Forever Changed – Remembering 9/11

That spectacular September morning held the promise of an amazing day – only to be betrayed by the horrific events of that fateful day.

As I heard the headlines on my car radio of an American Airlines plane crashing into a World Trade Tower, I was stunned. My fingers could not punch her cell phone number fast enough. I held my breath as the line rang, praying that I would hear Linda’s actual voice instead of her message–that only happens when she is flying. I knew that my flight attendant friend of 35 years was scheduled that morning. I also knew that she had flown the AA flight from Boston to LA several times before, and with many of the crew who perished that day.

When Linda answered, I exhaled with guarded relief. She was but the first of my worries. Linda had, in fact flown that morning, but to San Antonio, where she, like thousands of airline employees at airports all around the country, remained grounded for the next couple of days. Riveted to her hotel room TV as we spoke, she suddenly gasped in disbelief as she watched the first tower tumble to the ground describing it to me incredulously as I rushed home.

My concerns were now for my 4 grown children, two of whom lived in NYC. One of my 3 sons, a nearby college student, was already home from cancelled classes watching the news in astonishment. We were fixated as the networks replayed footage of the initial plane crashing into the tower, the billowing infernos, and the seemingly slow motion fall of the first mammoth tower. Within moments, we were stunned as we watched live, the second tower plummet like its twin. Before long, my husband was home from work, evacuated as were most occupants of the Boston high rise offices.

We tried desperately to reach my oldest son and his wife, who lived within miles of the WTC. We had actually admired the towers from the terrace of their apartment on many a summer night. My repeated attempts to reach them by phone or internet were fruitless. I was frantic when I finally received a call from her mother, who talked to them moments after the planes hit, before the cell service overloaded and disappeared. They were deeply shaken, but felt safe for the moment.

Suddenly, I realized this was the day my only daughter, Elizabeth, was moving to New York City from Washington, D.C. Again, my attempts were thwarted as I tried to reach her. I was met with continuous circuit busy messages or failed call signals. I felt myself becoming numb with fear as we heard the news of a plane flying into the Pentagon, followed by sketchy details about a fourth hijacked plane crashing in Pennsylvania.

Within moments, a call broke through, snapping me out of my trance of worry. I heard my “little” 24-year-old girl, in tears and disbelief of what had just transpired. She was loading the last couple of boxes into her car when a neighbor came out and rushed her inside to the horrific scenes on TV. I did my best to comfort her, as I gave thanks that she wasn’t any where near the Pentagon, traveling through Pennsylvania or already in New York City.

Once past her initial shock, Elizabeth called again several hours later, this time alternating between tears and laughter. Was the attack on NYC an omen, warning her not to move there? Unlikely, she reasoned, since it was happening in her own back yard at almost the same time. My maternal instincts were in full throttle. I asked her to come home. She wanted to stay put to see what happened before deciding what to do.

I felt this urgent need to draw all my children close to protect them, despite the fact that they are adults. I called my youngest son who was in school a couple of hours away. As with the others, I implored him to come home, if only for a couple of days. Both sons said they felt safe where they were and that they needed to stay planted in their respective communities as the unbelievable tragedy continued to unfold.

My children and I spoke frequently over the next few days. Elizabeth and I exchanged expressions of our deep sorrow and concern for those with loved ones lost and harrowing stories of friends, family and neighbors who were brushed, but spared by the disasters…as well as a few we knew of, who were not.

In the days that followed, my daughter seemed inextricably drawn to the city. Her new address would be just off Houston, about a mile away from Ground Zero. It’s the street where hundreds of emergency vehicles and workers stood at the ready…but were never called….because there was no one to save.

Within days, my daughter shifted from doubt and despair about the move, to becoming resolute about making it. Exactly one week after that tragic Tuesday, she arrived in the still smoldering city, absorbing the sadness…the loss…the grief.

To help transport her remaining possessions, I flew into DC a few days later to drive back with her in a rental van. Getting on that plane at Logan Airport…considering the evil that had boarded there on September 11th…was unsettling, to say the least. I was hard hit as I tearfully said good-bye to my husband, thinking of all the spouses who had done the same, just a few days earlier, never to see one another again.

As we approached the city from miles away, we could see its massive shroud of gray smoke. We couldn’t help but wonder what health hazards lay within the expansive vapor. The security check at the Holland Tunnel was extensive. The tough inspection of the van was intimidating and rattled us as we realized the many dangers that could easily be awaiting unsuspecting travelers. We had a few reluctant moments, but she was determined. The closer we got, Elizabeth knew that this city was where she belonged.

Once we finished unloading the van, it was as if gravity drew us to Ground Zero. Along the way there were candles, photographs, letters and personal belongings; hats, shoes, scarves, drawings and statues for those who were missing. They were arranged with care in precious memorials along fences, in city squares and on street corners every few steps along the way. Passersby moved purposefully and their soft shuffle and muffled sniffles was all that could be heard. The near silence loomed larger than the constant cacophony of sounds that usually assaulted the city streets. The sadness was profound.

We walked until we could go no further, within blocks of what was once the bustling World Trade Center, now barricaded on all sides. An acrid odor, unlike any we had smelled before, had permeated the city and intensified as we drew closer. We stood squinting through the eerie haze watching as the endless plumes of smoke rose mournfully from the destruction site turned funeral pyre. As we stood quietly in the twilight, we found ourselves in awe of the incongruity of it all. The mounds of mangled rubble, piled several stories high, appeared to be a mountain range rising right up out of the middle of a metropolis.

Through all that we had seen, there was one enduring image in the aftermath–the twisted window grids of the World Trade Towers. They silently served as a striking backdrop for the first weeks of the search effort. At first the shards appeared to merely be the misshapen skeletal remains of the once majestic towers. Yet, as they stood there, impaled in the debris, splayed out over the obliteration, they retained the regal strength that once held the towers together. The jagged points reached toward the sky, as if beseeching the heavens for an answer to humanity’s question of “Why?”

I wondered if there was some way to bronze them, to preserve them in their exact state, right where the force of gravity had planted them and make them part of a memorial to those who lost their lives. There was something about the way in which the fragments of the once gigantic structures, stood strong amidst the massive destruction, at the base of the mangled metal mountain. It spoke to a defiant hope, like a sapling among the felled trees in a forest after a fierce winter storm.

”Lady Liberty is crying,” Elizabeth said staring into the enveloping darkness.

As I agreed I added, “And I imagine she has a different crown. Her perfect points are now those shards.”

And, so, the remnants World Trade Towers have been “preserved”—embedded in my mind–on the crown of the Statue of Liberty–since, as with all of us in this great country she symbolizes, Lady Liberty still stands strong, but forever changed.