This week, in honor of those who died on 9/11, we post a piece from a book that the NYU journalism faculty wrote immediately after the terrorist attack. In “09/11 8:48 am: Documenting America’s Greatest Tragedy,” faculty members recounted their experiences on that day. This piece reflects my experience in my hometown of Rockville Centre, N.Y. where 48 people—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters—died when the World Trade Center disintegrated. May they rest in peace. –mwq
Death haunts the suburbs, too
The 5 p.m. Saturday evening mass in my suburban Long Island church usually brims with energy as people hurry in from soccer games, a day of errands and chores around the house or an afternoon jog. But last Saturday there were no soccer games, the stores were strangely empty and people took long walks instead of jogs.
The 1,000 congregation members who filled St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre were sober, seeking solace in a familiar ritual. For his sermon the pastor left the pulpit and stood directly in front of the parishioners. He talked briefly about the horror and sadness of the terrorist attack, all the while fingering a white piece of paper. Then he stopped, unfolded the paper, and slowly read the names of 30 men and women missing from our town. Each name was like a blow to the chest. Heads bowed, tears flowed, adults held hands and children clung to their parents. Everyone, it seemed, knew at least a few names on the list. Many of the names were familiar from my children’s schools and sports activities; two names were particularly painful to hear.
Eddie was a New York City firefighter who had just won a promotion to chief. He had gone to work at his New York City firehouse on Monday night for a 24-hour shift, leaving his wife and three young sons in their safe, snug home. He lived few blocks away, next to my elderly in-laws, and was a good neighbor, shoveling snow and helping when my mother-in-law had medical emergencies. My father-in-law, a retired New York City police officer, loved to talk to Eddie and would recount how city firefighters are a special breed, different from others around the country. They never held back, never waited for a fire to subside before they ran into a burning building. My father-in-law imagines that Eddie and his comrades where charging up the stairs of the World Trade tower when it collapsed. That’s what they did, unquestioningly; that’s why they lived together in fire “houses,” so they would back up each other no matter how dangerous the situation.
Eddie wife’s was outside in her driveway when I first saw her Wednesday morning, sitting in a white plastic chair with a phone in her hand, waiting for some word, any word. A cadre of friends and relatives formed a protective semi-circle around her. She grabbed my arm. “I know he will come home,” she said, explaining that she was sitting outside because she couldn’t go inside her house and face her children. “I haven’t told the boys yet that Eddie is missing. They think he’s just working.”
I stopped by this morning. While relatives maintained a vigil outside on the driveway, Eddie’s wife was now inside, too distraught to face the neighbors. An American flag with a yellow ribbon hung on the front porch, a sign of hope for a miracle, that he might be found, alive somehow, in the rubble.
John Sr. is not hoping for a miracle for his son. John Jr., is dead, he believes, perishing when the towers crumbled. John Sr. is a longtime friend, the father of four grown children: three daughters and a son, all in their 30s. His children, like many in our suburban town, had moved away for college and careers and the early years of married life. And, the like so many others, they moved back to Rockville Centre when they started families. They wanted the Little League, the good public schools, the ocean 20 minutes away and the city an easy 35-minute commute on the Long Island Rail Road. John Jr. had moved back about a year ago and was the father of an infant son, also named John.
John Jr. was working for an investment company on the 102nd floor of the south tower when the first terrorist plane struck. He called both his mother and father to tell them he was okay, that there had been some freak airplane accident in the north tower. A few minutes later, he was talking to a friend on the phone when an alarm rang and he told the friend he’d better go, according to his father.
John Sr. was at his office at 42nd and Lexington when he turned on the radio after his son called. When he heard that a second plane hit he ran out of his office and down Lexington Avenue, trying futilely to get closer to his son. By the time he got to 34th Street he saw the tower collapse. John Sr. collapsed too. “I knew he was dead. Vaporized,” he said, choking on his words.
Two young men, now missing. Just a week ago, on a warm Sunday, they both had been on local soccer fields watching games with their children. Now they are gone, changing forever the lives of their wives, their parents, their sisters and brothers, their children and their children’s children. More than 3,000 other lives are also forever altered, a statistic that is inconceivable except one Eddie, one John at a time.