Friday, August 26, 2011

September 11, 2001 - From my perspective

On September 11, 2001, I was attending school at West Chester University outside of Philadelphia. That fall semester I had only one class on Tuesdays, Business Finance, that concluded at 9:45 am. I was a commuter, I lived off campus. I remember vividly the two individuals who stopped and asked me as I made my way back to my car, “Are classes still in session?” I had no clue what they were referring to and answered “yes” both times.

Once I got to and started my car I learned from the radio what had just happened in New York City. As the magnitude of what I was hearing began to sink in my mind started to race. I had several family members that worked in and around the World Trade Center; I have several family members that are members of the NYPD. I started to think of them and my family in Troy NY. I had no way to contact anyone at that moment. As I raced home to my apartment, making a 30 minute trip in 15, the reports were getting worse. Reports of several unaccounted for planes still in the air with several assumed targets. We were under attack; it was the first time in my life where I felt truly vulnerable.

I listened on the radio while I drove of reports of a plane crash in Pennsylvania, reports of some form of explosion at the Pentagon, and the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. When I finally arrived at the apartment and rushed inside, the only thing I was able get on the phone for what seemed an eternity was “All circuits busy please try again later.” I turned on the TV and watched and witnessed what millions of others were. I can’t describe the feeling that overcame my body, except for total numbness. Then just as I got through to my parents and my dad answered the phone, the North Tower began to collapse. I was witnessing something that will forever be burned into my mind. I remember sitting silent, there were no words. Then it set in and all I could do was be assured that my parents, brother, and sister were safe, Melissa was safe, and I was safe. It took several hours, long hours before we knew our extended family members in New York City were all safe.

I couldn’t stop watching, emotion building up. Questioning how this happens in New York and the United States. It wasn’t long after that I made the decision that I would do whatever I could to assist in the volunteer effort. First I gave blood, donated what money I could afford, then I decided I would assist in the recovery efforts. Melissa and my family were concerned about the safety of going to NYC, but this was something I needed to do.

On Friday morning, September 14th I made the hour and a half trip to New York, dressed in my work clothing, which at the time consisted of construction boots and related clothing. I was accustomed to manual labor, at the time I worked for an electrical contractor while attending school and playing collegiate lacrosse. One memory I have of the drive is, if anyone has ever traveled Interstate 78 from PA/NJ to NYC there is a point where the hill crests and you get your first view of the Manhattan skyline, a view that I seen a hundred times, but this time it was as if I was looking at a different view.

I parked on 34th Street by the Javits Center and headed south on foot to the WTC. It wasn’t long before a rickshaw stopped and insisted on transporting me to the site. Along the way we picked up another volunteer and hundreds and hundreds of “thank you’s” and “god bless you’s” from the people that lined the West Side Highway.

We were let off at Canal St. The man who I rode with turned out to be a union carpenter and left to find his crew. I continued alone. September 14th was also the day President Bush visited the site. Security, which was already heightened, became almost impenetrable. But I was determined. After being sent to five different entry points throughout lower Manhattan, I gained access at the Stuyvesant High School check point. I was in. Volunteers gave me several sets for gloves, a box of dust masks, and a white hard hat. They wished me well and I went on my way.

I don’t think I was completely prepared for what the next 24 plus hours had in store for me visually, mentally, and physically. Unless you were able to personally witness what was happening in NYC first hand you have a different perspective of the events, one that is at a completely different end of the spectrum from those who lived it live and in person. I have never given a detailed description of what those hours onsite were like, but I will say that the moment the President left I don’t think I stopped for more than a couple hours here and there. I worked with the US Marshals constructing a wooden bridge at Vesey St and West St to cover the power and communications cables that were destroyed, I found myself working among the emergency crews that consisted of members of the NYPD, FDNY, and hundreds of others from across the United States on the ‘bucket brigades,’ and when we were relieved we brought food and water to rescue workers. No one ever stopped. Day turned to night and then night to day. We worked tirelessly. We evacuated a few times for unknown reasons, but we all returned to continue.

The afternoon of Saturday September 15th was as beautiful as the morning of the 11th. The site was quiet despite the hundreds of workers and heavy machinery, then the silence was broken by emergency sirens. These were the same sirens that sounded when we evacuated the site previously, but this time it came with an explanation. Officials feared that the Deutsche Bank Building was about to collapse. We rushed up West Street toward Stuyvesant High School and waited for the emergency to pass and when it did only emergency workers and those with union cards in their possession were allowed reentry. Hundreds of citizen volunteers were left outside the gates. Some angry, some relieved, some not knowing what to do. I remember sitting on the curb looking at the ash and concrete dust on my boots and pants, knowing more work had to be done and feeling a little bit restless and peaceful at the same time.

I am honored to have participated and assisted. When I left that afternoon I knew we as a city, state, and country would overcome what had happened. The people I met and worked side-by-side with reassured this in me. There were tears at times, moments when worked halted to honor the fallen, but the resilience and unwavering approach of every individual I met and worked with helped make a 21 year old young man realize what it is all about.

To this day the emotion and memory of this experience is as fresh and raw as when it happened. Our lives changed on September 11, 2001, mine, particularly, was changed for the better.