Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Life & Style

Twenty Years Later, 9/11 Still Elicits Memories, Emotions, and Lessons


Towers Burning Maria Caulfield

Towers Burning Maria Caulfield)


Changed Skyline Maria Caulfield

Changed Skyline Maria Caulfield)

It’s been 20 years, but the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, still occasionally linger in my mind, sometimes so vividly it feels like an event from yesterday.

My family and I now live in Connecticut, more than 90 miles away from our former home, a one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in downtown Manhattan located five blocks from the World Trade Center. I work now as the associate editor at Shore Publishing, a job that keeps me constantly busy but also in touch with the goings-on in the Connecticut shoreline towns.

My husband, Brian, and I had many reasons to be pleased with our family life in early September 2001. We had been married a little over three years and our first son, Stephen, was turning a year old later that month. Brian had just started a new job at the Knights of Columbus in New Haven and we were in the process of searching for a new home in Connecticut. In the meantime, there was a birthday party to plan for Stephen, and Brian was adjusting to the long commute from downtown New York to New Haven.

Stephen was born prematurely at 33 weeks and as a first-time mother, I was instructed by doctors to keep up with his early morning feedings. We seemed to have turned the corner on that regimen, but I recall still staying up late on Sept. 10 to watch over our peacefully sleeping boy and to get the birthday invitations ready for mailing.

I remember Sept. 11 in the same manner most do when a traumatic event happens.

Brian rose early that morning, and I helped him prepare to catch the early morning New Haven train leaving Grand Central. As soon as he left, I laid down to get some much-needed sleep.

The deafening boom that came from some place nearby startled me awake. In my drowsy state, I thought nothing of it, reasoning to myself that a crane must have fallen again, as a few similar construction accidents had occurred in the months before. No one was likely hurt, I thought, and laid back again to doze off.

No sooner had I drifted back to sleep than I was awakened by my husband calling from work. “Turn on the TV,” Brian instructed, because something catastrophic had just happened.

There on the screen was the dreadful image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center burning from the top floors and the smoke spreading a dark plume, blotching the clear blue skies that day.

I had recently worked on the 104th floor of that building, for eSpeed, a division of the financial company Cantor Fitzgerald, and began to worry that my former coworkers may be trapped on the upper floors.

In the aftermath of the attack, I learned that Cantor Fitzgerald suffered the most casualties on Sept. 11, losing more than 600 employees. Years later, on a trip to the site with my husband and two sons, I found some of my coworkers’ names etched in the memorial that honors the victims.

The images on the TV screen that day are still clear in my mind. I still get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see in my mind’s eye the low-flying plane hitting the South Tower and exploding in a ball of yellow and orange flames. It felt rather strange that I was seeing it in real time on TV but was also hearing the explosion right outside my apartment.

I was on the phone with my husband at that moment, and Brian tells me later that I screamed what was an undeniable fact, “We’re under attack!”

Yet another unexpressed thought also suddenly emerged, filling me with dread: Which building will be attacked next? It was a fear that many New Yorkers likely had in their minds, too.

In less than two hours, both towers of the World Trade Center would crumble, one after the other. With each collapse, the shock wave hit my apartment building, shaking it as if an earthquake rumbled through Manhattan.

The collapse of each tower sent a massive cloud of concrete dust racing down the streets of downtown New York, chasing dazed New Yorkers in suits and business attire. The monster dust clouds made their way to my street, adding a surreal air to my fear. Seconds after each collapse, the view outside my bedroom window turned white like a blockbuster blizzard that obliterated the sight of nearby buildings.

In the next hours and days, Brian and I whipped into a frenzy of planning and action. While I waited for him to return from New Haven, I knew I needed to take my son and quickly leave our 17th-floor apartment. Brian’s parents lived in the same apartment complex but on a much lower floor, and they offered Stephen and me a safe refuge.

As I get ready to leave, I make a frantic call to my family in the Philippines, warning my siblings that the World Trade Center had been hit by two planes. Coincidentally, my parents had just visited me the previous week and they had just boarded a plane headed back home the night before.

We learned from news reports that two other planes were hijacked that day, one hitting the Pentagon and the other crashing in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

With an infant in tow, Brian and I left New York that evening to stay with my cousins in New Jersey. Our apartment was temporarily uninhabitable in the following months, but we were welcomed by friends and family members who graciously opened the doors to their homes. It was only in late November, as Thanksgiving approached, that we decided it was safe enough to return to our apartment.

As Brian, Stephen, and I recovered slowly from the trauma, so did the city of New York. Many brave New Yorkers volunteered to clear the rubble to try to find survivors. Years later, Newsweek reported the grim fact that most of the human remains recovered from the wreckage at Ground Zero “were little more than tiny fragments of charred tissue and bone.”

It was a sobering moment for us, too. We silently cleared the thick layer of dust off the furniture on our apartment balcony, aware of the fact that human bone fragments were detected in the debris by medical examiners in the aftermath of the attacks.

In the following weeks, I wept as I read the stories and saw the pictures of the victims printed in the Profiles of Grief section of The New York Times.

Today, writing this piece still makes my heart pound. My very core still aches for the victims of the attacks, a few whose names I recognized, but most, unknown to me.

The lessons I learned from that day are many. But a few stand out.

There are people out there who are willing to kill for reasons that are beyond my comprehension. But there are also individuals out there who, even in the face of danger and fear, are willing to risk their lives to save others. Many did exactly that on Sept. 11.

Countless more risked their health to help with search and recovery work. These everyday heroes are in our midst, reluctant to be lauded for their actions.

It is the latter I need to remember more often—that these everyday heroes demonstrated the real lessons of 9/11. Self-sacrifice will rise above evil, kindness and love will always prevail over hate, and on Sept. 11, 2001, heroism triumphed for the world to see.

Maria Caulfield is the Associate Editor for Zip06. Email Maria at m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.

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