An accident of schedules brought us to New York City for that tragic day, Sept. 11, 10 years ago. Up close and personal, too personal, to the horrific events.
Visiting our brother and family near New York, that Tuesday morning we first heard about a bombing in the World Trade Center. The reports were confused. Then the tone of reporting changed from total confusion to absolute disbelief as events turned even worse.
The second tower was hit by a plane, then at 11 a.m., that South Tower imploded and collapsed. One of the twin towers that defined New York’s skyline, overlooked the Statue of Liberty, once the tallest buildings in the world, workplace for thousands of people — falling to the street in a cloud of dust. The scene left everyone either screaming or just totally speechless — even the on-site TV reporters were speechless. The scene was surreal, the fate of all those people was too hard to imagine. But reality struck hard when the North Tower followed suite and collapsed. Somehow we now grasped the enormity of the tragedy.
Our sister, head nurse at a hospital just blocks from the scene, was mobilizing available nurses for an expected flood of injured people. But the injured never arrived. Thousands went dead or missing. But few were only injured.
Panic hit especially hard for our brother’s family. Their only son, our godson, worked on the 105th floor. In the 1993 car bombing in his tower, he was floor warden and led hundreds down all those flights of stairs. Dusty and dirty, he walked 100 blocks to his sister’s Manhattan apartment to call his family. Could we hope for another phone call this time?
But by mid-afternoon hope faded for Ed’s survival. We prayed that he perished without pain. His sisters joined an army of people on the streets, checking all hospitals, temporary morgues, posting flyers for any information, looking for any hint of his fate. It became clear we had lost Ed. A good family man, father and a good citizen. At his memorial Mass, grown men cried, testifying how Ed’s intervention for their alcoholism had saved their lives.
After the attacks on the twin towers, American Airlines flight 77 was crashed into the Pentagon. On board was a friend and classmate with his wife. We had just spent the prior week together at a reunion. And now they, too, were lost.
Our cousin, a retired federal law officer, immediately went to ground zero to help look for any survivors in the rubble of steel, concrete and glass. The dust took a toll on him. Eight years later, he had a double lung transplant.
We use the term “hero” loosely these days. But no one will deny that the New York firefighters were certainly heroes. A friend, retired FDNY fire captain, described how firemen from his old firehouse climbed up stairwells carrying 100 pounds of equipment into the danger — against the traffic of hundreds of civilians climbing down to safety. Many of his old comrades were inside when the towers collapsed.
We witnessed a tremendous transformation of New Yorkers while we were stuck there as all air traffic was grounded. Cars there were flying the U.S. flag from those 12-inch flag poles stuck out the side windows. From both sides. Big U.S. flags flying from SUV tow hitches or pickup beds. Overpasses on the expressways and turnpikes were all draped with the U.S. flag.
United we stand. That was their message. There were posters. Graffiti. Headlines. Bumper stickers. “United we stand.”
Eventually, we flew home. We found a different reaction in the Bay Area. We didn’t get the sense that people here got it. Here, we seemed to understand the horror, but not that our country had been attacked. That relatives, friends, fellow Americans were the victims, not in some distant country. Not killed by courageous suicide terrorists, but by murderers. Thousands of innocent civilians were targeted. People who had every right to expect to return to their homes and families after work. Victims who never signed up to go into harm’s way — not as our military and first responders have done. They did not deserve to be targeted. The planning of this horrific attack was premeditated murder, pure and simple.
There was not that same universal rallying around the flag here in the Bay Area, not that understanding that all of us had been attacked. The flags and signs that we saw all over New York were displayed here but not as prevalent — “United we stand.”
Most people in our country, and around the world, came together after 9/11 to show that we were not demoralized; that, as a nation, we had strength of character. In one of our better moments, United we stood.
Tom and Anne Knepell live in Napa.