In July of 1946 a B-25 bomber flying over a cloud-shrouded New York City crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.
Sept.11, 2001 was bright, clear, and almost cloud-free. It was one of those mornings you want to roll down the car windows and sing. That reverie was suddenly broken as I was driving down River Street in Hackensack on my way to work as the communications director for the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department.
A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. As I looked out the window, my first thought was: “How could that be? There was virtually unlimited visibility.”
Terrible thoughts crossed my mind, but I managed to put them aside. My niece worked on the 102nd floor of the north tower, and when I called home no one had heard from her.
In the conference room at the Sheriff’s Department we learned that a second plane crashed into the second tower, and it all became too clear as to what had happened. It was obvious there would be thousands dead.
We gathered at the command post set up at the George Washington Bridge: SWAT Teams, Emergency Response Teams, EMTs, and others awaiting orders. The orders never came.
As darkness began to fall, we drove into New York with the sheriff, escorting trucks with emergency supplies for those at what has become known as Ground Zero. The realization of how bad it was came as we passed the Javits Center and saw perhaps 30 ambulances sitting at the curb. There were no victims for them to transport.
People jumped off the curb as we passed, holding signs proclaiming “You are heroes,” and “God Bless You.” We could barely see because tears clouded our eyes.
We pulled up to Vesey Street a block from Ground Zero and could barely see. If the cars hadn’t had flashing lights on, we would have lost them in the haze and smoke. A fireman ran to us and handed out paper masks which, we later found out, were not good for anything.
We were standing on ash and concrete dust inches thick that had drifted down from the destroyed towers. Paper floated down in a blizzard, having been blown out of office files. Nearby was a new work boot lying on the ground. We never knew what happened to the owner.
Everyone was covered in concrete dust and the sickening smell in the air was only too obvious as to what it came from. My middle daughter had pleaded with me not to go into New York, and it was perhaps the only time I’ve ever lied to her when I said I would not go. I knew full well what I would do.
I went back several times after that as a volunteer at Ground Zero. What I saw was burned into my psyche as nothing in life before and, I hope, never again. There were times I’d be sitting and reading or watching something on television and suddenly found myself with tears dripping down my cheeks because of a memory that had subconsciously kicked in.
My niece finally managed to contact her mother. She was OK. Normally she went to work early, but caught a later ferry from Hoboken that morning and witnessed the tragedy from the water. Her boss had escaped the building and was killed when the towers collapsed.
She was married two months later. There were empty spaces where 10 of her friends would have been sitting. They never made it out.