his pager. Just…nothing. And that night, when he should’ve been getting home…nothing.
It wasn’t until the next day that we finally got an update. J had arrived in the city on time, but he was moving a bit slower because of his knee. That’s why he wasn’t close enough to the WTC to try to run in. He’d still been pretty close, but when he realized there was a problem, he tried to run, fell in the mass of people, and a woman, who I still say is a freaking SAINT, saw him and took him into her apartment in a nearby building. He’d been trying to call his family, but, like I said, the phonelines were down. He was able to stay the night in her place until he could find his way out of the city.
My cousin got home safe, my aunt had the luck of the devil (she also barely missed the Oklahoma City bombing years earlier), and none of my mother’s clients were hurt. The girl in my health class – her father rented a car and drove home safe. Everyone I knew came out of it unscathed, but that wasn’t true for so many other people. For people working in the towers, for people on the wrong plane at the wrong time, for rescuers as the buildings collapsed. So many lives lost.
Now, it’s 18 years later. I’ve seen how NYC comes together in times of trouble. I’ve seen communities band together and I’ve seen the divisiveness that occurs when people need someone to blame and decide not to separate out individuals but judge based on skin color. That day, it’s crazy but it felt like a small piece of me had been taken. I’d always loved NYC and now part of it was missing. And if you’d dropped a bunch of New Yorkers near Bin Laden, I’d lay money that the issue would have been solved quite a bit faster, because don’t mess with New York. People are rabid about the city. But I also think it is so important to remember that the city stands for diversity, for the melding of different beliefs, ethnicities, cultures. I mean, it’s New York – anything goes! Drag queens sit next to priests and rabbis on the subway, you have Italians and Irish and Puerto Rican people all coming together. I’ve seen people walking down the street in tightie-whities or spandex cat suits. Just because a group of people did something…terrible, mind-bogglingly awful, doesn’t mean we should blame anyone who looks a little like them. New York doesn’t want it that way.
Remember 9/11. Remember New York and what it stands for.