“Where is my daughter?”
Standing a few blocks from the World Trade Center, every sense of my being was drawn to the fires raging in the upper floors. The rush of the flames filled the air. The heat of the fire flooded even the ground where I stood. And a scar in the tower’s facade beckoned as if it would unleash the violence that made it. But through the carnage and the chaos, the question posed by a young woman nearby forced its way to the forefront of my mind.
For an instant I no longer thought about everything I was taking in. The overturned fruit cart I passed a few blocks earlier. The thoughts about making it to my office. All those people who had jumped or fallen from the towers. Alone with two people — a police officer and a distraught mother — in an oddly deserted intersection in Lower Manhattan steps from the World Trade Center, I suddenly felt the terror flooding the stranger next to me as she pressed the officer for details on the whereabouts of her daughter. She had dropped her off at school a few minutes earlier, and now her class had been evacuated. Where were they?
For me, this mother is the most enduring memory of 9/11, which is itself striking. Nearly everyone has a 9/11 story, but because of a quirk of my personal history, I saw much of the day’s tragic events. I am the member of my circle who many thought for a time had perished in the attacks. My office was across the street in the World Financial Center and, as a journalist then, I would be drawn to the scene rather than flee from it. It didn’t help that cell coverage was spotty following the attacks.
My story begins with me exiting my apartment building in Brooklyn Heights on my way to vote in a primary before heading to work. Instead, I was met by scores of people streaming to the Brooklyn Promenade. I heard someone say a plane hit the Trade Center, so I turned left and found myself with a view framed by the Statue of Liberty far to the left and the Brooklyn Bridge to the right with the Trade Center in the center. It was not hard to understand what was happening.
I saw flames and smoke, and I saw what looked like people jumping (or falling) from the North Tower. I was still there when Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower. I didn’t actually see the crash. I had turned away, but I could feel the boom and saw debris come shooting out of the building.
At that instant, everything changed. The crowd instantly knew what was unfolding, and for some the thought was discombobulating. A woman to my right slammed the heel of her right hand into my chest and yelled “We are under attack!” She ran down Montague Street shouting her warning to everyone. To my left a man was more reserved and uttered a name we would hear a lot about. He said, “Osama Bin Laden always did want those towers.”
I then made a series of less-than-smart decisions. I got on the subway and headed into Lower Manhattan. Emerging just north of Wall Street, I found a sea of people looking up at the Towers. Crossing Broadway, I found the streets closer to the site nearly deserted and made it as far as the back of the Ladder Co. 10’s firehouse, which is directly across from the Trade Center.
Within a few minutes I found myself next to the woman asking after her daughter. I heard reassuring words from the cop about the children’s location and then it struck me. It was too dangerous to stay near the site. So I did what no one would recommend: I got back on the subway. I caught what might have been the last train off the island and made it to my apartment before the South Tower collapsed.
Fifteen years on, it is the thought of standing next to that mother that stops my mind. Amid the destruction and the heroism of that day, that moment I had by chance overheard captures an enduring takeaway. Creativity, be it in commerce or the arts, flourishes when people are free to pursue their lives unmolested by violence. Terrorism seeks to put a halt to that free pursuit. So we had a mother suddenly thrown into panic on one corner while a massive attack unfolded on the next.
If future generations want to know why 9/11 has an indelible place in the minds of millions of Americans, it is because the attacks touched nearly everyone at a personal level. That person on the corner could be you. What followed was a national decision to remember who we lost and why we need to act in the face of danger.