Remembering An Empty Sky (20th Anniversary)

In recent years I have become so very disheartened to see the words “Patriot” and “Patriotism” misused in the worst ways. They now accompany political fundraising emails. They adorn memes created most often outside our borders, designed to divide and sow discord among us. They are used to divide and distinguish ourselves in the most horrible us-against-them way.

Prior to September 11th 2001 I always felt I knew what “Patriotism” was all about, but really, I did not.  In retrospect for me the word was little more than a vague notion of loving my country, dressed in imagery of three colors, flags, sparklers, and fireworks. In the days following September 11th 2001, at roughly the ripe old age of 35 years old, I ultimately came to understand the true essence of the word, and its beauty. Think back to the days after 9-11. Do you remember the flags everyone hung in your neighborhood? Do you remember the feeling of wanting to hug everybody? Do you remember the lump in your throat that appeared as you called everyone Brother and Sister? Do you remember feeling unified as a nation?

And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea! (America the Beautiful)

Truly, to this day I have never felt we were united as a nation like I felt we were in the days following September 11th. And as horrible as that day was, God gave us a gift in its wake – Brotherhood.

Today is the twentieth time I will have shared with you the note I wrote myself on September 12th 2001. I wrote it so I would never forget.

So, Never Forget.

 I was at work early on Broad Street in my office next to the NYSE, with the TV on, watching the speculation build, while waiting for my younger sister, Karen, to arrive at work. She worked with me, as did an ex-floor clerk Neil McKenna, and a few others. Folks at the office were already leaving, knowing that something was amiss. The second plane then hit, and then we all knew it was terrorism. A sea of office workers filled the streets outside our windows, as they exited the financial district in all directions. Neil and I stayed behind to wait for my sister Karen, who was late in arriving on the Express X27 from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She did arrive after what seemed like hours, as her bus was trapped in traffic at the foot of the WTC. Finally, the bus had opened the doors, just in time for Karen to witness the 2nd plane’s impact. A kind Samaritan pulled her out of her frozen and panicked trance, into a doorway and safe from all the falling debris. And she ran to our office Broad Street.

 After she arrived and we hugged, we waited on a few of her friends who worked in the area, whom we had contacted via email to get to our building so we could commence our exit strategy together in a small group. Finally, our party of six began our exit. The streets were jammed, and we were torn whether to get into the subway system, walk the tracks (we intuitively knew the subways would not be running by us), or walk atop ground, which we did. The sounds of sirens and screaming filled our ears. I had a pulsating migraine; I remember that.

 We walked north to the Brooklyn Bridge amid a sea of people. We meandered through streets, past Harry’s at Hanover Square, along Water Street, and all the while we walked, we did so with an eye towards where we could all fit in a doorway, or some sort of shelter from the sky if we needed to quickly. We climbed over barriers to the FDR, and up a few concrete walls to eventually get on the Brooklyn Bridge. And we walked like zombies jammed on the bridge walking towards Brooklyn. A low rumble that turned into a loud waterfall-like roar made us all turn around, and we watched the first tower collapse. The shrieking was unbearable. And the orange dust commenced.

 One guy on a bike was running with it by his side, against the grain, and screaming that they had just attacked the Pentagon, and the world was ending. I wanted to shake him, as all he was doing was creating even more panic amidst the crowd he was running against. By the time we made it across the bridge we heard another rumble and roar, and we knew what that sound unmistakably had to be.

We journeyed along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, trying to find the most direct route, under the Gowanus Expressway, that would allow us to all continue to my parents’ home in Bay Ridge. We now all had a coating of the orange dust, and I truly can’t tell you how much of that dust was real, and how much of it is just some bizarre psychological marring of my memory. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The dust and the chemical smell in our noses, we pushed on, not saying a word. We walked for hours.

 We tried to enter a local bodega/grocery, to ask to use a phone and the bathroom, insisting we would buy something, but they would not let us in. My migraine only ballooned. I was trying at every corner to find access to a phone to call my wife in Chatham, and tell her we were ok. It was impossible to find a phone, and to actually make it through when we found one with a dial tone. We eventually reached 39th street and Third Avenue, and walked by Frankel’s, a shoe and army/navy store. I will never forget this gentleman, as he took us in, gave us water and aspirin, gave us use of his facilities, and shared what knowledge he was getting from the television and CNN. His humanity and friendliness were a stark and welcome contrast to the fear and “me only” attitude at the bodega/grocery. I remember thanking him, looking in his eyes, and tearing up before continuing our walk.

 We eventually made it to my parent’s house, maybe five hours after beginning our walk, and I was able to get word to my wife that we were all ok, by calling out of state to a less used telecom route, and having that relation call Chatham. I drank water. My parents and I were glued to the TV, with footage of jumping, and smoke clouds, and panic being played over and over again. I downed aspirin in a still futile attempt to rid my head of the migraine. After a few hours I turned the TV off. We all spoke little. I spoke with a few friends out of state who called my parents’ house to ask about me, and we speculated on how high the death toll could be. I spent hours subsequently trying to track down friends and folks I loved. I got word from many of them, and some I did not. My mind furiously tried to chronicle which of all my friends worked at the WTC, and how I could check on them.

In the evening I borrowed my father’s car, and surprisingly was able to drive across the Verrazano. While on the bridge, listening to 1010WINS, I heard the other towers collapse live, where only hours earlier Giuliani spoke from. I made it home and hugged my wife and young children. The headache never did subside that day.

Love one another.