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  • kamyra9

9/11 THEN & NOW 

Twenty years ago, three commercial planes were hijacked and used as bombs to attack the U.S. Pentagon and New York City World Trade Center towers. A fourth plane's mission to crash into the U.S. Capitol was disrupted when passengers and crew united against hijackers and downed Flight 93 over Shanksville, PA. Where were you on September 11, 2001? I was on the edge of terror, home in Manhattan, a few short miles north of the World Trade Center. It felt as if I was a world away and simultaneously around the corner from the crash site. A lot has transpired since then. The world has changed and stayed the same. What was your life like then? How about now? 


The first time I posted on 9/11, it was a personal healing exercise. A secondary goal was to provide context for those interested in what it felt like for an average New Yorker. The emphasis placed on this 20th anniversary of our most significant terrorist attack is unavoidable. Earlier this month, U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan, where they had been avenging and rebuilding for two decades. For 20 years, the military, contractors, and aid organizations have been leaking souls, fighting a war that began on September 11, 2001. What's happened during that time? Where were you then? Where are you now? 


This essay is my jumbled then and now musing. It doesn't come close to doing justice to the lost or the survivors. For years, I rarely spoke about 9/11 with anyone who wasn't in NYC or the Pentagon on that day. I began sharing after I moved from my beloved city. My experience may be 9/11 adjacent, but it's much closer than most people's. For too many, the attack is solely the tragic catalyst to the longest war in USA history. Once a year, homage is paid to the sacrifices, and then we forget until the following year's remembrance.  


THEN 


The Taliban ruled Afghanistan. 


On September 11, 2001, I was a well-traveled young adult. I had seen the effects of war in other lands. I'd witnessed the aftermath of domestic terrorism in the USA and read accounts of embassy and aid worker attacks in faraway places. However, the 1993 World Trade Center truck bombing was my only experience with foreign aggression on U.S. soil. Even after living through that, I hadn't ever considered the possibility of a massive, multi-target attack at home.  


In 2001, I was a busy urban professional balancing a young marriage, career aspirations, friendships, family, and all things good. Habitually, I was out of the apartment early on weekdays. That gorgeous Tuesday, I was scheduled to attend a morning meeting that was closer to my home than to the office. I stayed home rather than commute to the office, then reversed course to the meeting location. I felt super professional watching a morning news broadcast while typing on my computer. 


People forget that September 11, 2001, wasn't the first time terrorists targeted the World Trade Center. It was also bombed on February 26, 1993. That time, I was on the phone with my roommate, Meg. She was sitting in her downtown office, and I was in mine a few miles north in Harlem. Our respective overhead lights blinked simultaneously. We joked about ConEdison's ineptitude as she walked to a window. There, she learned it was more than a borough-wide power surge. 


Eight years later, Meg worked a bit further downtown while I was home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We were the equivalent of miles away from one another as we were in 1993 but couldn't communicate. Unflappable Meg escaped by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, bypassing her apartment en route to the Atlantic Terminal Long Island Railroad hub. There, she caught the last train out of The City to the safety of her childhood home. 

I remained in Manhattan, watching history unfold. Witnessing one of the most vibrant cities in the world shut down was the most surreal experience of my life. As bridges and tunnels closed to traffic and public transportation halted, The City's intoxicating melodic hum disappeared. You only notice a sound once it's silenced.  


Before that day, except for Fleet Week and the Times Square recruiting office, the military might as well have been invisible in Manhattan. Shortly following the towers' collapse, futuristic military vehicles roamed our streets as fighter jets circled the city like lost migrating birds. The images were incongruent yet fascinating. My mental memory reel plays like the beginning of a horror flick: a beautiful sunny day, unsuspecting victims, insidious villains, and mayhem. 


People ask, "What was it like being there?" It's indescribable, but I always try to let them in. Initially, I was shocked. How could a plane veer so far off course that it strikes one of the tallest buildings in the world - an international landmark? When the second plane hit, I was confused; then the Pentagon and Shanksville. We were under attack. But what did that mean? Immediately following - and for a long while after - New Yorkers were uncertain, fearful, angry, and profoundly sad.  


One of my most poignant memories is the sight of emergency health workers lining the West Side Highway, waiting for patients who would never arrive. One can see for miles up and down the Westside Highway. The Hudson River on the west and city streets buffering tall buildings on the east provide an unobstructed view of bumper-to-bumper traffic. My physician was one of the heroes waiting along the highway. In a quiet, contemplative voice, she relayed what it was like to rush from her Upper Eastside medical practice to deploy downtown. She was ready to use the training she had kept fresh with years of refresher courses. I felt adrenaline spike throughout my body as she described the scene. We all know what came next: the slow-moving cloud cover of alarms when ambulances didn't arrive. Nothing was on the always crowded highway, just medical personnel poised to save people who'd never come. 


NOW 


The Taliban rules Afghanistan. 


In 2021, I'm still balancing but with more self-determination while holding it together during a global pandemic. Now, I live in Atlanta. NYC is a part of me. It's as if a part of me was forged by the events of that day. Anyone living in The City on September 11 forever is a New Yorker. There's no overriding that. The connection is more than memories of the community. It's metaphysical.  


Every time I visit New York City, I envision empty street cannons. I've tried to explain to my family what New York was like without its trademark hyperactivity. No matter how articulate I am, they can't make the mental leap. It's unimaginable, yet it happened. Now, when I feel the subway vibrating below the sidewalk, I remember how disconcerting it was to feel the rumblings and hear the sounds of the city that never sleeps, not even after being bombed. 2001 New York may have been quieted, but it didn't sleep. For weeks, it stayed up all night. Slowly, vibrancy reappeared at night, reminding us why "The City Never Sleeps." 

What's it like now? I'm frustrated with our continued lack of global perspective and American exceptionalism. Watching 9/11 heroes fight Congress for medical benefits and the continuation of victims' funds was infuriating. This wasn't the last attack in the world. Violence continues to claim innocent lives as the world learns, forgets, and relearns lessons. Lessons we should have committed to memory in 2001. I must believe the positivity and unity expressed immediately after the attack permeated psyches. There must be people who made changes for the better and continued contributing to the greater good in other aspects of society. Today, society is dealing with a variety of social awakenings. I find hope in that. Perhaps seeds for that were sown on September 11, 2001. Awakenings are crucial elements of growth. We have to see problems to solve them. Today, I hear more difficult conversations than I did in 2001. That's a good thing. Change comes from intentional discussion. I admire how some ignore expectations and demand the world take them as the present. 

No matter where you are today, if you were a New Yorker on September 11, 2001, you still feel uncertainty, fear, anger, and sadness. But you've had 20 years of other experiences. The sweetest of those balance the pain. 


9/11 is one of those shared experiences only those who've endured can understand. Others may sympathize or imagine, but empathy is far beyond their reach. That day in 2001, my husband was out of town; our sons had yet to be adopted or born. I was alone. That's probably why each year, without forethought, I observe the anniversary alone, privately honoring the sacrifices and losses. On rare occasions, I find respite in the comfort of those who share recollections.  


For most of the country, 9/11 is history; this anniversary is a must-do, respectful way to honor it. For us forever, New Yorkers, it's a day that lives with us, is difficult for us, and pushes us forward to live our best lives. We survived and/or witnessed it for a reason. When I'm gone, 9/11 will vaporize for my family. I'm their fragile attachment to it. Until then, I'll pick at the scab of the memory wound every so often so that others can feel a bit of what New Yorkers absorbed that day. 


Please share your reflections on September 11, 2001. It's one of those dates etched in our brains, never going away, making space for the new. No matter where you were, you'll always remember where you were when everything changed. Or did it? 


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