The Chronicle asked an array of people for their thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the World Trade Towers and America.
The first question was: Where were you? The second was: Where are we now?
There were common threads in the responses:
How blue the cloudless sky was.
How the day began with mundane activities like dropping a truck off for repairs or making lunch and then getting the kids off to school.
And how out of this tragedy came unity. At least for a while.
A number of writers compared what happened 20 years ago to events happening today. Another essayist called Sept. 11 a date of demarcation: The world before that day and the world since then.
The conclusions, of course, are personal.
‘Until then, I wanted a normal day for my children’
The day began without fanfare: getting children up and off to a new school.
But, amid changing routines, my son had mistakenly left his lunch at home. Fearing he’d go hungry, I thought I’d drop it off before heading to work.
Arriving, I saw a young father hustling his daughter out the front door. Curious about the rush, I entered the office and found the staff in crisis mode, laying evidence to a fear that would become the legacy of an otherwise beautiful fall day.
Planes had struck the Twin Towers.
Asked if I’d come to collect a child, I said “no.” My eldest son was nearly three when the Challenger exploded; those images haunted him still. I would protect my other children from such torment. They would learn of the attack soon enough.
Until then, I wanted a normal day for them.
But it wouldn’t be, couldn’t be, a normal day. Life had forever changed.
As I sat alone in my study, the bells at the Catholic church rang, calling a grieving community to worship. A stranger, they welcomed me.
And, together, we sang an ardent prayer, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
The Rev. Dr. Rhonda Myers
First Presbyterian Church in Goshen
‘One heart, one spirit, one mind’
On that beautifully clear September morning, I had dropped my niece off at gymnastics when someone in the waiting area said that a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.
At the time, I was thinking small plane, disoriented pilot and was anxious to get back home to see what was happening.
We were having our piano tuned during this time so I turned on the TV in that room and watched the events unfold with a complete stranger (the guy tuning the piano). We all know that horror as the events were happening and watched in disbelief.
What I remember best about that day and the days that followed was an unbelievable sense of unity and pride as Americans pulled together with one heart, one spirit, one mind.
Today, I’m not feeling that same sense of unity or even safety. It is with hope and promise that we can come back together and know that we have each other’s back no matter what happens whether the threat is domestic or foreign.
If I can feel compassion and connection with a stranger tuning my piano, then I can carry that same love and decency out into the world just by treating the guy next to me with respect and dignity.
‘Soon thereafter, fighter jets flew over our building’
At the time, I was on the communications team at Big-Four accounting firm KPMG. I’d just pulled into the parking lot at our offices in Montvale, N.J., when the radio announcer on the station I was listening to said that a plane had just crashed into one of the twin towers.
I went into the building and told my colleagues. We immediately turned on the television in the conference room to see what was happening, assuming it was a small, private plane and an accident.
When we realized this was not the case, the process of locating audit teams working at client-sites in the twin towers began.
Soon thereafter, fighter jets flew over our building.
Many, many of my colleagues had family members working in the towers so when the buildings collapsed, it was gut-wrenching.
Our firm did not lose any staff members that day, but my former employer PriceWaterhouseCoopers lost seven.
The days that followed were equally devastating. Cars in the Park & Ride remained unclaimed, their owners having boarded the bus that morning never to return.
The Great Hall in Grand Central had walls of photographs asking “have you seen this person?” placed there by family and friends holding out hope their loved one had survived.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve become accustomed to seeing the U.S. Army with weapons and dogs patrolling the Port Authority Bus Station and Grand Central.
When we go to the NYC ballet, we enter through a metal detector.
Last week, I was at Tanglewood up in the Berkshires. At the entrance, there was an officer with a gorgeous black retriever. The dog wore a vest that said “Bomb Squad.”
I was grateful to see him.
Village of Chester Historian
‘We are a changed America.’
Reflecting on September 11th 2001 is something I would avoid if not specifically asked to do so. I believe we who experienced the attacks and their pain-filled aftermath will be the last generations to remember a traditional America.
As a result of those attacks, sadly, our country has lost many freedoms that before that day we probably did not appreciate until they were gone; freedoms that future generations will never know or experience.
Even as nuclear weapons have changed the world, the September 11th attacks on our beloved country, so beyond what Americans could even imagine, the heartbreaking and horrifying loss of innocent life; those who perished that day and those who have since died as a result of working at the site, we have become a more fearful people.
As I awoke to a phone call from a friend on September 11, 2001, telling me something I could not believe, telling me to turn on the television, then the horrific unfolding of what has become our history went on for weeks, months and now years.
That previous era is gone. We are a changed America. The fear and sadness is what remains.
‘I am cautious and suspicious and now notice people ... carrying a paper bag or large purse’
On 9/11/2001 I was sitting at my desk when I heard that the Twin Towers was hit and falling. I knew my niece worked there, and I immediately called her and got a recording that she was out of the office at a meeting. I was so happy to hear she wasn’t there and tried calling my sister to let her know. Of course, within a few minutes all the lines were tied up and I was unable to get through to her.
For several hours my sister was beside herself not knowing if her daughter was dead or alive. Unfortunately, a friend of hers, whose husband was a firefighter, was also in the dark about the fate of her husband.
My sister was lucky and my niece was fine, but her friend wasn’t so lucky. It was a nightmare for New York and our country.
Twenty years later I am still saddened by the fact that our towers are gone, never to be seen again.
Sad that so many people perished, and years later many developed cancer and died from the exposure.
Sad that this could have happened in broad daylight to our country.
From that day forward, I know that my “America,” a country that my father came to from Europe and found hope, work and a family, could be attacked with our defenses down.
A country with a powerful history, the protector of the weak who the world came to for help, I thought was untouchable.
We are not safe from invading forces of destruction, whether it is people doing us harm, or invading viruses killing our people, we are vulnerable like all other countries and people.
What has changed for me is my absolute feeling of security and safety within our country. I am cautious and suspicious and now notice people within settings such as in airports or large concerts for oddities such as carrying a paper bag or large purse, which I never did before.
Our airline travel has changed with people being checked more closely.
Unfortunately, many innocent people of Muslim descent are being ostracized as potential terrorists due to their complexion or clothing.
‘Their sacrifices remind us all that freedom is not free’
The start of a new school year is a time of freshness, renewal and hope. The beginning of the 2001 school year was no different, until 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001 when the first plane crashed into one of our World Trade Center towers.
Of all of the things that changed that day the one that is most encouraging to me is the greater awareness of, and appreciation for, the courageousness and sacrifice of those who serve in the armed forces and emergency response forces.
The school community in which I worked on 9/11 lost two incredible men to The War on Terror in the years following that fateful day. Lt. Louis E. Allen was a father, a husband and a charismatic science teacher who answered the call to serve his country in the U.S. Army in Iraq. Scott A. Lynch (“Scotty Smiles”) was a 22-year-old newlywed who was a U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan. Other members of our community serving as armed forces members or first responders gave, or risked their lives in our service.
Their sacrifices remind us all that freedom is not free.
The service of the men and women in the armed forces and emergency response forces are a tribute to those who served before them. We all owe an ongoing debt of gratitude to those who serve, and have served, to protect the freedoms that we all enjoy as Americans.
Denis M. Petrilak
Superintendent of Schools
Chester School District
‘I fear for my grandchildren what it’s going to be like when they grow up’
I was at work and heard a commotion motion about the Twin Towers being blown up. Looked for a TV and said, “Sure enough, that’s what happened.”
There was a big loss, a tragedy. Today with the pandemic I think it’s about the same.
Sept. 11 has a lot to do with our country. There wasn’t always fighting back and forth. I don’t remember which one was the worst. I’m still leery about going on planes today, because of both terrorism and COVID.
All you see on TV today is bad news and I fear for my grandchildren what it’s going to be like when they grow up.
Truthfully when I think about this, with everything (happening in) all of the world, we as American people should worry about what goes on our side and let the rest of the world take care of what they have and their problems and do for themselves. I think things will be better off. Now we have to deal with things over Afghanistan with attacks outside Kabul.
Let’s get all our American men and women back home where they belong. We are losing too many.