Monday is the 16th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history. This was truly the day that changed the world, impacted each of our lives, and bore witness to the worst and the best of mankind.
The attack on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the failed attempt at a direct hit on the White House was more than symbolic – it was personal. This day will forever be viewed as a dark testament to the existence of senseless hate and the fragile nature of life. This was a day that none of us will ever forget – like Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy Assassination we will always remember where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with when the towers were hit. We will remember that feeling of panic and helplessness, the aura of confusion and disbelief that followed as we were glued to our televisions trying to make sense of something so horrific.
Our world changed on that day because we always held the feeling that it couldn’t happen here. These unexplainable acts of hate and disrespect for life have happened countless times in other parts of the world, but it just wasn’t possible in the United States so we were able to push the horrors from around the world aside and think of more positive things. That was possible until 9-11-2001. Those who lived through the terror of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam experienced something of this hateful presence, but there was something different about this – this was even more personal and it pointed to our own vulnerability. Hate has always found a place in American life, but at this level we could actually taste how acrid it was, how close it became, and how random it could be. Hate didn’t need a reason it only needed a target that allowed the actor to find a forum.
I remember my first thoughts of my family and what must I do to protect them. No one knew for sure that there was an end to the attack – what was next, who would be a target, who would do such a thing, what possible explanation could be found? Was my family safe, we’re my friends in danger – is this the beginning of the end? This was how I felt and how most Americans felt as well. We were in shock and America’s world of allies felt it for us.
As we watched the Towers come crashing down it was hard to look away even though we wanted to. There were people in those buildings, people with hopes and dreams, families, children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, coworkers and friends – how devastating, how senseless, how cowardly an act this was. I know I had tears in my eyes, but couldn’t cry – not yet. Fear has a way of keeping those emotions in check until a person can put things in some semblance of order. It was hard to process everything before us, it was too much, too intense, too much to handle.
As the days passed and America began to dig out from the shock we watched something else occur. From the darkest depths of despair our friends and neighbors rose to the occasion and helped our country find a way to process everything. Firefighters and Police performed superhuman feats of courage as they dug through the rubble looking for any sign of survivors. There were biting stories beneath the steel and stone, acts of heroism that were a testament to the power of human courage and dignity. More than 3,000 Americans died senselessly on that day – 343 were New York firefighters, 60 were police, and another 8 were paramedics – all of them hero’s who gave their lives to help others. Everyone in America was a New Yorker, a Pentagon Worker, a Flight Attendant, a Cop or Firefighter during those days. There was no separation by any measure – we stood together and the free world shared our pain and our determination to overcome.
I was in New York City seven weeks later. I went with a friend down to Ground Zero. It was a surreal place – somber, almost sacred. There was still debris floating in the air, people were on the streets but rarely spoke. The sight of the rubble and twisted steel, the rows of pictures of fallen firefighters and cops posted on firehouse and police stations had such an eerie feel only surpassed by the pictures and spontaneous memorials to loved ones that were attached to fences and telephone poles. I felt hollow, sad, angry, desperate yet convinced that New York and America would pull through.
New Yorkers are often considered uncaring, sometimes rude, and aloof, but that was not the case after 9/11. People acknowledged each other on the street with those hollow eyes that accompany people who were grieving while knowing that everyone shared the same thoughts. People held doors for those behind them and acknowledged with a nod or even a “thank you”. We were moving from shock to acceptance that things would never be the same, but that good must overcome evil.
The day of the attack became even more personal for me as I learned about those who had a direct or indirect connection to me and to what I do for a living. The first tower was home to Windows on the World – one of the most spectacular restaurants in the country. The restaurant itself was closed that morning, but there was a catered event in one of their facilities on the 106th floor. After the first plane flew into the building at over 400 miles an hour, the attendees at the event were lost along with 72 restaurant employees. Any person who was in the building above the 92nd floor was lost – no survivors. These were people who were just going about their normal existence with only a desire to serve.
A few moments later another plane flew into the second tower. On that plane was one individual, Chris Carstajen, who was en route to California from Boston for a well-deserved vacation from his work. Chris, one would assume, did not have little warning, nor did he have any idea that when he boarded that plane it would be the last time he saw his family, his friends, and his coworkers. Chris and the others on that plane were gone in a flash. Chris was one of my former students enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program at Paul Smith’s College. He was a creative, energetic, light-hearted and funny person – full of life. Every year since 2001 Chris is on my mind.
I have yet to visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York, but will some day. I’m not ready yet. Since 9/11, the death and destruction resulting from those who hate continues to plague the world. At times it seems that this distain for others, the lack of respect for life, and the senseless dismissal of people as pawns in a game of power and misunderstanding continues to grow out of control. I ask – has the world learned anything from this and countless other atrocities?
On this anniversary of 9/11 I ask out of respect for the countless people who have lost their lives as a result of hate – when will it end?