culture

Walking In the Shadows of Giants

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When you ask someone who was in New York City that day, many of the stories seem to start the same way.

“It was a beautiful day.”

“The sky was blue, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”

“A perfect September morning.”

If you were of a certain age on September 11th—old enough to have a memory of that day, that is—chances are your stories begin with something as mundane as the weather. Talking about the weather is the go-to topic of conversation for small talk, and it always served as a way of easing into the discussions surrounding that day. By starting with something nice, we hope to make the terrible memories that follow a little more palatable. Of course, they won’t be, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Today, I am in a coffee shop just a few blocks from where the Towers once stood, and it is an eerily similar day. A perfect blue sky, no clouds, and you couldn’t ask for better temperatures. I walked past the 9/11 Memorial, and it was filled with people enjoying the day, paying their respects, taking photos, etc.

People like to say that “you can always tell the difference between people who are from New York City and those who are not. If you’re from here, you rarely look up.” We’ve become used to the skyscrapers looming over us as we move throughout the city, casting their shadows on the people below and echoing the noise of the streets. However, those who aren’t from here cannot help but look up and admire the massive buildings and how impressive they are.

Whenever I am at the Memorial, I find myself joining the tourists. I look up at One World Trade Center as it towers over the reflecting pools and the 9/11 Museum. Gazing at the engineering marvel that building is, it also serves as a sign that New York City could rebuild and return stronger than ever.

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Photo Taken at 9/11 Memorial

Everyone knows where they were on 9/11 and has a few things they remember, particularly about that day, whether ordinary or horrifying. You remember whether or not you hit traffic on the way to work or school; what you ate for breakfast; what you were doing when you first saw the images of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on fire, or the clip of a burning hole in the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It’s those things that stick with you forever, and even if you were a kid like I was at the time, you still got the sense at that moment that the world would never be the same once the sun had set.

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, about 30 miles from the World Trade Center. I was only 11 years old when the attacks happened and was—like most kids—getting ready for another day at school. I put on my Catholic school uniform, got dropped off by my mom, as I usually did; nothing about the day seemed out of the ordinary. Even after the first planes hit, nothing seemed strange because—leave it to the Catholics to do something like this—we weren’t told what was going on. I have to imagine that the teachers didn’t want to frighten any of us, given that a large part of the school, myself included, had parents or relatives that worked in the city.

It was only once kids began to be pulled from class that we realized something was wrong, and even then, we didn’t know exactly what. To be fair to St. John’s Academy staff in Hillsdale, New Jersey, nobody knew what was going on or what was going to happen next.

In the days before social media, information traveled only as fast as the news could report it, and on days like 9/11, we should probably be thankful that was the case. In the mass confusion, people heard different reports about what happened, with some even mentioning that Wall Street had been destroyed.

I didn’t learn that the Towers had collapsed until after classes had ended. My Mom came to pick me up from school, and on the ride back home, she said, seemingly still in a state of shock, “the Twin Towers are gone.” For an 11-year-old kid, the idea that this could happen seemed like something out of a nightmare. Your first instinct would be to turn to your parents for answers. Like everyone else, they didn’t have them. 

Despite not living there for over 30 years at this point, my parents will always be New Yorkers at heart. My Dad grew up in Woodlawn, a neighborhood in the Bronx, and my mother grew up in Yonkers. They are always connected to New York City, and while I didn’t know it at the time, 9/11 hit them especially hard. 

“I remember just sitting there with your mother and just crying... we felt sorry for ourselves,” my Dad said when I asked him about his experiences that day. My Dad isn’t one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, so hearing that he had had “a good cry,” as he put it, was something that had surprised me. 

My mother mostly remembered the community’s reaction, standing in Mass the following Sunday, with a Church full of people, seemingly searching for answers, whether through their faith or leaning on their neighbors. “Everybody in Church was crying, and I remember you looking at me. It was so overwhelming and the whole collective crying has always stuck with me,” my mom explained.

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9/11 Museum and Memorial

Other than the New York connection, my Dad also had a familial tie to the events; his cousin’s brother-in-law, Battalion Chief Orio Palmer, was one of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on that day.

Orio made his way to the 78th floor of the South Tower, attempting to evacuate as many people as he could along the way. Orio was born in the Bronx and had been a firefighter for many years before 9/11. The bravery of men and women like Orio simply cannot be understated; these are people whose actions echo far louder than our words and tributes to them ever could.

And Orio’s actions have reverberated throughout the years, helping us piece together exactly what occurred inside the Towers that day. Conversations between him, Deputy Chief Peter Hayden and Assistant Chief Donald Burns were used by The 9/11 Commission to analyze communications during rescue operations. As chaos reigned and the reporting of necessary information began to break down, Orio kept calm and maintained his composure in the face of the gravest of outcomes.

Men and women like Orio show the best of what humanity can be: utterly selfless and willing to do whatever it takes to help everyone around them. We say things like “Never Forget” and “Always Remember,” but as the years have gone by and the memories become a little hazier, the knowledge of the sacrifices made by so many has inevitably started to fade.

For younger millennials and Gen Z, 9/11 isn’t so much a memory as it is a history lesson. They know of the impact it had on the world, but the raw emotions and feelings of the day cannot be taught. This lack of understanding is through no fault of their own. One can only have those sorts of recollections if they were present as events such as these unfolded.

As time passes on and the stories of 9/11 become just that, stories, the adage of “Never Forget” becomes all the more important.

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Photo Taken at 9/11 Memorial

During the period immediately after 9/11, Americans were scared. We were lost in the dark with no light and no answers with endless amounts of questions. 

Was it safe to get on a plane? The subway? Was it okay to use a bridge or a tunnel? Were my kids safe at school?

To calm the country and give them some illusion of security, the government enacted harsh measures like the Patriot Act, which in many cases were abused by law enforcement to arrest alleged terror suspects. Once it had been determined who had committed the atrocities, many—including this country’s former President—turned to bigotry as a means to give themselves peace of mind.

If they could stay away from and blame an entire population of people, rather than just a violent and extremist group of murderers, then they would do so. These feelings were, in turn, amplified by certain voices in the media, fueling their anger and hatred. These fears and failures of the American people have continued since then, and as the country becomes more and more divided, it isn’t looking like these wounds are going to heal any time soon.

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Despite these shortcomings, Americans, at least at first, were able to come together to help one another heal and attempt to find a semblance of calm and normality. Even on the day of the attacks, people were reaching out to help those that were struggling. My Dad, a steamfitter who had been working near Rockefeller Center on 9/11, told me that he was impressed by how quickly people and companies could do just that.

“It was amazing how many companies and people came together so quickly. New York Waterway and bus companies were ferrying people. They didn’t charge anybody. They just wanted to make sure people got home,” he said.

My dad saying something as simple as that that was incredibly comforting. Nowadays, in times of separation—whether political or literal separation, as is the case with COVID-19—hearing that people were able to come together like that was nothing less than inspiring.

It was a testament to the power and resilience of the city itself. New Yorkers are, by nature, hard, tough, and, in many ways, angry people. Accounts of ordinary people who were able to come together and help each other were not foreign to me; after all, there are an endless amount of stories of things like that happening across the city that day, but hearing a firsthand account of it was incredible.

“I was pretty proud of New York. People panicked, but only for a second. I wasn’t down there [he was able to get out of Manhattan on a ferry in Midtown], but we just knew that it was time to go. Everyone was orderly trying to get home. While, of course, the fire department, police, sanitation, EMTs, all headed south,” my Dad explained.

Hearing that people were calm was surprising, considering the panic and chaos unfolding in lower Manhattan. Less than a mile away, people had been able to ensure that everyone who needed to get off the island did so safely; it was remarkable.

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New York City is the greatest city in the world. It is loud, smelly, angry and unforgiving, but it is also welcoming at its core.

The words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” are etched onto the Statue of Liberty as not just a welcome to the country but to the city itself. People come from all over the world to find themselves here, and New York, in all its overcrowdedness, welcomes all.

Perhaps it is a bit naive of me to say that, but in naivety comes optimism. A hope that even in the darkest times there exists a possibility for people to be better.

Walking in the shadows of the giants that revealed themselves that day, whether they be the heroes like Orio Palmer or monuments to the recovery of a city such as One World Trade Center, I find myself in awe of what had happened, but mostly of what followed.

New York City often finds itself at the center of national crises—9/11, Hurricane Sandy, COVID-19, and that’s just the last 20 years—but always bounces back.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, though long to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

Charles Dickens wasn’t talking about New York when he wrote those words. However, he perfectly describes the landscape of the city in the aftermath of the attacks:

A city “rising from the abyss” ready to face and meet the challenges ahead.

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