Opinion: That day: A personal recollection

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

Can it really be 15 years already since that darkest of days when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists, as well as the Pentagon, resulting in the death of over 3,000 innocent American citizens? A third attack probably aimed at Washington D.C. was thwarted by brave passengers on board a flight over Pennsylvania. They heroically lost their lives as well.

Among the dead in New York City were hundreds of firefighters, police officers and other first responders. Hundreds more have since succumbed to illnesses connected with inhaling of the toxic air which hung thick over “Ground Zero” for weeks after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Many of those dead or presently ill persons included ironworkers and construction workers and others who diligently worked to uncover any remains and to sort out the twisted beams strewn about the rubble.

Do you remember the hundreds of lamp posts covered with pictures of missing friends and relatives? They never returned home and they were never buried. There was nothing left of their mortal selves. For days after September 11, 2001 residents of this city walked the streets in silence trying to get on with their work or the daily routine of their lives. We greeted each other with a nod or a shrug. Maybe a knowing gesture. There were no words, only abject sadness and anger.

Much of the area below 14th Street was closed for weeks following the attacks to help make way for the monumental clean up. Many residents and businesses were inconvenienced, but few complained. We all knew that we were living through a moment in history that was calamitous and defining. Those who did not suffer the loss of a loved one or a friend considered themselves profoundly lucky.

We witnessed small acts of kindness, but acts that meant a lot. People went out of their way to help each other, strangers in most cases. People of all faiths and heritage came together to grieve with one and other, pray with one and other, and comfort one and other. Perhaps we became one city, at least for a moment as never before. Our differences did not matter. We were all New Yorkers and we were all in pain.

We were consoled by a mayor who found the right tone and expression to harness some confidence back to our collective injured spirt. We were lifted by a home run 10 days later in the first baseball game played in New York City after the suspension of play following the attacks. The game winning blast was hit by the Mets’ Mike Piazza to dramatically defeat the arch rival Atlanta Braves. I suspect even fans from Georgia cheered that moment. America was with us and the nation was bound together in support of New York City as never before, and sadly never since.

I was still in the New York State Assembly that day. My office was located just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. I arrived for work on that crisp bright Tuesday morning just after 8:30 moments after the first plane had struck the first tower. I was outside and saw the second tower hit and watched in horrified awe as the towers burned. And then the sickening rumble that accompanied the collapse of the mammoth structures. Lower Broadway was covered by thick grey ash as if a sudden snow squall had just hit. I tried to call my wife who was up in Albany to let her know that I was okay but all the cell towers were down.

Like many others, I was trapped in the lobby of my office at 250 Broadway while the smoke and matter was too thick in the air outside to breathe before I left the building after the first tower fell. Then while I was making my way north along Church Street (Broadway was cordoned off) to return home to Peter Cooper Village the second tower began to collapse only a few blocks behind me. This caused a cascading of smoke and debris like waves coming from the ocean, chasing me and others for blocks before we got out of range.

I walked back to my apartment in Peter Cooper Village once the ash had settled and it seemed safe to be outside. A few days later I participated in an interdenominational memorial service held at Immaculate Conception church on 14th Street. I was so moved by the sense of shared sorrow and common resolve.

Like all other New Yorkers present that day, it is one that is forever seared in my mind. I still tear up thinking of the 3,000 lost souls, of the brave men and women from our first responders, three from our local 13th Police Precinct, who perished trying to save others.

September 11, 2001 was the worst day in the history of our city and the nation. However it brought out the best in so many of our fellow citizens. What a shame that the unity and fellowship of those days was so temporary. What a shame that today the nation is so divided and exploited by some who see division as their path to political success. Why is it that only in tragedy do we find our common humanity, and the better angels of our nature?

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