WTC

August 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm (Uncategorized)

The morning of September 11, 2001 was sunny and mild as I opened the doors to my office, a branch of a local bank in Long Island, NY. It was a beautiful late-summer day, but everything about it would soon turn incredibly ugly. I was playing host to a new manager from another area who had been sent to me for an orientation. As we stood at my desk chatting about some procedure or another, my friend and customer, Frank Gandini, came into the office looking grim. “Did you hear about the plane that hit the World Trade Center?” he asked.

I stared at him for a moment and then said, “Was it terrorists?” Under normal circumstances that probably would not have been my first thought. More likely I would have presumed it to be an accident. But an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Trade Center had been made several years before, so now my suspicions were aroused.

Frank shrugged. “They don’t know yet.”

Just then another customer came in and announced that a second plane had impacted the Twin Towers. With that we all concluded the obvious. This was no accident. The only question in my mind was whether it was an isolated incident or the opening salvo of a new war against America.

I was no stranger to the Trade Center. When I worked in Manhattan some years earlier, I had spent many a day prowling the cavernous halls of the Towers and calling on numerous businesses there. Riding the elevators, which could transport you fifty or sixty floors within a matter of seconds, was a breath-taking experience. And lunch at the famed “Windows on the World” always included spectacular views of the city. I found myself reminiscing about that as I tried to imagine what sort of hellish things were now happening in those buildings.

There was no television in the bank, so we had to solicit news from customers as they came and went. Occasionally I ran outside to listen for updates on my car radio. At some point one of my tellers approached me with tears streaming down her face. A family member had called to tell her that the World Trade Center had collapsed. “My cousin is in there,” she stammered. I didn’t know how to console her.

Not much work got done that day as the reports grew progressively worse. When word came that both World Trade Center buildings had fallen, a virtual pall hung over the office. At 5 o’clock, I left my assistant manager to close up and headed home. Driving west, I peered toward where the Towers had stood and saw an eerie sight. With the setting sun behind them to provide color, two large clouds had intersected at right angles to form an upright red cross in the sky. It was almost as if the heavens mourned for the thousands of innocent souls who had been brutally murdered that day. The spectacle sent a chill down my spine.

At home, my wife Maureen and I remained glued to the TV, watching in horror as the awful scenes of desperate people jumping from the Towers rather than being burned to death were played over and over again. The images of two huge mushroom clouds billowing upward as the buildings disintegrated and disappeared not only shocked us, but were seared into our minds forever. This must have been what Americans experienced on December 7th, 1941, although the news then of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor had been far less graphic and not nearly as public.

We didn’t yet know it, but our son Kenneth and nephew Tommy Ford, both NYPD officers, were already on their way to the scene of the disaster as first responders. They would spend weeks at “the pile”, digging for survivors they knew they would not find, and for bodies that no longer existed. It must have been terrible work. Having lived through some similarly horrific experiences in Vietnam, I knew what they were facing. I worried for their well-being, both physically and psychologically. My concern turned out to be well justified.

As luck would have it, our daughter-in-law Lisa was visiting relatives in Florida with our grandchildren at the time of the attack. Alexandria was three and a half then, while Giovanni was just a year old. When the government shut down all airline travel in the country, they were virtually stranded. We began discussing among ourselves what we could do to bring them back home. It was suggested that someone drive down to Florida to pick them up. Since it was obvious that Kenny would now be working long shifts at “Ground Zero”, we concluded that I should be the one to make the trip, so I began setting plans to take off from work for the journey. However, the drive became unnecessary when the airline restrictions were finally lifted, and Lisa called to tell us that she had booked seats on a flight the following morning.

The next day was extremely stressful. Once we knew that the plane Lisa and the children were on had departed, the nervous countdown began. There was still considerable concern over the possibility of further airplane hijackings, so we waited anxiously for news of their arrival. To make matters worse, the plane was barred from going to New York City and rerouted to some undisclosed destination upstate, from where the passengers were to be transported by bus to JFK Airport.

I waited at the arrivals center for what seemed like ages. When the bus carrying Lisa and the kids finally pulled up, I was almost giddy with relief. Understandably, Lisa looked quite worn when she stepped down carrying Gio and holding Lexie’s hand. She had tears in her eyes as we embraced. Fortunately, the kids seemed quite oblivious to all the fuss. It was a happy ride home, I can tell you.

Some days later, President George W. Bush arrived at “Ground Zero” to speak with the firemen, police, and other first responders working on “the pile”. It was a great moment when he announced that the people who had brought down the Towers “will hear all of us soon.” We became quite emotional as construction workers amid the still-smoldering debris responded with wild cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” It was a scene I’ll never forget. For weeks afterward, American flags flew everywhere on houses, stores, and vehicles as America came together against a common enemy. Sadly, it didn’t last.

The world changed forever the day the Twin Towers fell. Our family changed as well. No longer would we be safely isolated from the rest of the world’s problems. And now we bore the added burden of worrying about our loved ones being attacked right here at home. That realization was not a pleasant one to accept, and it still concerns me. The old soldier in me ponders the dilemma of how to protect the family, if need be, from those who would cause them harm. The solutions may not be simple, but one thing is crystal clear: We cannot be complacent again. Vigilance and preparedness must become a way of life if we are to ensure that the horrors of 9/11 are never repeated.

As Americans, we can all take inspiration from the USS New York, the Navy vessel that was partially built with steel salvaged from the World Trade Center. The ship’s motto: “Never Forget”.

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