Every early September a day comes that is just beautiful – particularly sunny, bright, and gently warm. On such days, I’m sure many feel it again as clearly as if it was yesterday. That Tuesday 10 years ago, the morning was clear and warm, with radiant sunshine, the kind that makes you cup your eyes when you look up into the brilliant blue sky. The weather brings it all right back every year: the morning of September 11, 2001. A day that began in beauty and possibility turned into one of enormous death and terror.
The light of the early day in New York City transformed in minutes to dark with acrid smoke, waves of debris and dust, and gray clouds that engulfed a large portion of the city. Looking back 10 years later, I think of that light and darkness of 9/11 as epitomizing the extremes of human nature caught in that event and its aftermath. The dark that came over a huge section of New York embodied the capability of man to commit incalculably terrible actions of violence and destruction. The light signified the power of human resilience, interconnection, compassion, and love. So many memories and images of that Tuesday and the days immediately afterward reflected one or the other.
The World Trade Center in July, 2001 (Photo Credit: Brandon McCombs)
The first hours after the attacks in New York and Washington, and the plane crash in Shanksville, Pa., felt very chaotic. In those hours so little information existed to confirm who and how many had escaped the Twin Towers, who was surviving in the rubble, and who and how many had died. The rubble and minimal skeletal remains of the North and South towers were the most tangible evidence of desperate hope for life or, conversely, of death.
Staying in our midtown apartment building, I watched in disbelief and shock on television as the buildings collapsed, in the same way that many worldwide saw it that morning. Yet we as New Yorkers needed to see further what had happened. My close friend Gerry and I walked to where we could get a view, from the Hudson River’s edge in Midtown Manhattan, and we watched the huge, dark clouds of smoke rising from the area where the towers were. The stench of smoke permeated the air. The horrific nature of the attacks began to sink in.
Like so many others, my family and my partner, Janne, and her family reached out as soon as possible that day to make sure that we could account for everyone. No one in our immediate family or circle died in the 9/11 attacks, but some endured traumatic and harrowing situations. We learned of friends and family connections who were in the towers and got out, including the father of my partner’s daughter-in-law. A good friend was supposed to be in the Windows of the World that morning for a financial technology conference, but she had overslept so never made it there. All who were in Windows of the World died. While riding on a ferry on the East River on the way to work, a dear friend witnessed one of the planes flying into one of the towers. One of my sisters saw the flames shooting out of the Pentagon walls as she rode out of Washington that morning. So many recollections remain of that awful day.
Seeking the Missing
In New York, the signs of death, of horror and suffering, and of a devastated city emerged. First there were the posters. Within the first hours and days after the towers’ collapse in New York, family members and others posted the handmade signs seeking information and help to locate those who were missing. Each poster contained the missing person’s photo, his or her name, age, place of employment, and the World Trade Center floor on which he or she had been.
Those hundreds and hundreds of posters around the city remain a prevalent image from those autumn weeks – a heart-breaking one. They instantly created a connection to each victim and conveyed the importance of each life. Those missing were fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, cousins, co-workers and employees, friends, neighbors.
For a person who loves walking in New York, as so many do, a crucial sign of the extent of the horror occurred immediately: The lower part of Manhattan became closed off. New York is an open city where someone can feel whole worlds accessible in its many neighborhoods in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx. But below a certain street in Lower Manhattan, authorities set up barricades (and rightfully so) that prevented people from going to the World Trade Center site and surrounding neighborhoods. I walked to the rim of those barricades and peered southward, only to find the streets empty except for authorized personnel or some residents. Those streets and the areas near the Hudson River piers were filled with police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and military vehicles. It was chilling.
To this day, I remember my first actual look at the remains of the World Trade Center. After the authorities pulled back the barricades sometime after 9/11, I walked south to the closest spot where the city let pedestrians go. I went to about two blocks east of the site, and I was among a large crowd. From there, I suddenly spotted the twisted metal of one of the towers for the first time. My knees buckled for a moment, and I felt like I could pass out. I felt sick at seeing the destruction man is capable of when hatred consumes.
A City of Memorials
In the midst of the aftermath came an acute sense of the suffering of those who had lost family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. As the first days wore on, I can remember the feelings of uncertainty and chaos changing to utter, horrible certainty that many had died – ultimately, 2,749 victims at the World Trade Center; 184 at the Pentagon; and 40 in the crash of Flight 93 at Shanksville.
In our collective community in New York, so many died who put their lives on the line each day for people in the city: 343 firefighters, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers. We saw the images of firefighters going up the stairs of the towers as others were heading down. From our firehouse in Midtown Manhattan for Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, 15 firefighters raced to the World Trade Center and subsequently perished. A makeshift memorial of flowers and candles – like those at other firehouses – covered the wide sidewalk on Eighth Avenue for many, many days.
Like many others New Yorkers, my partner and I heeded the call of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to honor the firefighters. We attended the Memorial Mass for Lt. Kevin Donnelly in Wantagh on Long Island. His family members and friends spoke of Kevin’s dedication to being a firefighter, his bravery, and his sense of humor. The witnessing of sacrifice and heroism on 9/11 taught me never to take for granted what firefighters, police officers, and first responders do each day.
Each year on 9/11 and often during the year when I reflect on those who died that day, I especially think of the family of Chris Faughnan, someone whom I had never met. In New York in the days after 9/11, the degrees of separation quickly dissolved. Chris was married to the sister of a former colleague and work friend. He was only 37 years old. A bond trader, Chris was one of 658 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald who were killed in the North Tower. He and his wife, Cathy, had three young children. A New York Times portrait described how when Chris would arrive home each weekday from work, he “would get the kids all crazy,” his wife said, and “they would jump around him, laughing and kissing him.”
Thoughts and images of Chris and his family have stayed in my heart and mind since 9/11. Like many others from our former company, I reached out to my work friend and to his sister, Chris’ widow, to express sympathy. Not long after in the autumn of 2001, I received a gracious and beautiful card from Cathy Faughnan, an expression of amazing heart, dignity, and love for her family. The front of the card contained a family photo – of Chris, with his two daughters standing beside him so lovely and sweet and his son sitting on his lap, father and son having the identical eye twinkle and playful smile. Perhaps because my three sisters and I lost our father so young, to cancer at age 45, I have always thought of Chris Faughnan’s children. For a school collection three years ago, his daughter Siena wrote a very beautiful, poignant poem, “Whoever Says,” which questions, in the face of death and loss, the phrase “time heals all wounds.”
The World Trade Center Today
This year the 10th anniversary brought such a piercing emotional sense of the day and week. Two days after 9/11 I walked to the World Trade Center, to honor those who died. Hundreds were around, many pausing, taking pictures, and trying to look through the fences that surround the site. Still, the streets had an air of life proceeding and of invigoration. The National 9/11 Memorial, which has twin reflecting pools set within the footprints where the towers stood and the victims’ names engraved on the parapet, marks the sacred ground. Dozens of people stood at a huge window within the World Financial Center where they could get a view, from somewhat above, of the World Trade Center area.
Construction crews are working on new skyscrapers there. In time, we humans get up the next morning and we rebuild. We imbue and cherish the stories of lost loved ones each with the particular memories and qualities that sustain love, meaning, and the presence of that person over time. Question is, will we honor the memory of each of those who died on 9/11 by becoming better people and creating a more peaceful country and world? Will we go toward the light or the darkness?
Further Reflection and Tribute