It was after 1 p.m. when we finally made it to the crowded McDonald’s on Times Square. My parents, two younger brothers, and I were caked with stinging white powder. It had worked its way into our clothing and our pores, and it burned so badly that both of my brothers were crying.
My dad asked the guy behind the counter for the key to the bathroom. He pointed to the end of a long line of people who stared at us as we took our place. Outside, the JumboTron kept projecting Flight 175 exploding into the South Tower. But inside, less than five miles from Ground Zero, people just kept ordering Big Macs and complaining about the service. The whole world seemed to have turned upside down.
My family had arrived in New York City two days before. It was the first vacation we’d ever taken together. I was a homeschooled twelve-year-old from Apple Valley, California, a small, high-desert town with more stables than stoplights. That morning we had taken a taxi from our midtown Manhattan hotel to Battery Park to catch the first Liberty Island ferry. It was September 11, 2001, my mother’s thirty-fourth birthday, and to celebrate we’d crammed our itinerary with every touristy activity she could think of.
My dad was the first to notice the smoke—an inky streak appearing on the tranquil morning sky. Within minutes, so much smoke was spewing across the skyline we left our place in line to investigate. We made our way to the park’s edge. There, beyond a high-rise...