It was our worst day and our best day rolled into one. My wife Louise woke me up around 9 A.M. on a beautiful cloudless September morning. She was crying, and not because Regis Philbin wasn’t on that morning. There was only one show on every channel that day, September 11, 2001. A passenger jet had struck one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I knew right away what had happened in spite of the fact that the TV voices were speculating about a horrible accident. This was no accident, it was an attack. I’m from around here and I know where planes are allowed and not allowed to fly.
Then we watched another plane hit the second tower, two more witnesses to the instant deaths of all on board and who-knows-who else inside the building. The station we were watching went fuzzy and we flipped around until we found CBS, the only channel not broadcasting from the antenna on top of one of the Twin Towers. Who can ever forget the sight of those giant towers belching black smoke like some sad parody of factory smokestacks? I suddenly wondered out loud “Where are my sons?”
Mike the carpenter was working in a building across the street, one of the buildings I saw being pummeled with burning debris from the towers. Rob the computer graphics designer had been working for a magazine company in the immediate area and I wasn’t sure if his freelance assignment was over yet or if he was still there. I went to the telephone and called their cell phone numbers but neither of them were working, cellphone service being another casualty of the tower antenna. I called their mother who informed me that Rob was fine and on his way over to her place to hold her hand since his assignment was over but did I hear from Mike? “That’s why I’m calling you! He’s down there!”
“I know…” My ex-wife wept and I’m not ashamed to say that I did too. Rob had news from his wife of 6 months, Lydia, who was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge covered in ashes, as was my other son’s future wife Maria, who had worked at 7 World Trade, which would be the third building to collapse that day. We agreed to let each other know anything about anybody we knew. One of her brothers and a cousin are firefighters working together in the same firehouse and no one had heard from them either.
I hung up the phone so Louise could try to call her sister. She had heard on TV that the second flight to hit the towers was an American Airlines flight originating in Boston. The flight number told her the worst possible news; her niece and Goddaughter Elaina worked that flight as an airline attendant. Phone service to Boston was sketchy and phone calls to Elaina’s mother in Florida provided no news. No one had heard from her.
Then a tower collapsed and so did my wife, her knees buckling beneath her, trusting me to catch her and I did. The scenes on the screen were indescribably horrid, with scores of people jumping from the sky high buildings rather than being burned alive. The downtown area was a tangle of refugees, emergency vehicles and smoke. When the towers came down the canyons of downtown were flooded with an eruption of volcanic-like ash that covered everything and everybody in its path. All this happened in the space of less than two hours. It only felt like a lifetime.
There were other people I had to worry about. My good friend and the drummer in my band Glen Johnson was a firefighter. Other relatives and friends work in the Wall Street area. What became of them? Why haven’t we heard from Elaina? Where the hell is Mikey? Funny how I thought of him at that moment as Mikey, his childhood nickname, my funny, wiseass little boy with a big heart and a wicked sense of humor. Where was this big and strong grown man of mine now? The building where he was working was now covered with ash, burning debris and pieces of dead bodies. Please God let one of them not be him.
I felt helpless and wanted to do something to help but I realized that no trains were running, traffic was a nightmare and I’d only get in the way of the professionals. I possess no skills at all for search and rescue in a disaster area. Louise and I spent the day calling relatives and friends, people we loved who were going through what we were going through, trying to figure out if anyone we knew was in harm’s way. Judging by what we saw, we all figured that maybe thirty to fifty thousand people had to have died. It hurt all of us so bad.
About three o’clock that afternoon my son Mike called his mother who then called me. Fate saved him. His crew was on the roof of the building when their foreman told them to gather their tools and head uptown to another job site to finish up some odds and ends. They hadn’t got much past Canal Street when the first jet hit, the debris from the crash littering that roof where they were gathered with a few tons of burning death. They were trapped in Manhattan most of the day and Mike waited on a long line at a pay phone to make his call. At least they didn’t have to walk out of Manhattan like scores of thousands of dust-covered souls. They drove through New Jersey and Staten Island before making it back to Brooklyn late that night.
Then Susan, Louise’s sister and Elaina’s mother called to say that Elaina was not on the flight. She had switched assignments with another girl, something flight attendants do regularly. We said prayers of thanks for Mike and Elaina’s lives and prayers for the souls of the slain, including the young lady who took our niece’s place on the flight. The stories of unbelievable heroism were beginning to emerge and how search and rescue professionals from everywhere were converging on lower Manhattan to battle the blaze that would burn for weeks and to try to save who could be saved.
It also was becoming apparent that the death toll was not nearly so high as it might have been. The New York City and Port Authority Fire Fighters, Police Departments and Emergency Service personnel had performed the most successful evacuation and rescue operation since Dunkirk, a great many of them losing their lives so that others would live. Through the anger and fear a fierce pride emerged, not only of being a New Yorker, but of being a human being. How magnificent and courageous were so many people that day, and on so many days that followed.
My son Mike, for example, went to the firehouse to look for his Uncle Jim and cousin Rich the following morning. They had both fought the blaze and but had lost a number of good friends in their fire house. Relieved to see they had made it through the inferno alive, Mike was eager to help if he could do something, anything. They threw a raincoat and fire hat on him and brought him to Ground Zero where he spent the next two days sifting debris for body parts. As angry as I am that my child had to witness such things, I am very proud of him. He wanted to go back for more but after that third day only authorized personnel were allowed on site.
There were few survivors of the towers’ collapse. I knew a few people that died there, as did a great many New Yorkers. The ensuing weeks were spent dousing the blaze in the massive rubble pile that had been downtown’s crowning glory. No pockets of survivors were found after the third day. The skies were emptied of non-military aircraft and our nation’s military headquarters, the Pentagon, was partially destroyed. The White House or the Capitol might have suffered a similar fate if not for the heroic resistance of average citizens aboard a fourth flight that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when the hijackers were attacked by the passengers. Our nation was suddenly at war and we had a lot of dead to bury.
At the time I lived in Brooklyn’s Marine Park, a working class area where many fire fighters made their home. As it happened, I lived right across the street from Marine Park Funeral Home. For the next several weeks the skirl of bagpipes let me know we were saying goodbye to another brave young soul. Firefighters and Police in full dress uniforms would line Quentin Road and salute, tears streaming from eyes hardened by untold horrors. The Bagpipers in their kilts keened for our loss and our unspeakable grief. The pallbearers carried suspiciously light coffins, usually containing only a tiny bit of what had once been robust adults. Some coffins held no remains at all, only loving memories, perhaps a bit of a charred helmet or a burnt bit of rag that had been part of their uniforms.
So on this September 11 we celebrate an unhappy anniversary. Six years down the road the losses are still fresh, our scars not yet healed. We remember all who died that day, the heroes, the victims, the delusional killers themselves, our own innocence. We pray and remember. We can never forget what happened that day, and how very many of our people behaved majestically, heroically, selflessly. We won’t ever forget you.
Author’s note: I tried to say what I could today for all our lost brothers and sisters but it doesn’t feel like enough somehow. I said it better once, in a song I wrote called about 9/11. It’s called “See You In The Morning” and you can hear it by clicking on to the Songs part of this website. It was hard to write about such a monumental catastrophe so I did what most songwriters would do; wrote about individual people who were there that day, bring it down to a personal level. For example, the line “Leon was a great big man, he was mighty, he was brave…” is about Leon Smith, a firefighter from Jimmy and Rich’s fire house who died there. There’s a famous photograph of the truck he drove as it crossed the Brooklyn Bridge heading for the Towers. It was the last anyone ever saw of Leon Smith except for the people he saved. His remains have never been found. The song is one of my best, made all that much better by the beautiful background singing and vocal arrangement of Detective Marianne Maloney of the New York City Police Department. She brought these people we sing about to life and for that I thank her always. Give it a listen today and remember, always remember.