REVISITING 9/11—THE DAY THE WORLD (and my life) CHANGED FOREVER

This following is an unusually personal account of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. It is an updated version of a piece originally posted on Sept. 11, 2009.

The dawn on September 11, 2001 brought what was sure to be yet another magnificent day. Life was idyllic. I had a great job in Manhattan, my wife and I had just returned from a magical vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and I was looking forward to being back in the city, continuing to make my mark on the nation’s media. What could be better? Beautiful wife, great job, my favorite time of year and professional success. I waited almost gleefully on the MetroNorth platform in Brewster, NY for the train.

Two hours later it was clear to me the world was ending. With a picture window in my 34th floor office that looked south, directly at the towers of the World Trade Center and my desk facing the other way, my assistant came in and told me to look behind me. I saw a gaping, burning whole in the north tower, black smoke and flames billowing out of it. I had no intellectual explanation for it. An air traffic control situation what went woefully wrong? Did a pilot lose control of his airliner? Was it some sort of internal explosion in the tower? The one thing that did not occur to me was a terrorist attack. The rest of the nation had yet to catch on but my window because a movie screen—“No way that just happened,” I thought.

Always a reporter at heart, I quickly called WTIC-AM radio to talk to morning show hosts Ray Dunaway and Diane Smith (back then just names I knew; they have both since become friends) about what was happening in front of me. As I waited on hold, I watched as the second airliner made its way across the horizon and slammed into the south tower. “The world is ending,” I thought at that point. I don’t remember what I said on the radio except that in all my years in the media, it was clear this was beyond anything I’d experienced.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur—no cell phone service, no regular phone service, only e-mail which I used to notify my family I was safe (at least right then). The two towers later collapsed in front of us, further numbing my mind and questioning the prognosis for the world. More than 3,000 innocent souls lost. How could this happen?

Only after we saw TV news report of the airliner hitting the Pentagon did we realize our nation, always secure while wars were fought on foreign lands, was under attack. There was serious question as to what we should next. Stay in the building? Get out before something hit our structure? There was no script, no game plan for what to do.

Hours later, we decided to try to get home. For me, that meant getting back up to Grand Central and trying to find a train back to Brewster. It was utter and pure chaos. On the way, I encountered a sobbing woman on the sidewalk on 42nd Street. In business attire, she had clearly could not make sense of what was happening and was emotionally lost in the big city. I picked her up and we walked together to Grand Central. It was closed. We sat together for hours, putting each other at ease to the extent that was possible. We talked about family and dreams for the future. Eventually they reopened Grand Central and I got her on a New Haven line train. I never got her name and to this day wonder about her and whether the dreams we discussed that day came true for her. I eventually got on the lone train back to Brewster still wondering if what I just witnessed was real or whether I would awake from a horrific dream.

The coming months meant looking at Ground Zero every workday as it continued to smolder (it was a good three to four months before it stopped). The subway hubs were transformed into gigantic missing persons’ centers as hundreds of pictures of the missing were posted by still-hopeful relatives and friends. Prior to that near-apocalyptic day, if you were too slow to get up the stairs or didn’t stay to the right, you risked being overrun by the crowd. Afterward, people stopped and helped you up the stairs—strangers speaking to each other and offering comfort.

The world then became a vampire to me. Fast forward: a divorce, personal struggles, the occasional nightmare and ugly thoughts rushing back every time I see a jet overhead. Not everything can be traced back to that day, but things will never be the same. The old saying, “Time heals all wounds,” is partially true. It heals some wounds. Other need to be managed with the help of others—friends and family.

I thank God everyday that life is now good again. But I will never take that fact for granted as long as I am on this earth. I haven’t commented in this space yet about mosques near Ground Zero (or what is a cemetery for a certain part of me) or Islamic prayers at the opening of city hall meetings. It’s rightly the source of passion for some. It just seems so inconsequential to me.

I don’t claim to know the suffering and grief endured by those that lost a loved one on that day. I do know that the images ingrained in my mind will never go away. The only choice we have is to persevere, try to be a better person every day, put things in God’s hands (as we choose to see him) and make the world a better place in our own small way.

God bless those we lost nine years ago and those who have perished since as a result of that day. And God bless the rest of us who were spared.

“I wish my life was like the water, ’cause water always finds its way. I wish my life was like a sunny, sunny sky, comes up shining every day.” – Mike Benjamin