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Readers were there

Readers submitted these eight essays in response to the Enterprise’s public call a month ago for personal accounts of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks

September 10, 2011
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Almost burned out combing ground zero



Article Photos

The remains of the World Trade Center in New York City are seen on Sept. 19, 2001, eight days after the Twin Towers were destroyed by terrorists flying hijacked planes. Local resident John Pickard took this photo while aiding the rescue effort in lower Manhattan with the Lake Placid Volunteer Ambulance Service.

There is a moment of serious thought on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as many still cannot comprehend what had happened on that terrifying day and the months following in lower Manhattan.

On that day, I had worked 19 years with the New York Police Department at the rank of detective. On that morning my thoughts were of retirement, which was just a year away. The job I had was like none other. I witnessed everything that one could expect during my many years of service, but nothing compared to this most tragic day.

I remember that Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a beautiful day weather-wise as I was preparing for work.

Fact Box



WEDNESDAY: A decade ago, a panel of teens shared some profound thoughts about how 9/11 changed their world. We tracked some of them down to see what they think about it now.


THURSDAY: Current high-schoolers say they were too young to fully understand 9/11 then, but they could absorb the fear. They still worry about attacks, but they've also learned not to take their country for granted.


FRIDAY: Sept. 11, 2001, was the third day of Chris Knight's journalism career, at local radio station WNBZ.


INSIDE EACH DAY: Stories from around the nation and world

I remember hearing a loud "Boom," then looking down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn toward "The City." I was now seeing massive amounts of smoke from one of the World Trade Center buildings. Immediate thoughts came to my family, friends and neighbors, as everyone in Brooklyn knew someone who worked at the WTC. Fifty thousand people worked every weekday inside the WTC; PATH trains, which were located on the bottom floor of the WTC, delivered 60,000 more people daily from New Jersey, along with another 100,000 daily visitors.

Working with the Joint FBI-NYPD Task Force for 10 years now, I knew it was a terrorist attack from the moment of impact, as there were many known recorded threats on our American landmarks. "Flashbacks" came to me of the WTC buildings being hit on another fatal attack in 1993. In those attacks, these same terrorists used a massive truck bomb and had hit the foundation of the WTC in its downstairs parking garage. In doing so, the terrorists were hoping one building would take down the other in collapse. Each of those WTC buildings stood a quarter-mile into the sky and were a constant focus of these terrorists.

Immediate rescue efforts on 9/11 proved most successful and saved tens of thousands of lives. Recovery efforts after the collapse provided little in results, as constant fire, layers and layers of smoke and lunar-like dust matter in the air at the WTC site made recovery unapproachable.

I remember, we were directing hundreds of thousands of people who fled over the Brooklyn Bridge: people crying for their loved ones, NYPD and FDNY personnel looking for their lost comrades who were now missing while on rescue missions. Everyone had to keep flushing their eyes as irritation to them was constant. They were emotionally upset as 200-plus people had been observed jumping to their deaths from the WTC to avoid fire and hundreds more were waving pieces of clothing from broken windows, seeking help. Confirmation was coming in of the Pentagon and Shanksville attacks. New Yorkers witnessed earthquake sounds and shakings as the WTC and her surrounding buildings were coming down. We all thought to ourselves, "Was there more to come?"

By 3 p.m. on Sept. 11, one could never imagine an empty lower Manhattan, and all signs of human life other than rescue personnel would be gone. The only two "eerie" sounds to be heard were the hundreds of Scott backpack alarms, which went off with a chirping sound from the hundreds of dead firemen who carried these devices, and the sounds of the fighter jets which were now scrambling above the Manhattan skyline. I was praying for my brother who was also a NYPD detective, who many hours later I found to be safe.

For many lonely days and nights, rescue workers tried to look for survivors. For many lonely days and nights, we would learn that there would be very few, if any, to survive this devastating attack. Layers and layers of smoke and fumes would prevail for a week afterward at "ground zero." Debris from the WTC was as high as a seven-story building for many blocks in lower Manhattan.

On the second and third days, emergency services would arrive from all parts of the country, but they, too, would not be used as the WTC site debris, smoke and fire would prevent immediate rescue efforts. NYPD, FDNY and outside agencies would work without rest and worked with full conviction for months on end.

I will always remember that, on or about the sixth day after the attacks, the weather, which was now hovering around 80 degrees, and gas lines, which were still on fire, had forced a stench of death from the 2,604 loved ones whose bodies were now decomposing. I remember vomiting four times from that smell of death while on the "rock pile" searching for bodies. I had learned that many of my personal friends, who were model parents to children, were now dead from the attacks.

One night on or around the sixth day, I entered Trinity Church, which was located near Wall Street. It was now a food center set up by the Salvation Army to feed and rest the rescue workers. It was the same church our Founding Fathers attended during the start of this great nation. Upon entering the church, I observed thousands of photos posted of loved ones who were inside the WTC and were now being sought by family members. Rescue workers knew that none of these loved ones would ever be coming home to those families.

I entered Trinity Church at 3:30 a.m., as I needed some rest, and sat down in a pew. I was approached by a 60-year-old woman who held my hand. This woman told me she had been looking at me for close to 45 minutes as I sat by myself in the pew. To casually break into conversation with me, this woman mentioned that I looked like a seasoned detective and that, like the others, my dark blue NYPD uniform was now gray in color from the collection of WTC dust. She also mentioned that my uniform had not been washed in three days and that I needed a shave. She asked me if I had spoken to my family and daughter. (I smiled at her comments; it was my first smile in a week.) With a slight laugh, I replied back to her in a joking manner that if I did not get a shave soon it could cost me a vacation day from the NYPD bosses regarding uniform policy.

This woman told me that she had come to talk to me because, like many, many others inside that church in those early morning hours, I "had that stare in (my) eyes."

She made this comment because I had no idea I had been observed by her as having a blank stare, looking at nothing for close to 45 minutes. After her comment, I looked at her for a few minutes - my eyes welled up. This woman was from a small town in Kansas and had traveled days to reach New York City as a grief counselor. She told me to look around the church as dozens upon dozens of other personnel from City of New York agencies had now "hit the wall."

"Hitting the wall" meant we were all too busy working the last six days with no rest and that the tragedy of the attacks of 9/11 had finally come upon us.

I have experienced and heard of a thousand stories from the many who were there at the WTC on Sept. 11. But this writing is not meant to be about me, as tens of thousands of other people can write along these same lines.

The purpose of this writing is to bring attention to why we must never forget what happened on that day. We must put this date into our school books without sugar-coating the facts and in full truth explain this tragic day to our children. America must never let her guard down against those who will do us harm.

Americans must look at these fatal videotapes of this attack, rescue operations, burial of the innocent, and absorb what happen in full. America has rebounded from the 9/11 attacks as it has on her other tragic days of past history. America's comeback, resolve and its people are what make this country great and second to none.

But I pray that America will never forget 9/11, and neither should our children.


Bin Laden's death renewed pain


Saranac Lake

It's not an easy thing to see your "home" obliterated.I grew up and lived in New York City. The Twin Towers were not an abstraction to me. They were not just a symbol that served to represent NYC. Imagine waking up tomorrow, looking out your window and seeing all Saranac Lake utterly demolished, with the bodies of the people you knew and were familiar with strewn about the devastation. That's what the fall of the Twin Towers felt like to me.

knowing I was from NYC, put her arm around me and said a few words, trying to console, and it triggered sort of an emotional breakdown. After a couple of hours, I managed to compose myself. Peggy LaFrance, the N3C nursing program director, insisted writing my feelings down would be therapeutic. Over the weekend, I did, and she was right. It did help to dissipate the pain.

Bin Laden's death caused me to grieve anew the loss I experienced 10 years ago. This time I didn't wait and wrote the enclosed (below). As it did the first time, the writing proved therapeutic. I shared this with a few people this past May and, "since you (the Enterprise) asked," thought I'd share it with you.


I remember seeing Philippe Petit walk between the Twin Towers soon after I finished art school. Years later, in a small neighborhood grocery store, I saw him trip and fall ... ON HIS OWN SHOELACES.

I freelanced at 2 World Trade Center for a short while a long, long time ago.

On the way up from the subway, I usually stopped to get a "New Yorker's Breakfast" (coffee) or a "New Yorker's Breakfast, Deluxe" (coffee and bagel). After a while, one becomes familiar and friendly with the coffee shop clerks and will be given one's "breakfast" without asking.

While working there, I saw the TOP of a Goodyear blimp. It was circling the WTC lower than the floor I was on. I was able to look DOWN at it.

On nice days one could have lunch by the sphere - on rare occasion, watch or hear someone busking. If you looked like you belonged there and looked approachable, you might answer questions from tourists who were from Japan, California, France, the Upper East Side, etc., and/or you'd point or lead them to the subway, rest rooms, a building, a restaurant, the line for the observation deck or whatever it was they were looking for.

Once I was refused admittance to Windows on the World, the restaurant on one of the top floors, after work for an impromptu dinner with my co-workers. They had jackets and ties for the men to borrow, but they didn't have slacks for people who wore jeans. I gave the elevator starter in the lobby $20 to borrow a pair of pants in order to join them. The maitre d' was impressed. He gave me a dessert to give the starter. I HAD TO PAY FOR MINE! I expect the people I worked with, and likely the company itself, was long gone by 2001. I sure hope so.

When I lived in Manhattan, I lived on West 23rd Street. I spent a fair amount of time in Soho (South of Houston) and ABC (Area Below Canal Street). The Twin Towers were ever present, to the point of being invisible. They've become more apparent to me now, now that they're gone. I am always VERY AWARE of seeing them NOT there in any recent photo or movie shot of lower Manhattan.

Although I lived in the Adirondacks since 1987, the attack made me feel as if my heart had been ripped out. The pain made me realize I will ALWAYS be a NEW YORKER, regardless of where else, or how long, I may live anywhere else. It was years before I could even conceive of visiting the site. I still haven't been back.

My memory of the WTC was that it was FULL OF LIFE during workdays. Bin Laden's death reminds me of all that was obliterated. He's been killed, and I don't feel satisfaction, joy, peace or closure. I re-grieve for the vibrant life I knew was there and innocent lives lost: at "Ground Zero," D.C. and Pennsylvania, and also in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. And I grieve for myself as well, for a country and world I can no longer live in, for a country and world that no longer exist.

A friend suggested I have "phantom limb pain" for an amputated soul.

Bin Laden's death makes me feel as if my heart has been ripped out ... AGAIN.

To me, all the jubilation upon Bin Laden's death reduced the horror to a soccer win. I suspect you'd find many who've actually lost a limb, friend or family member in the attack or the war, while perhaps relieved, less than celebratory.


With planes grounded, roads were full of travelers


Lake Placid

It was a beautiful Monday, Sept. 10, when I boarded an American Airlines flight in Albany, bound for San Diego and an annual conference for hospital public-relations personnel. With me was my brand-new PR manager who had a deep fear of flying. I assured her that there was nothing to fear. Before we knew it, we would be in sunny California (her first trip there), enjoying the early fall weather and her introduction to health-care PR and marketing.

Early the next morning, being the news junkie I am, the first thing I did upon awakening was to turn on NBC's "Today" show at 7 a.m. Pacific time (10 a.m. EST) while my traveling partner showered. Confused at the scene I was seeing on the TV screen, I turned to CNN, only to see the same horrific scene. At first, I seriously thought I was witnessing something similar to Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" but quickly realized what I was witnessing was no joke. I had to break the news to my PR manager, who begged me to not make her fly home. I assured her that no matter what, I would get her home by train or car (while I naively thought I would fly home). I quickly realized that neither of us would be flying home.

My first thoughts upon witnessing such horrific scenes were, "Where is my family, and what the hell am I doing 3,000 miles away?" You want to touch your loved ones and be in familiar surroundings. I soon learned that my oldest son, a New York state trooper, had immediately been called to New York City to assist with finding survivors and guarding the perimeter of the devastation. Many tearful phone calls were exchanged with my daughter-in-law, not knowing if we had seen the end of the attacks and knowing that our son-husband was in the thick of the target of the attacks.

Needless to say, my conference was canceled, and we were left to figure out how to get back home - 3,000 long miles away, and all flights had been grounded. Four of us ended up "hijacking" a car one of us had rented for the week and headed east. Deciding we had to make lemonade out of lemons, we agreed to stop on our way and see the Grand Canyon - a wonderful diversion to the madness surrounding us, and a breathtaking reminder of the glorious country we call home. It was a strange but peaceful road trip. While traveling 12 hours a day, our only connection to the outside world was public radio to hear the latest - the president's message to the nation, the total devastation of the World Trade Center, the count of the thousands dead, the beginning of the many memorial services for those killed in NYC, Washington, D.C. and the fields of Pennsylvania. By the time we would stop for the night, images we saw on television were hours old, so we did not experience, in real time, the horror and grief others felt - although we had very heavy hearts.

Along the way, no matter where we stopped for gas or food, we encountered someone also traveling across the county - some going east, others going west - people who, like us, were at conferences or traveling for work and thousands of miles from home when the attacks occurred, and their only way back to their loved ones and the security of home was in a rental car. Everyone we met was in the same boat - stunned, not really able to comprehend all that had happened to our country and our fellow citizens. However, in this hour of national tragedy, we were all friends, chatting, sharing our disbelief and our stories of isolation. One of the things that stood out while we traveled this vast, beautiful land we call home was the lack of condensation trails in the skies above us, as all commercial flights had been grounded, and the display of American flags: on the sides of barns, hanging from interstate overpasses and on car antennae. We were united in our disbelief, grief and patriotism.

While our everyday lives over the past 10 years have returned to a semblance of normal, the reality of Sept. 11, 2001, is just below the surface, like a wound that never really heals - we will forever remember the day our feelings of security on our home turf was shattered.


Buckle up in friendly skies



We were living in Boston, and we had a trip to Europe coming up when 9/11 happened. We were to be gone a month for a work project. You may recall two of the planes left from Boston, and the city, though not physically damaged, was stunned.

The airport was one of the last to reopen, and as it turned out, our tickets were for the first flight that left for Europe after a week of more of cancellations. The airport was empty except for military people. And very, very quiet - you could have heard a pin drop. The plane was full. No airport concessions were open. There was no food on the plane. But no one cared.

After the usual pre-flight safety announcements, the pilot came on to explain his new rule about why you needed to keep your seat belt fastened: He had been a military pilot, and he was able to invert the plane suddenly and without warning if he felt there was anything threatening going on with respect to passengers moving around the cabin. He was clear that flying upside-down was perfectly OK - it was being thrown around by the flips back and forth that would kill you if you weren't buckled in. I certainly felt safe after that announcement. And I checked my seat belt.


Barely made it across border


Lake Placid

Shea cottage on Lake Memphremagog, Eastern Townships in Quebec, Sept. 11, 2001:

This is the day my 85-plus-year-old mother planned for me to drive her home to Connecticut. She had been visiting me for about two weeks, had emphysema and was on O2 (oxygen) 24/7. We were up, had had breakfast and were preparing for departure. Mother chose to sit out on the porch looking at the lake, "saying good-bye" (my dad's ashes are in the lake nearby) and having a secret smoke. (Yes, the O2 was turned off.)

Soon news of the crash into the World Trade Center came on the radio, so I turned on the TV for more info. Second crash. Three times I asked Mother to come inside, listen and hear of a lifetime event. Finally, about 10 a.m. with news that the border crossing into the U.S. may be closed, I told her she must come inside as something terrible has happened and she should see the news for herself. (I felt she wouldn't believe me if I told her.) Once she saw the tragedy, she was warned we may have to return to the cottage as they might be closing the borders to the USA. We packed and loaded the car in hopes of crossing safely. I didn't want to be stranded in our remote area and run out of O2, thus felt much safer returning her to her adjusted living environment as planned.

We got to the border; two Customs officers greeted us - unusual. One gentleman who knew me came around to my driver side and asked, "Do you know what has happened?" I responded, "Yes, we were hoping you (U.S. Customs) were still open." He responded, "probably not for long." About an hour later, as we were going down Interstate 91, radio news reported U.S. borders were closed. Mother was safely delivered to her apartment in Connecticut, much to my relief later that day.

P.S. - 9/11 aftermath for Jimmy Shea: Jimmy was preparing to go with the U.S. Skeleton Team to Europe in the fall of 2001. The team was cautioned not to broadcast USA colors on clothing, luggage, etc. Being a proud American, he had the bottom of his sled brush-colored with a USA flag.


A hellish tour of ground zero

By PETER K. JOHNSON Saranac Lake

Working on freelance writing assignments, I toured ground zero with a clergy group on Saturday evening, Sept. 15, four days after the attack. Wearing hard hats and respirator masks, we entered a war zone. Fires were still burning. Sirens blared. A gritty, smoke-filled haze burned my eyes. Mountains of smoldering, twisted, jagged metal, glass and pulverized concrete hid thousands of bodies. Fire trucks and cars were strewn about and bent out of shape like broken toys. Thick globs of soot and crumpled business memos blanketed tombstones in the cemetery behind St. Paul's Chapel. Fire, police and municipal rescue workers signaled fear, anger and dog-tired exhaustion in their body language.

"It's like walking through hell," a police official told me. A weary rescue worker showed his Social Security number, printed in large numerals, on his forearms so he can be identified if killed during the hazardous cleanup operations. Like other tough, burly rescue workers, he unashamedly welcomed pastors laying hands on him, praying for God's comfort and protection.

The attitude of victims' families has always impressed me. Five years later, a woman who lost her husband confessed, "I was never angry at God. I decided to forgive the terrorists and Osama bin Laden because Christ forgave me." A man whose brother died when 2 World Trade Center collapsed still shies away from visiting ground zero and finds television reports of the event painful. "I read the Bible more and realize how fast your life can be snuffed out," he says.


Followed instincts in Brooklyn


Saranac Lake

It was a day off. Asleep in my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn the morning of 9/11, my phone rang. My mother had been trying to get through. She needed to know I was not on a subway trapped underneath the Trade Center.

"Why would I be on a subway trapped under the Trade Center?" Through tears, she explained. She said that this must be an attack, that planes just don't fly into buildings. I joked it off: "In New York they do, Mom. It happens all the time." I immediately went outside, because in Brooklyn, when something is up, that's what we do. We head for the stoops and the streets.

The air stung your throat. Despite the rain of charred pieces of spreadsheets and phone books, the entire neighborhood was out. I realized that most of us were checking on friends and neighbors - kids would have already been at school in Manhattan, and many, many people would have been on their way to work on the subway, passing underneath the towers. I walked down 7th Avenue to a friend's home. I knew we would have to find her son. As I walked, I noticed - how could you not? - the smoke plume hiding the towers. And then the second plane hit. The sound made me sick. That second ugly crunch and boom instantly made us aware that indeed, this was more than an airline accident.

Schools marched their kids up to the 59th Street Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, into the outer boroughs. The avenues had turned into super-sized sidewalks as masses of people headed for the bridges out of Manhattan. No plan, really. A mass of kids and adults marching over the bridges, actually evacuating Manhattan. That struck me. It was like war. It reminded me of those old movies with the kids uselessly ducking under their desks for a drill. I always wondered what they would do if something actually happened? Duck under a desk? New Yorkers? I doubt it. "Get the hell out!" I think it was instinctual for most New Yorkers - It's what we do if there's a big municipal mess. Blackout? Walk home over the bridges. Transit strike? Walk over the bridges. Only this time, the walk was not a jovial one. There were no jokes about Con-Ed or the MTA. Thousands of people were walking silently.

Television and radio worked. That struck me as odd. And then, in a moment of clarity, I had the strangest thought. After years and years of sitting through the high-pitched whine of Emergency Broadcasting System tests during my coffee, this might be a good time for them to have shown us exactly what the Emergency Broadcasting System is for!


Towers in two hometowns


Saranac Lake

I personally did not know anybody killed or injured on 9/11, and my story of where I was when it happened is not any more spectacular than anybody else's. I can tell you that in addition to what all Americans felt on that day, a special childhood memory and a love for my fellow firefighters tore an extra big hole in my heart.

I was born in Brooklyn in 1963, and from my neighborhood, construction of the World Trade Center was very visible. My mom and I used to play a game where we would squint with one eye and hold up our thumbs to both the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building to see if we could figure the exact time that the World Trade Center became taller than the Empire State Building. My mom used to tell me that she thought we lived in the greatest city because we had the biggest buildings in the world and now we were getting even bigger ones. During the construction period the Twin Towers had massive, T-shaped cranes towering over the tops of the buildings.

In October of 1971 we moved to Saranac Lake. At that time the DeChantel high-rise on Church Street was under construction. Just like the World Trade Center, the DeChantel high-rise had a big, T-shaped crane towering over the tallest building in the town. Saranac Lake was unfamiliar to me at 8 years old. I don't know if the similarity in the two construction projects was comforting, but it was a vivid memory. Mom and I would point at the DeChantel high-rise and say, "See, just like home," laughing because of the obvious difference in size: 11 floors versus 110 floors.

Fast-forward to 1986: I became a firefighter with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department. I feel a special bond with all firefighters, especially those from my hometowns of New York City and of Saranac Lake.

Just a little note: In preparing to write this, I looked up the World Trade Center on Wikipedia to see if it referenced construction dates. It does. According to Wikipedia, groundbreaking for the World Trade Center was Aug. 25, 1966. I was 3 years old. The second tower was completed on July 19, 1971, my 8th birthday, three months prior to moving to Saranac Lake. Until today I had no idea they were completed on my birthday.



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