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Twelve years ago.

It was drier that day, the sky just as blue. I marveled at its cloudless clarity on my walk to 475 Riverside Drive, weaving my way through morning sidewalk traffic, newly arrived Columbia and Barnard students still discovering what's required of pedestrians in New York City. Picked up an iced coffee from the Halal cart at Broadway and 112th St., wondered whether it would be my last of the season. "Have a good day, boss." He always called me boss.

"Did you hear what happened?" our receptionist asked as I walked in. "What?" Plane hit the World Trade Center. "They say it was small." Terrible, but not impossible. Impossible was coming. I set my coffee next to Commonweal's one web-connected computer, and dialed into MSN. The New York Times website wouldn't loading. Neither would other domestic news sites. But BBC worked, and as it came up my stomach dropped: "World Trade Center Hit." The headline came in before the photo. Smoke billowing out of one of the towers. The gash was too big for a small plane. "Oh no."

The staff gathered around the computer as I refreshed the page. Few spoke. Looked like terrorism. We were a week from press day. There were corrections to be made. Headlines to be written. The editors met in the conference room, or tried to. Halfway through, a couple of us returned to the web-connected computer. Meeting concluded. I couldn't peel myself away from the news. The second tower was hit. I tried to call my mom, but the phones had stopped working.

I don't remember eating. I remember the fear. The Pentagon, a downed plane in Pennsylvania. Another unaccounted for, rumor had it. Those who lived outside Manhattan headed home as soon as possible. They didn't want to be trapped on the island. But I lived on the island, thirteen blocks south, and I didn't want to leave, even after the office cleared out. E-mail was working. I'd send notes to loved ones and friends. Man the front desk just in case. In case what, I couldn't say. I considered the location of the building I was in, its height. The soundness of the structure: Eisenhower-era, concrete clad steel.

By six o'clock, the paranoia had worn off. I had to go home. Turn off the lights, make sure the door was locked. The halls were silent. I said goodnight to the maintenance man at the front desk. Security had long left. A reflex I wish I'd stifled as soon as I heard myself speak. Outside, the air had changed. It smelled sharper. Took me a moment to realize what I was inhaling.

Broadway was strangely quiet. Car traffic diminished. Pedestrians walked more slowly. Restaurants and bars were packed. Customers huddled in front of televisions. The Halal carts were gone. I needed money, I was sure, just in case. A man approached me on the way out of Citibank. "Excuse me, sir." I moved past him. He followed me, got in front of me, forcing me to stop. "Can you help me out? I'm trying to get a bus ticket back to New Jersey, and I just need five more dollars." I didn't speak. We watched one another for maybe half a minute. Then his face fell. "I'm sorry," he sighed, leaned in, and embraced me. "It's OK," I replied. 

The Church of the Ascension at 107th Street was nearly vacant. There were five of us. Two men and three women. I slipped into a pew in back, knelt, tried to pray, but couldn't find the words. Stifled weeping was all I could hear. Defeated, I left in pursuit of food.

Soup would be easy, comfortable. Split pea. Thanking the soup man, I handed over three dollars. "Have a good night," he urged. I almost dropped the bag as I left the shop. Everyone looked up as a fighter jet tore through the sky, perfect blueness marred only by the plane's contrails. I remember feeling the soup's warmth in my hands as I walked home. I remember sitting at my desk, flattening the bag to use as a placemat. I remember the generous pour the soup man had given me, as my dinner overflowed onto the bag. I remember the plastic spoon's sharp edges against my lips. But I don't remember eating. I remember the fear.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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I was in France and had a phone meeting with a colleague in New Jersey scheduled for that morning. He sent me an email: "Obviously, today's meeting is cancelled." I asked what was going on and got a cryptic reply: "Turn on your TV."  I had trouble imagining what kind of event would be newsworthy and would cause our work meeting to be cancelled! I wondered if the company where he worked had declared bankrupcy. There was no TV at work, but I had the internet, but the usual sites wouldn't load, but I found a Spanish news site with a photo. If it hadn't been for my colleague's message, I would have thought it must be a hoax... I sent a one-line email to my entire department - over 200 people - with the basic information, then wasn't sure what else to do. Pretty soon a group of us were gathered around the coffee machine, many nervously smoking cigarettes - the indoor smoking ban was forgotten for the day. I can't remember what I did with the rest of the day, besides checking on the news compulsively.

That evening I told my children, then 7 and 10 years old: "Today I want you to watch the news on TV with me. This is important." Our TV was in the attic, so we all climbed up there. The 7-year-old watched for a couple of minutes, then, bored, wandered off to play. He could not distinguish between reality and fiction. But the 10-year-old watched with us, took it in, and she has not forgotten it.

An executive who was in the higher floors of one of the buildings said to a colleague who, like him, was figuring out what to do: "Today you know what it is like to be an Israeli." He was referring to the suicide bombings going in Israel and the fear they engendered. This was something new to Americans. Terrorism on American shores. Yes there was a previous attack but no one was killed.  People in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and other countries experience this almost every day. 

This is the first year that I have not spent time in the last few days thinking back about the events of 9/11. I was too wrapped up in the Syrian crisis. Only this morning, when I saw the date, did I realize that today was the 12 year mark. I suppose it means that, like in mourning, this is the stage where that is starting to recede into history, and the present takes over. But I was fairly removed from the site of the attacks. I wonder when New Yorkers will be able to pass that time of year without flashbacks.

Thank you, Grant. Here's mine. Five years on, I can add that having kids has broken me of my 9/11 Mass-going habit, but I did start the day with a prayer for the dead.

I watched from an office on the thirty-third floor of a Manhattan building as first one and then the other tower were hit, and then as first one and then the other fell. I had by then stopped trying to reach two good friends who worked there; days later I learned that both had had plans for business travel that morning and so were not downtown at all. My neighborhood in Brooklyn, normally visible from my window, was obscured by the debris cloud, and the call I'd managed to get through to my wife cut off almost immediately. We evacuated our offices, one block from the Empire State Building, and with a few others I walked toward Brooklyn -- past St. Vincent's Hospital, already crowded with would-be blood donors; across 14th Street, along which tanks rumbled; and over the Manhattan Bridge, where tourists shot photos of one another as smoke billowed up into the empty blue sky in the background. In Brooklyn, it looked as if it had snowed, or was still snowing; the soot and debris was an inch deep and the sky was gray. I helped a lost couple from lower Manhattan find their friend's house, where they'd come to stay. There was a scorched sheet of Cantor-Fitzgerald letterhead outside the door to our apartment building. Two mornings later, from an overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I watched a procession of flatbeds carrying twisted girders toward Staten Island.

I remember a lot of these details because I wrote them down in the days and weeks afterward, almost as compulsively as I visited the blocks around the site, going there almost every night after work for months, watching workers change shifts on what they were calling "the pile." I had plans then to give all of these notes to my children at some point; maybe I still will. But this year, until I saw what must have been a test of the Tribute in Light exhibit last Thursday night, I hadn't really thought about the upcoming anniversary beyond the by-now almost unconscious noting of it as "the date"--9/11. It also happens to be the birthday of a friend from grade school, and today he sent a long-lost photo of us taken at the party when he turned 10. It was the first thing I saw when I opened my email this morning, and this is what I showed my kids before they went to school. 

I was getting breakfast for my children and heard the news on WGN radio that a plane had crashed into one of the towers.  Who would do such a thing left us baffled.  The term al Qaida was almost unknown to us.  We had heard the name Osama bin Laden but it had no particular connotations.  That there had been a bombing at the WTC several years earlier made only very little impression on us in the Midwest.  I drove my older children to school and went into the office.  No work got done.  I spent a good part of the day checking Internet news sites for information but there weren't many details that got reported.  Later that day, wondering if I could actually get anything mundane done, I called a vendor on the phone to see if we could work on a contract, but he didn't really want to focus on that kind of thing, so I gave it up.  Probably I came home early that day.

To append to my previous comment: our parish pulled together an ad hoc prayer service that evening.  The presider was a retired priest (a longtime pastor of another parish who now lived in our rectory with is good friend our retired pastor).  I remember him stating, "It is hard for us to grasp that there is such evil that is willed toward us."  That he termed it an evil made an impression on me; at that stage, we were so befuddled about the events that I hadn't yet heard anyone hang that appelation on it.

Besides my horror at seeing those planes being willfully smashed into the buildings, what I remember most clearly about that day is that something remarkable happened to my hearing. My hearing loss is very severe, even with the help of a cochlear implant and closed captioning on the TV. But that day as my interest in the event became greater and greater I realized that I could understand every single word that Dan Rather was saying.

Amazing what the human body will do when threatened, and, of course, on 9-11 all of us felt threatened. We-- yes, we all -- were being attacked, and my body knew it. So it seems we do have strange strengths in crises. All is not lost. We shall overcome.

Footnote:  Rocco Palmo has a  post today about  9-11 and Jorge Befgoglio -- how it helped make his ability better known in the Vatican and in the wider church.

I was beginnning my two week vacation at Cape May Point on the Jersey Shore (my babies weren't school age yet, so I always went on vacation the weeks after Labor Day, when the weather is best). We were just coming back from a walk on the beach, high-fiving each other for being on vacation on what was the most beautiful day of the year, when we heard news about a plane crash- some workmen were huddled around a van in the State Park parking lot, listening to the car radio. 

My husband said  "a plane hit a building in NY, I think its the World Trade Center". I said, "oh it must be one of those little private planes, I hope there weren't many people on it."  We got back to our cottage in time to see the first building collapse. Now I know what people mean by "I couldn't believe my eyes". I couldn't digest what I was watching, and then I thought "oh, it must just be one of the facades, not the actual building".  It was just horrible watching from a distance.

I spent the next few days trying to get to NYC to my office to see what was going on.  The cell phones were blocked in the area around lower Manhattan- you couldn't make calls in and out, they were trying to keep it clear for calls from possible survivors in the wreckage.  And the bridges and tunnels into the City were blocked for a couple of days as well. I think I was able to get into Port Authority by Bus on Friday.  Traffic was stopped for about an hour on the Turnpike in Jersey across from  Manhattan; everyone just sat on the bus looking at where the WTC used to be, with that smoke coming up, not saying anything.

When I got off the bus at Port Authority in Midtown, my eyes immediately started to tear up, there was some kind of acrid smell in the air that made my eyes burn. This was a few days after the event, and quite a distance from the WTC. That smell in lower Manhattan seemed to linger for months. What I remember most from in the aftermath, is, from my office window, instead of now seeing part of the WTC , all we saw was a thin plume of smoke (like what comes up from a campfire after its been put out) for weeks and weeks after 9/11.

I used to routinely pass by the World Trade Center in my wanderings downtown- maybe once a week- but I didn't go near the site for at least two years afterward.(INYC is so big, it's easy to avoid things) I never vacationed again in Cape May Point, either, though I used to go there every year before. I don't think about the WTC, and I don't talk about it, because I don't feel like I really have a right to- I and my loved ones weren't harmed in the tragedy- and talking about how awful it was for me doesn't seem right when I think of all of the people killed that day. But I don't need to write down my memories of that day, I don't think I'll ever forget it. 


Riveting comments about the attack on American soil. Yet it is difficult to fathom what is happening every day in other lands where suicide bombings and government murder of civilians are frequent. Out of sight , out of mind. Or better. Out of experience out of sentiment.........

I'm in Michigan, and my son, a kindergartner in 2001, remembers nothing from that day except a bunch of older boys telling younger kids their parents had probably been blown up at work and wouldn't be coming to get them, and little kids screaming and demanding to speak to their parents on the phone. Terrorism comes in many forms. 

When he visited New York City on a class trip a couple of years ago, the 9/11 site was just another tourist attraction, and some of the kids came home with "memorial trinkets." The HuffPo ran a story about these efforts to capitalize on the 9/11 events.

I like efforts to turn 9/11 into a day of service and solidarity. Official memorial services 12 years on strike me as awfully close to waving the bloody shirt, but perhaps it's too easy for someone like me, who was hundreds of miles (not to mention cultural worlds) away from NYC to feel removed from those events. I do pray for those who are still suffering from illnesses contracted in rescue efforts and for those who are traumatized by grief so many years later.



I was in my office on the 26th floor of 2 Rector St, two blocks directly south of the World Trade Center.

I was startled by what sounded like an explosion that shook our building and scattered the swarm of pigeons roosting on Ft. Clinton. The north side of our offices had a clear view of the twin towers, and when I got there I witnessed smoke billowing out of the north tower and papers cascading onto the streets below.

My colleagues and I gathered around the small TV that we kept in a corner of the marketing department.  A small plane had flown into the north tower, most likely by accident, the reporter said.  Our marketing manager and I, both witnesses to the 1993 WTC bombing, weren’t buying it—the sky was too clear, the impact too thunderous. We assumed it was a bomb.

Until we caught site of the second plane and watched in stunned disbelief as it disappeared into the south tower.

Everyone gathered their belongings and headed for the elevators. The lobby was chaotic. Someone growled, “The bastards hit the Pentagon, too!”

Most of my colleagues scattered, looking for ways to escape the area. Our editor-in-chief and I stayed behind to wait for any editors who might still be on their way to the office. We went out into the street and stood with thousands of others staring up at the horror. Was this really happening? Why doesn’t the paper deluge stop? Were those bodies tumbling out of the windows? 

Then we heard the crack. And saw the southeast corner at the top of the south tower crumple. The building began to dissolve, and everyone started running south, chased by the cloud of smoke and debris that filled the streets. I stopped running after about two blocks—not because I consciously chose to, but because my cortisol-bathed body just quit on me.

I finally ducked into the lobby of a building at the corner of Broad and Beaver streets. Thick grey smoke with dancing particles of blackened debris engulfed the building. This must be what nuclear winter looks like, I remember thinking. The building managers handed out dust masks and water, and everyone anxiously settled in, wondering what would happen next.

What happened next was the implosion of the north tower. The miasm thickened and didn’t dissipate for several hours. When it finally did, it left an ankle-deep river of ash. A phalanx of NYPD officers came wading through the mess down Broad St, telling everyone to clear the area.

Dust mask secured, I dutifully shuffled out of the building and made my way to South Street Seaport. NY Waterways taxis were being loaded to ferry people to New Jersey (my home and native state). Luckily, my cell phone was working, and I contacted my frantic wife with the news that I was safe and headed to Hoboken. She contacted my brother-in-law and arranged a pick-up site.

Passengers arriving at the Hoboken terminal had to go through portable showers set up by the emergency personnel who dominated the scene. One of them assured me that the showers contained just water. Anxious to meet my brother-in-law, I held my breath, closed my eyes, and let the stream wash over me.

Emerging from the shower, I shook like a wet dog and attempted to collect myself. My efforts were interrupted by someone shouting, “Run, there’s a bomb in that bag!”  I took a couple of steps and then just plopped down on the curb. People were screaming, low-flying jets were buzzing the area, and all I could think was: I just can’t do this.

In that moment of despair and resignation, Providence intervened. My phone rang. It was my wife. My brother-in-law had made his way through traffic and road closures and was waiting for me not two blocks from where I sat.

I arrived home at about 7:00 PM, the same time as I usually would. The reunion with my family was joyous and tearful and mostly wordless.

I contacted my colleagues by phone that night and was relieved to learn that they all had survived the ordeal.

We weren’t able to return to our offices until mid-January. It was difficult getting back. We spent a good portion of the first few weeks staring down on the pile. The most poignant moments occurred when we would hear a bell ring, signaling that another body had been uncovered. Every day the streets were clogged with hordes of visitors, some of whom were there to help, some to experience the tragedy’s aftermath, some just to gawk. I remember resenting them, as if by their very presence they were desecrating my neighborhood. That feeling stayed with me far too long.

I left that company in December 2002, and haven’t been back to the area since.

Maybe sometime soon.

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