Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Day That Changed Everything

With the killing of Osama bin Laden at the beginning of this week, a lot of attention has been focused on September 11, 2001 ... 9/11. As you might imagine, it brings still raw feelings to the surface, especially here in New York City where practically everyone knows someone who was lost that day.

photo ©2001 Laurance Fendrick
I had taken the day off from work, not feeling 100%, so I was actually asleep when the telephone rang. It was my daughter calling from Florida. She asked me if the world was coming to an end. Since I had been asleep I had no idea what she was talking about. I turned on the TV and saw images that should have been from a science fiction movie. Outside of my window the sky was filling with foul smelling black smoke which would soon be filled with debris which had blown over from Ground Zero. I watched as first one tower and then the second tower collapsed on themselves. This couldn't be happening! I watched those towers being built while I was in college. They were replacing the Empire State Building as not only the tallest building in NYC, but - at the time - the world. People didn't really like the twin towers because they had none of the beauty of the Empire State Building, and as Faye Wray said, there was no place for a giant gorilla to climb!

photo ©2001 Laurance Fendrick
And here we were, watching them collapse because of some fanatics. But it wasn't really about the buildings that day - it was about the thousands of innocent people who were in them who lost their lives when they came down. Over the next few days we would be hearing voice mail messages left by those who knew they were not coming home again. Imagine how bad it was inside the building when it was preferable to jump to certain death rather than stay put. And it was more than just those who were already in the towers who were killed, but so many first responders who went into the buildings to help people, and never got out themselves.

My son's father-in-law stopped in the WTC every morning to get his coffee. This morning he stepped off the ferry just in time to see the first plane hit. He wisely turned around and went back on the boat to head home. Good thing too, because all ferry service was stopped after that. In fact, all NYC bridges were closed as well. 4 of 5 NYC boroughs are on islands so with the ferries stopped and the bridges closed, if you weren't home you were stranded. Had I not been home that day - I worked in New Jersey - I would not have been able to return home for the next 3 days!

At the time, we didn't know exactly what was happening, all we knew was that our home was under attack.  Shortly, soldiers carrying automatic weapons started appearing in my neighborhood. Military helicopters were flying down my block at rooftop level. We were advised, if possible, to stay in our houses. We were in a war zone. This was not something that we just saw on TV - such as the Oklahoma bombings of a few years earlier - this was happening to us! On the news, we followed a chase of a car suspected of containing terrorists. Once again ... this was happening in my neighborhood ... blocks from my house. We didn't know if it was over or not.

All flights were cancelled, nothing but the military was in the air. Very strange and scary when you realize that I live 10 minutes from a major NYC airport - we have three - and there was no commercial traffic flying! All sports events in the country were cancelled for fear of attack. When baseball returned a week later here in NYC, it was under airport type security. No one knew what to expect, and when the teams - major divisional rivals at the time - met in the infield and shook hands and embraced each other prior to the start of the game, it was a very emotional moment. The hometown NY Mets won that game from the Atlanta Braves on a very dramatic late inning home run, and even the players on the other team were happy that happened ... it started the healing here in NY and the start of a return to life for those of us who live here.

As you can imagine, between a major telephone switching center being destroyed when the towers collapsed, and the sheer volume of attempted phone calls into the city, telephone service - landline and cell - was nearly non-existent. I could not call my children - neither of whom were in NYC ... my daughter had moved to Florida a year earlier, and my son was away at college. I had recently made the switch from dial up internet service to cable based, and it was the only way I was able to talk with my children - through an online chat. Remember that this was 2001 and many of the "instant communication" abilities we have on the net now were not available then.

But the hardest of all to deal with were the children my wife was teaching. The schools immediately went into lock-down mode. Children could not leave school unless a parent came to pick them up. Yet you have to remember that many of her students had just lost a mom or a dad and did not yet know it. And there were many indeed. During a celebrity fund raising concert a few weeks later, a young boy accompanied Joe Torre to the stage. He had lost his father in the attack. He was one of my wife's students.

So forgive us NYers if we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. I feel sorry for the families of the victims of the attack, not the mastermind of such carnage. Life continues here as it does in Washington, DC and Pennsylvania - in fact around the country and the world ... but it has never been the same.

Weeks after the attack we visited our daughter in Florida, and saw The Voices of Liberty perform at the American Adventure in EPCOT in Walt Disney World. This clip was a part of that performance (which I filmed) that I usually share each 9/11.


  1. A chilling story no matter how many times I hear it.

  2. Mark, though I am not a native to NYC or even the USA, we still (well at least I do) remember the events of that day. I have many friends in the US and a few in NYC, all of who are thankfully OK. One who worked in the WTC who was fortunately not at work on 9/11. All the way here in Australia, we feel nothing but empathy and compassion for all of the innocent people who lost their lives on at day and their families that they were suddenly taken from.

  3. Mark rereading this from when you posted it. still touches me today as much as it did then.