Slade Sohmer remembers running down 30 flights of stairs from his office on Wall Street, watching the sky turn yellow with smoke, and thinking of all the families who didn’t know they’d just lost their father, sister or child.
I imagine the look on my mother’s face.
There, standing in front of 25 fourth-graders, with their unformed intellects and noses forever running unattractively, another teacher informed her the Twin Towers had been hit by airplanes. That’s it. No other information. No television news. Just fourth-graders.
I imagine the thoughts in my mother’s mind. Two sons 30 floors up on 40 Wall Street, a devoted husband of 30-plus years on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Her blood couldn’t have known which way to flow, everything of value less than a half-mile from the World Trade Center. Was she already widowed? Would she never hold grandchildren? Would the familiar familial laughs and smirks and jokes and cheer never again echo through the living room, the bedroom or the other end of the phone?
Then I imagine what it must have been like for everyone who had family, friends and colleagues within a few miles of the World Trade Center. How do you stop your brain from assuming the worst? How could you not think about the sons and daughters who just lost their mothers and fathers, the mothers and fathers who just lost their sons and daughters, the nephews without uncles, the nieces without aunts?
Everyone remembers the scenes of carnage, the acts of war. I remember that too, especially the impact of the second plane, the fireball seemingly 10 feet away from where we stood gazing out the window at the plume of black smoke gushing from the North Tower, forever etched in my memory. But as we ran down the stairs and out onto the streets below, I’ll never forget thinking about the people hundreds or thousands of miles away who had no idea whether they had just lost their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, grandparents, close friends and extended family forever.
I almost lost my brother, my best friend. Just a few years earlier he had been working for Cantor Fitzgerald. When he failed to get the department placement he deserved, he found himself a new job. That morning, 658 Cantor employees perished in the attacks, my brother surely one of them if he hadn’t been so royally screwed. That “What If” game, she is tough to play. Instead we worked in the same proprietary trading office, September 11th only my second day of work there. Together we made our way downstairs, ran towards the water, walked up the FDR Drive and safely home to his apartment on the east side of New York City. If ever there a time to be with family, this was it.
Eventually we made contact with my mother. My father had called to relay his safety. Others were not so lucky. A generation of kids would grow up without parents, and parents would learn they would have to live with the ultimate grief: burying a child before their own time had come.
It’s been 10 years. We learned lessons. We forgot lessons. We searched for meaning. We blocked out pain. The country changed. The world changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. But the attacks on September 11th did happen. Nothing will change that. And just because we’re now 10 years removed from the event that changed history doesn’t mean we should stop learning lessons, stop changing.
It’s always nice to pause and reflect. But after that brief pause for reflection, let us also continue to process the unspeakable tragedy, continue to progress as a nation. We owe it to the fallen, to those we lost, to grow in a way that would honor and preserve their legacies as ours.
A decade later, the indelible images remain. Here’s a brief recollection:
• I remember the bright, cloudless day — the sky was yellow and the sun was blue. Afterward I remember thinking, had there been a rainstorm, had there been any inclement weather across the Northeast, perhaps those airplanes would have never taken off that morning.
• I remember how quickly first responders, full of bravery and bravado, arrived on the scene. I remember thinking, here we feel so helpless, and here we see the helpful. There’s no amount of reparations or gratitude that can be retroactively bestowed upon the personnel who acted with such atomic valor.
• I remember the war zone that followed: gas masks, army tanks, fighter jets, war ships, building rubble, bomb scares, people spontaneously running to get away from God only knows what. I remember thinking this is what the 1960s’ “duck and cover” mentality must have felt like.
• I remember New Yorkers temporarily losing the stereotype: We were a warm, compassionate, supportive, friendly, brave group of people. The lines for blood donation were around the corner, the hospitals had hundreds of volunteers outside their doors, the rescue workers had to turn away more volunteers. It was, frankly, inspiring to see what had become of notoriously cold, self-centered people.
• I remember being afraid of the subway.
• I remember the searches and seizures, the suspension of civil rights, the sacrificing of freedom for security and thinking (at that time), Ben Franklin may not be right that we deserve neither.
–I remember sitting five rows from the top of the old Yankee Stadium for Game 5 of the American League Championship Series three weeks later, sharpshooters on the roof. One night removed from Tino Martinez’s legendary ninth-inning home run, the Yankees, suddenly America’s Team, trailed by two runs with two outs in the final inning, again. I remember when Scott Brosius made contact with the ball, as clear as I remember anything in my life. I remember his left arm immediately raised, knowing he just tied the game with one swing of the bat. I remember being tossed around like a rag doll, fans going insane. After all, we were temporarily insane in some respects. This wasn’t about baseball. This was about believing again. This was about mystique and aura. This was about New York rising, about New Yorkers never stopping to doubt themselves. We got this. We got this. We’re gonna be okay. Heck, we’re gonna be better than okay.
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