‘Never Forget’ – I Haven’t But Many Have
Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy at the World Trade Center. For me and thousands of others unfortunate enough to be personally affected by that horrific day, it might as well have been 15 days ago. The pain never goes away. The smell of smoke; burning bodies and debris; the sounds of endless emergency sirens; and the dreaded chirping of dozens and dozens of trapped firefighter beepers echoing through the air. You know you’re scarred for life when you hear crickets during a beautiful summer’s eve, and that’s the first thing it reminds you of! And, of course, there was the sound of military fighter planes that consumed the darkened sky well after the destruction had taken place. I’m reminded daily from my home office as the local military training flight pattern crosses over my house every early-fall afternoon. It’s a subtle reminder, but a reminder nonetheless.
“Never Forget!” That was the slogan seen everywhere (bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc.) on every suburban minivan and local bodega the first couple of weeks, months and even years after the event. I haven’t, but many have. I knew it wouldn’t last long, though. And it hasn’t.
A sense of American pride, patriotism and unity filled the streets of New York City and every nearby town and city. It was a time of hope and common purpose that arose from such a deadly and destructive event. Funny how that happens. There wouldn’t have been any silly protests at meaningless sporting events the fall of 2001. That I’m certain of. Colin Kaepernick was only 14 at the time. I’m sure he was as clueless then as he is now.
We were one nation – united. There was an actual sense of real caring, loving and companionship. I felt it and lived it firsthand at a Jets game, Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships event in Elmont, N.Y., and even a Neil Diamond concert at Madison Square Garden just a few months after the catastrophic event. Sadly, the camaraderie and patriotism were short-lived and are long gone now.
I worked at 100 Broadway, only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I was on a Westchester B-line transit bus a few blocks from my office when that first plane hit. “It’s just a small one-seater that hit the building,” one passerby suggested as I exited the bus. “Probably some rich guy from Long Island that f***ed up,” said another. I saw the first responders passing by. It wasn’t until weeks later that it occurred to me that those inside the fire engines and ambulances I watched zip past my bus more than likely never made it home that night. I can only imagine what they were thinking as they drove into the gates of hell surely and entirely unaware, like myself.
I saw a lot from that bus for the weeks and months that passed: piles of debris, metal and building structures carted away by 18-wheelers as we zigzagged through side streets commuting to and from Ground Zero. There were wet roadways attempting to wash away the destruction, police barriers and new checkpoints that would forever become the norm. And that smell lingered on and on.
On that fateful day I walked up to my office unaware of the events taking place and noticed a heavy accumulation of office papers and supplies blowing in the street and on the sidewalk. I even saw a wallet with a woman’s ID hanging halfway out. But for some reason, I didn’t bother to pick it up. I remember a homeless man scurrying through all this debris that seemed to have appeared from the bluest of fall skies. The next couple hours were a blur.
I remember being situated in front of the men’s room urinal when the second plane hit Tower Two. The roar was tremendous, like a 747 touching down in your living room. My building rocked and swayed. Anxiety set in. My nerves were shot. I reached out to my brother, Gregg, a New York City police officer, via telephone shortly before the lines went dead to try and get a sense of what was happening. He screamed on the phone: “Get the f*** out of there now!” It was a short conversation.
I remember our company’s president calmly chewing on a bagel as a few of us turned on CNN and congregated in the break room. The building evacuation happened soon after. The elevator was shut down, and we were huddled to the nearest stairway, making our exit to the lobby. I could only imagine what those less fortunate felt like in the burning towers themselves. My fear of elevators and close spaces has grown worse since then. Perhaps there’s a correlation.
I was confused, apprehensive, nervous. The first building collapsed soon thereafter. The building security attempted to gather us all from the lobby to the building’s basement. “It’s the safest place right now. You don’t want to go outside, trust me.” They attempted to bolt the front door with chains and locks. The confused and scared mob of office workers would have none of that. They rushed the exit door and demanded to hit the streets. We did.
It was only mid-morning, but it might as well have been 3 a.m. That’s how dark it was outside. There was about 6 to 8 inches of dust that covered everything in the streets. The scene could be best described as being amidst an ongoing blizzard without the cold and wind. There was an eerie sense of silence and calm.
Everyone began walking briskly, not knowing where they were going. Nobody cared. The goal was just to leave, quickly, to go anywhere but here. I saw a young lady in the middle of the street on both knees crying uncontrollably. She was attempting to call her boyfriend, who worked in one of the towers. There was no phone reception. She couldn’t get through. I tried to get her up on two feet and moving. I was unsuccessful. I kept moving. I often wonder where and how she is today. Every few yards I ducked into the nearest place of cover I could find as the F-15s blasted above the dark sky. I was, of course, unaware at the time that it was friendly U.S. military protection and not another plane being used as a missile.
I would walk somewhere close to 18 miles home that morning back to Yonkers, N.Y. Fortunately, I met up with a coworker named Rio halfway through that trip. She was a young Spanish girl who was able to negotiate us a ride home the last few miles. There wasn’t any operating mass transit or cabs to be had. I don’t remember much from that walk except seeing people on the streets with signs soliciting those passing by for hospital blood donations.
It was early in the game. They had no idea how many people wouldn’t show up to the hospital in need of medical care that afternoon, evening or the coming days. We all know now many didn’t make it out alive. And then there were flocks of people handing out bottled water and dropping in and out of local businesses attempting to get a glimpse of the latest news reports from a TV screen. Cellphone reception was still dead and the technological savvy environment we all take for granted today was still in its infancy.
I was one of the lucky ones. I made it home. I had blisters. I had mental baggage that would last a lifetime. My job and place of employment self-destructed. I lost a career and dream job. But that’s no comparison to the innocent people who got on a bus, train, subway or drove to work that day and never returned, leaving families and friends devastated, plans and souls destroyed. Kids were without a mom or dad. Hundreds of emergency workers were taken amongst the close to 3,000 murdered doing what they do every day, helping others. The lower Manhattan environment has never been the same. Businesses collapsed. Friends passed away. The heartache and heartbreak are irreparable.
So now that it’s 15 years later I hear there’s an outstanding Freedom Tower, new transportation hub, fancy memorial plaza and a museum. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been back, and never will. A part of me died that day. Protest the national anthem? Disrespect our country and the thousands of police officers who protect us every day? Not me. I still remember. Do you? I haven’t forgotten. Have you?
Dean Keppler lives in Cedar Run.