New Yorkers remember 9/11 twenty years later

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Giovanna Slon was just beginning her third year at Fordham University in the Bronx when a plane hit the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. ‘At 8:47 my R.A. bangs on my door and tells me “You have to get up. There’s something happening.”’ 

In Midtown Manhattan, Glenda Castro had just come into work at America Magazine. The magazine had an unusual setup; on the first three floors was the business and the top six, a community of 25 Jesuit priests and brothers. The staff and Jesuits gathered together in the community’s sixth floor TV room to watch the unfolding story. As a second plane crashed into the second tower, it took her a minute to understand what had happened. ‘I’m thinking it’s just a replay of the first building,’ she says.

Miles away, Slon and the students assembled in their floor lounge thought the same. ‘Then you realize, no, we’re watching this in real time. That is another plane.’ Though Fordham is quite far from lower Manhattan, the students could see the smoke rising in the distance.  

Across from the World Trade Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, parish priest Fr Vincent Sullivan, S.J. was getting ready for a funeral. By the time he was alerted to what was going on both planes had already hit the Trade Center. ‘I think I heard the second one hit,’ he remembers. ‘They were both burning.’ 

After a quick errand, Sullivan stepped outside to discover one of the towers was now gone. ‘[The remaining tower] looked very tall and very lonely.’ It would soon follow its partner into the ground, killing everyone inside.

Twenty years later, these three New Yorkers have vastly different impressions of those days. For Castro much of 9/11 is a blur; what she remembers most is watching that television with her colleagues, their eyes ‘glued’ to the screen, the room silent. 

 

‘9/11 put a deep scar in our hearts and it led us to believe that anything can happen anywhere. It broke our hearts.’

 

For Slon it was an experience of being both unmoored and forced to grow. ‘For the most part you’re insulated in college,’ she explains. ‘You don’t really have responsibilities,’ and when problems arise there are ‘adults who can guide you, give you the answers you need.’ Suddenly she found herself in a situation where the adults were just as lost as the students felt. ‘It was the first time I was confronted with anything where I had to make of it what I could. There was nobody telling me what to do or how to feel. It was a very strange and terrifying experience.’

Sullivan spent 9/11 shuttled with other priests to different sites where the city hoped to bring survivors. But there never were any.

In the days that followed, he says, ‘At first you think you’re going to be there for [survivors]. But then gradually you realize you’re there for the workers.’ A boat had been commandeered to provide meals for the first responders; he and his parish’s nurse hung around there, talking with those working at the site. ‘It was such an awful time,’ he remembers. ‘And at the same time I met such wonderful people. At that time I saw the worst and the best of humanity.’

Twenty years later, the experience has changed each of them in different ways. ‘I was going to school blocks from where my mom grew up,’ says Slon — who was raised in upstate New York. ‘My uncles all lived downtown. New York had always been this magical place. Just realizing that maybe we weren’t all as safe as we thought we were was an awakening.’ 

Castro sees a similar change in the city itself, a cautiousness that has never left. ‘Things have happened since then, like bomb scares, even up to the last year or the year before. And people think twice [now] on what to do and how to do things.’ 

‘9/11 put a deep scar in our hearts and it led us to believe that anything can happen anywhere. It broke our hearts.’

Sullivan agrees. ‘I’ve begun seeing things on TV about 9/11 and all of a sudden there’s this up-swelling of emotion. It all comes back.’

As he’s telling stories I can hear some of that in his voice, the reservoir of sadness and shock still deep within. ‘It’s a very personal thing, talking about this,’ he tells me. 

The long-term effect on the city itself is harder to pin down, they all say. ‘It’s always going to be a part of who we are now,’ says Slon. ‘But there’s more pride as a result of that, I think, and the fact that we all came together.’

‘You wonder if the pandemic won’t have more of an effect,’ Sullivan muses. ‘At the time [of 9/11] there were all sorts of fears that companies were going to move out of New York. It didn’t happen — or maybe it did and it didn’t matter. The economy kept going.’

The situation with the pandemic is different, he finds. ‘There’s all sorts of questions about whether offices will reopen. It might have more effect on the day to day way people live.’

Still, the ripples from that terrible day continue to radiate out. There are the surreal memories that come — the young Arabic man Castro saw walking from person to person in Central Park on 9/11, shaking hands; the friendly Southern lady passing out hard hats at Ground Zero, pleasantly warning Sullivan and the others, ‘If you hear a siren, get the hell away as fast as you can;’ the endless weeks of funerals that followed. ‘It was like a community wake going on for months,’ Sullivan recalls.

They’re haunted by what they’ve learned since, too. ‘There were eleven women who were pregnant [who died],’ says Slon. ‘Nobody talks about them. And there was a little girl on one of the flights, too. There were just so many people that we lost, and each of them had a story.’

Castro can’t bear to go to the memorial site. ‘I just feel so afraid of going down there and seeing the names. It was a sad, sad, sad day.’ And she still wonders how it could have occurred. ‘How did our government let this happen?’

No matter how many years pass, you keep meeting people who lost someone on 9/11 too, Slon notes. ‘You don’t realize how many people it touched.’

But at the same time, she notes that, ‘a lot of the people I know who have lost somebody started foundations in their names.’ 

She’s deeply moved by ‘the grace, the acceptance’ of these Americans who have lost so much. ‘This is how it is,’ she sees them asserting. ‘And we have to find meaning in this.’

 

 


Jim McDermottJim McDermott is an American Jesuit priest and screenwriter.

Main image: The Tribute to Light rises over lower Manhattan as people gather on the Brooklyn promenade on September 11, 2021 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

 

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, 9/11, World Trade Centre, terrorism, New York City

 

 

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Existing comments

Pearl Harbor does not live in infamy, and hasn’t for a while. Perhaps that is because Americans are non-racist and forgiving. Perhaps, that is also because there is nothing canonical in Japanese or German culture about killing those whom you can’t co-opt. The humans who make up Japanese or German culture can claim with conviction that it is not intrinsic to their culture to behave as such, and Americans can take them at their word that that is so. Eventually, 9 11 will be commemorated in the same schizophrenic way as Pearl Harbor or ANZAC Day. With Pearl and Anzac, we remember the evil but not the enemy because the philosophy of the time which motivated the enemy has become extinct. We impute the enemy’s guilt to ‘the enemy is us’, that all humans are prone to mistakes. That’s fine if it is not a fudge. With 9 11, it will be a fudge of schizophrenic denial, impelled by good manners. The philosophy which motivated the terrorists can never become extinct. It is a canonical element of their greater religious culture. Perhaps Christians who downplay this do so because, unlike the terrorists, they don’t really believe in canonicity of scripture.


roy chen yee | 18 September 2021  

Thank you, Fr Jim. We Australians grieve for American lives almost as if they were our own. But we also grieve for the families and peoples of those nations ravaged by American armed interference, intervention and control. One would have to ask if Pakistan wouldn't be in the mess that she is if it hadn't been for a US foreign policy that used its influence in Pakistan to stir up opposition to the non-aligned status of India, then and still now the world's largest democracy. Then there's US support for Zionist-occupied Palestine, for oil-rich Arab despots and indeed of despots every where from Vietnam to, Chile, Iran and Cuba. Tragically, New Yorkers and Washingtonians paid the price for their nation's misadventures. But, to cap it all, the Twin Towers atrocity was followed up by the failed occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. We in Australia can already see signs of the pull-out from Afghanistan signalling a 're-engagement' with Asia: White-House-Speak for training your guns on China, which promises to be very much to the detriment of a small nation like Australia, sucked into the fast-developing vortex that is currently demonising China. One good outcome here: Europe's rise as a Peace-maker.


Michael Furtado | 19 September 2021  

I think you, as an American who was there at the time, even though you may not have been in the exact vicinity, add something to our knowledge in Australia, Jim. I think the Church, through its rites, provided a bridge of clarity and sanity in that bleak time.


Edward Fido | 23 September 2021  

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