September 11, 2001: A 20 Year Perspective
Updated: Sep 12, 2022
I am dedicating this article to the 2,996 innocent lives - including the 343 FDNY firefighters, 37 Port Authority and 23 New York City police officers - who perished on September 11, 2001. I am also dedicating this article to those who died from illness or injury in the months and years following the attacks, and the military personnel, intelligence, law enforcement, civilians and others who died as a result of the various military conflicts following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
September 11, 2021 was the 20th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As I reflect on the past 20 years, I could never imagine a world as it is today, compared to what it was in the aftermath of that day. As the months and years went by, life went on and much has happened in our personal lives, our nation and our world since that day. Of note were the wars in the Middle East where so many men and women of the United States and our allies fought and died to defeat those who orchestrated, supported and caused the terrorist attacks in order to prevent such a horrific event from happening ever again.
As my articles are mostly research based, I am basing this article on my own perspective and what I have seen and experienced in the past 20 years. As most people who have his or her memories of this day, some very horrific and more directly involved then mine, my recollection of this day is still vivid.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving to Rutgers University for my Atlantic Cultures history course, which began at 9:50 in the morning. Normally, I would listen to the Howard Stern Show on the New York based station, KRock, on the way to college, but for whatever reason that day, I was listening to a compact disc (most likely 90s “grunge” music). At this period of my life, my focus was on college and the New York Yankees potentially going to their fourth World Series in a row. I was not focused on politics or world events. As I arrived to class, our professor was noticeably late. This class was the second or third time the professor and students met in that semester, and the professor had previously told us that he commuted from Brooklyn. As we were waiting, there were rumblings among the students as to what was happening in New York City. As I was sitting at my desk, I heard that the tunnels closed due to a plane crash in the city. My professor arrived about 30 minutes late. Surprisingly, the students did not invoke the “10 minute rule” (leaving class if the professor is 10 minutes late). He informed us that there was a plane crash in New York, but had little information because he too was listening to CDs and not live radio during his commute. In hindsight, he probably knew exactly what occurred, but did not want to panic the students. He went on not to discuss the normal curriculum, but rather, his perspective on the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. I was confused as to why he was talking about this, as I still did not know what had exactly occurred on that morning.
After class, I proceeded to the Alexander Library on College Avenue. As I began some homework, I overheard some of the librarians discussing this plane crash and that Rutgers may be closing soon. Still unaware exactly what was going on, I received the word that the school was closing at 1:00 PM. Following the cancellation of my afternoon class, I left the campus. As I got to Interstate 287 to head north, both directions of the highway had bumper to bumper traffic. Even though traffic of this nature is common in New Jersey, this type of traffic in the early afternoon on a Tuesday was strange. Like many people in the New York Metropolitan Area, I also could not make or receive phone calls to find out what was happening. This time, I turned on the live radio and was in shock at what I was hearing.
Rather than go home, I went to my second home at the time - the firehouse where I was a volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw several members walking around and talking. Again, people being at the firehouse at this time of day was not typical as most people would be working. The members were waiting on instructions for a possible response to Lower Manhattan. At this time, I was a Lieutenant on the First Aid Squad. We received word from our local police department that the emergency response command requested one ambulance from each First Aid Squad in the state to deploy to Liberty State Park in Jersey City. My good friend and the Captain of the First Aid Squad at the time coordinated four members, including myself, to be on the crew to Liberty State Park. The purpose of this was an expectation of many patients coming over by boat or helicopter from Lower Manhattan. In other words, we were expecting a mass casualty event with thousands of injured patients. It was also to assist and ensure these patients would get the care that they needed because New York City would not be able to handle emergency medical care of that magnitude.
As we proceeded to Interstate 78 toward New York, the scene as we approached Newark Airport was much different from the bumper to bumper traffic on the previous miles. The police diverted the highway traffic prior to the airport and the remainder of the drive was eerily clear. Emergency vehicles were the only vehicles permitted on the roadway. It was especially surreal because as we were travelling further east, the smoke billowing from the fallen towers became more apparent in the clear blue skies.
As we arrived at Liberty State Park, the other ambulances were arriving from all corners of New Jersey. We set up our cot and equipment and watched some fire departments set up decontamination units. Following the setup we waited, and waited, and waited. We spent the afternoon talking with each other and meeting emergency responders from other squads. We also spent time in silence, still in shock and watching the smoke continue to billow. As the air was getting cooler and it was becoming the evening, we received word that they may start deploying Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics via a helicopter to the World Trade Center area. This information may have been a plan or it may have been a rumor because a little while later, most ambulances departed for their respective towns following instructions. The reason for the departure was that the mass casualty event mostly resulted in either massive death, or the “walking wounded” (we did not know the extent of injury or illness), in addition to the severely wounded. The FDNY emergency personnel and neighboring communities in New York and possibly some in New Jersey and Connecticut were able to care for these wounded.
As we departed Liberty State Park, we had no idea how the world would change on September 12, 2001.
In early October 2001, I departed the firehouse again in our command vehicle and along with a box truck, and a police escort to Lower Manhattan. The purpose was to assist in bringing supplies for rescue workers that Bernardsville residents collected, and we then brought these items to the Port Authority Command Center by Ground Zero. Still a very surreal time, we had to receive another escort from the Port Authority Police, located by the Lincoln Tunnel, in order to enter the city. As we came down the West Side Highway, there were no cars. We entered the Ground Zero area and the vehicles had to get decontaminated and searched. We dropped off the supplies and the Port Authority personnel were more than gracious, but also overwhelmed with the amount of goods and supplies they were receiving. In the distance, I could see the mound of rubble where recovery efforts continued. We departed Ground Zero after going through the decontamination exercise again.
In the months and years following September 11, 2001, I started to pay more attention to current events, world events and politics. Soon after the fateful day, the United States declared war on the terrorist groups and people responsible for the attacks. This counter attack also included those who were harboring the terrorists. The Taliban in Afghanistan was the most immediate target of those harboring terrorists. Months later, the President of the United States made a bi-partisan case to start military action against Iraq and Sadaam Hussein. Regardless of the military actions, the people of the United States seemed united around each other, the victims, and their families, the police, firefighters, emergency personnel, military, and leaders of this country. At this time, race, ethnicity, political affiliation, sexual orientation and religion did not seem to matter. We were (and still are) Americans and we united together. A coordinated terrorist attack to this magnitude had never happened to civilians on the United States soil in the country’s history.
From 2003 to 2008, I had the honor to become a part of the United States Army family as a civilian employee. During my time working for the Army, I met some very extraordinary soldiers and civilians who deployed to the Middle East, fought and worked there during the war time. I also worked in an Emergency Operations Center with the responsibilities of tracking people who deployed overseas for accountability purposes and ensuring they had what they needed in terms of supplies, food, etc. One of the experiences I am most grateful for and one I will never forget was a training course that I assisted in providing to Human Resources professionals at the Walter Reed Medical Center. While on lunch break, the trainers and students went to the same cafeteria where the soldiers and visitors attended. In that short hour, I saw soldiers with prosthetics, soldiers in wheelchairs without limbs and soldiers with other injuries sustained during their course of battle with the enemy. Many were also eating with visiting family members, mostly parents who were no doubt sad to see their child in the condition they were in, but grateful that they were not witnessing what so many other families had to witness while attending to their child's body arriving at Dover Air Force Base or burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 2004, my brother Michael informed us that he had just joined the United States Navy in the footsteps of our grandfathers, Louis and Armand, who joined the Navy and Army (respectively) during World War II. Michael would later go to Illinois for basic training and then to his home base in Norfolk, Virginia. While nervous and concerned due to the intense battles that were going on in the Middle East, we supported him in his decision and could not be more proud. I had the honor to watch my brother and his fellow sailors depart on the aircraft carrier, which was a very somber event. I also had the honor to see the return of my brother and his fellow sailors triumphantly and proudly returning. One of my most distinct memories from the return from deployment was witnessing the sailors coming off the ship as new fathers who were about to meet their children.
Our lives continued to go on and “normalize” in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The patriotism and community that we experienced after the terrorist attacks seemed to fade into divisiveness. People were getting weary of the ongoing wars, particularly the war in Iraq. People started to raise questions as to why we were fighting there. Even those who voted to authorize military action against Iraq were now backing away for many reasons, including their own political expediency.
As the wars continued, a more unknown (at the time) person, community activist and Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama defeated the Republican Nominee and Vietnam War hero, John McCain. The election of Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States occurred for several reasons, chief among them were the global financial crisis, and the continued weariness of the wars. While President George W. Bush started to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2007, President Obama continued the trend during his presidency. The Obama Administration also withdrew all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, leaving security and intelligence forces in that country.
Time went on and the United States and the rest of the world experienced a world-wide pandemic called COVID-19. This pandemic led to massive illness and death throughout the world, shutdowns of the economy and mandates that the modern world has never experienced. Similar to September 11, 2001, this horrific event was something that the modern world had never seen or experienced. Following this, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked outrage, racial and political divisiveness, violence and crime throughout many cities throughout the United States.
As a result of these recent events, as well as our existing military presence in the Middle East, some of the actions by domestic and world leaders of late and the incurred turmoil may make people scratch their head, discouraged, frustrated and angry. Some of the families and friends of the people who died during the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq may think that their family members died in vain. Others who served may believe the same. I would never argue with somebody who feels this way. What I will say is that all of these people, military and civilian, are heroes. They did nothing in their lives to deserve what happened to them. They were innocent people with vibrant lives and loving families. Moreover, and in many cases, those who died on September 11, 2001 died because they were trying to help others. In the subsequent months and years, many people who joined the military did so because they believed in the cause to take the fight to the enemy and prevent another terrorist attack from occurring in the United States ever again. They were and are the true heroes. On September 11 and the months following, the people of the United States honored these heroes and paid no mind to their race, political affiliations, etc. They were Americans and they were fellow human beings who deserve our honor, memories, respect and continued legacy.
The popular phrase that became mainstream after September 11, 2001 and continues to this day is “Never Forget.” It is so important for the people who remember the horrific events of that day to recount where they were, what they experienced and what they felt during that time. We must keep the memory alive of all those who are no longer with us as a result of that day and we must also ensure that it never happens again.
Twenty years ago was the most fateful and consequential day in generations for this country. As I was writing this article, I was listening to and watching footage of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. I was also listening to the recitation of the names of those who perished and tolling bells to mark the various times of planes crashing and towers collapsing, as well as memorial events. While 20 long years later, we must continue this tradition in honor of those who perished, those who fought, for the generation who was present 20 years ago and for the generations who have come and will come after.
I hope and pray for peace and safety in this country and world and a return to the cohesiveness, dialogue, unity, patriotism, and understanding that from my perspective was present on September 12, 2001.