I wrote this down so I’d never forget

Living on opposite sides of the country from your kid can be hard. On the first Saturday in September, 2001, I flew into New Jersey from San Diego. I was coming in for a long weekend to visit my daughter, Bethany, for her birthday, which was Sept. 11 (bummer of a birthday, huh?).
We had gatherings for three days, with the actual big party on Sunday.
On her actual birthday, Tuesday morning, I took off before dawn for Newark Airport to fly home, early enough for my son-in-law to not be late for work. Russ dropped me off at the curb at Newark airport.
I walked around the terminal killing time until my flight boarded. I got on the plane and started reading prior to takeoff. The pilot announced that you could see the World Trade Towers out our left windows but I had just seen them from the air in a Cessna two days before (Russ’ uncle is a pilot so he took me up for a spin and we went for a tour of the area, actually circling the Towers up close). So I thought, big deal let the deprived tourists gape.
Until I heard him say that the smoke coming out of them was not usual. I quickly looked out and thought “Oh no! That can not be good,” remembering the incident there in 1993 and picturing those people emerging out of the smoking Towers with sooty mouths and noses, having come down those altitudinous smoking buildings through the stairways. “Lord, please help those thousands of people as they must be evacuating down those stairways again!”
Soon after, the pilot announced that the airport was closed due to the fire at the WTC. I thought, “Why?!”
I couldn’t understand what it had to do with us. Soon after that, he announced a plane had crashed into it. He said we were going back to the gate and that we were allowed to use our cell phones.
A man two rows up was announcing what he got from his phone: A second plane had crashed into the World Trade Towers. I turned to the man next to me and said, “That can’t be true. What are the chances of two plane accidents into the same buildings within minutes of each other?”
I then said, “Unless it was terrorism!” Then felt foolish like some old lady worrying about terrorists around every corner.
Well, once inside the gate, people were bustling but quiet, serious but not panicky. Occasionally someone who had gotten news would announce it to no one in particular, and I heard that it was indeed terrorism.
TWA announced that there would be no more flights that day. We all got right back online at the check-in counter at the gate to reschedule our flights. It took forever so I worked at reaching Russ to come back and pick me up but cell phone lines were all busy.
A little saying ran through my mind: “tell a friend, telephone, tell-a-Mom.” I persistently dialed her and finally managed to get her and asked her to reach Russ.
On Russ’ end: He had dropped me off, went to work, and shortly after starting, a man walking down the street told Russ and his coworkers that a plane had crashed into the WTC.
Russ said his heart fell into his stomach. He didn’t own a cell phone himself as cell phones weren’t widely used yet. Thinking on his feet, he grabbed his uncle’s cell phone and turned it on. He had just given me that number for the first time two days prior!
I gave my mom that number to keep trying and she got him as soon as it turned on. He jumped back into his pickup and flew back to the airport.
I walked up to the baggage carousel as I had been instructed, and the first bag I saw was mine. I got it and went to the curb. I was alone except for one man about 30 feet away. A few cabs were parked and an occasional car drove by. Within 20 minutes, I had to fight for room on the curb and traffic was so thick that a cop was standing out in the road yelling at cars not to stop and people not to step off the curb.
I was worried that Russ wouldn’t be able to stop for me; it was tricky, but I managed to haul that 70-pound suitcase into the bed of the pickup and zoom in.
My heart just sank. All those thousands of people who had just died! I could see the cloud of smoke where the tower had stood only minutes before. As we circled the airport lot to exit, we looked again and the second tower had just fallen, leaving a huge mushroom of taupe-colored smoke in its wake. It was unspeakably devastating.
But as we circled around to exit the airport, I’ll never be able to convey in words, the deep, crushing anguish I felt with the realization that the tower that was hit was no longer there. I knew that the one wasn’t behind the other. I can’t relate the feeling of seeing with the naked eye, the place where there had just been a colossal building full of people, and now it was gone!
We continued circling along the ramp to exit the airport. As we left, again facing the New York skyline, my heart sank! The other tower was now gone as well! All that remained was a huge low-lying mushroom of taupe smoke in its spot. It’s burned into my mind’s eye and it’ll always be there. I can’t describe how my body bore the grief of colossal loss of human life that had just happened, and I had seen those buildings, with human beings in them, with my own eyes only moments before, and just two days before, up close from a Cessna.
We made it back to Bethany and Russ’ in very good time, and when we arrived, I saw Beth in her nurse’s uniform running toward our truck. She hugged me as if to squeeze the life out of me and burst into tears. Only then did I realize she thought I could be dead.
In the days that followed, we got busy. The one remaining airing TV station was on 24/7, and if we weren’t watching updates, we were working on our self-assigned task of assembling a fundraising and item collection endeavor.
We wrote down all of the myriad donation items the NYFD requested on TV, and made posters, and went to Preakness Reformed Church where they attended, which is on a busy street in Wayne.
We set up on the front lawn, with a dozen tables under canopies, right in the semi-circle of grass inside the circular front drive. We were astonished at the response. People drove in in one long assembly line of cars around the circular front drive and dropped off requested items or cash.
Sometimes they came in, copied down the list, and went shopping. Many times, they arrived back with cartons of items, stacks of requested sweatshirts, sweatpants, booties for the fire department dogs searching for victims, Gatorade, granola bars, and cases of other food and drink items.
Then we loaded up trucks and delivered it all to the Jacob Javitz Center, an impromptu clearinghouse for the disaster donations.
Through the week, I came to some realizations. I realized that as I circled the terminal hub several times before my fight, I passed the gate of the American Airlines plane that went down. I passed those people. I was one of the last people to see them. I realized it was likely I passed the terrorists.
That week, a dozen reports came into our family of people I knew, who knew people who worked at the Trade Center. With every single story, the person had failed to be there for a wide variety of unusual, even fluky, reasons.
My favorites: one decided to pay his daughter’s college tuition in person for the first time. Another arrived at the Towers only to decide she didn’t like the way her slacks fit, so she took a cab home to change before work. In each case, we were all certain of God’s hand on them.
What impressed me most was the faith that people had, not to blame God, but to thank Him for working in their lives, even to comfort those in grief. Prayer gatherings and midnight candlelight vigils cropped up all over the place.
And I was amazed by the spirit of compassion people expressed to everyone they met. New York City is infamous for the cold, impersonal demeanor of its people, both residents and those employed there. You develop a defensive shell in NYC.
That was gone. The transformation was astounding. They didn’t sit dazed, or hunker down in fear, or become disillusioned or cynical. They rolled up their sleeves, jumped in with both feet, stuck out their arm to give a hand up, because these are our fellow Americans. I was more proud than ever that week to be an American.
I wrote down this account on Wednesday, Sept. 12, so that I would never forget.


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