by Ken Giustino
On a sunny, clear September morning in 2001, there was a news flash about a plane hitting one of the twin towers in NYC. As the morning unfolded, we all realized this was an attack on our country. As the news broadcaster announced, one commercial jet after another crashing in different parts of the country- being used as guided missiles, my heart dropped down to my stomach. My fear was this could go on all day and take so many American lives. Our government reacted quickly and grounded all planes in our airspace, which I’m sure avoided further acts of terrorism.
When flight 93 went down I knew we were starting to fight back. I later learned that Tom Burnett with Mark Bigem along with other passengers tried to take the plane back from the hijackers. They gave their lives so other Americans could live. Our country came together and honored all of the heroes that stepped up without concerns of their own well-being to help protect their fellow Americans.
Twenty years later, September 11, 2001 sounds so long ago, yet for those of us who lived through it, lost friends and loved ones, or were part of the response, search, rescue, and clean-up efforts that went on endlessly, it feels a bit like yesterday.
The day after the attacks, I left my office in Westchester to go to ground zero. When I reached the West-Side Dr. the road was blocked off and only first responders were allowed to travel south to the city. As a reporter I was also allowed to continue, and as I proceeded south I was the only car on the West Side Drive; the toll was up so I passed straight through. Feeling as if I were truly entering a war zone, I drove as far as Bleecker St. where all roads going south were blocked off with armed guards. Again, I was allowed to continue. Two blocks in towards ground zero, the ground was covered with gray soot so I put on my mask and goggles. Four blocks in, parked along the road, were crushed police cars, ambulances, and firetrucks that the second tower had fallen on; they had been towed away from ground zero. Flowers had been placed on the vehicles for the many first responders who had perished the day before. I noticed the impressions of my feet getting deeper in the soot as I continued. There weren’t any people on the street at this point and not much noise, only some sirens in the distance. An older woman was just standing on the corner and it looked like she was in shock, I asked her if I could help her and she just said, “God bless you and moved on.”
Only rescuers were allowed through the third and final barrier, a huge concentration of people moving in and out at this point were orderly. It wasn’t the National Guard and Police keeping order, it was the desperate situation which unfolded just the day before.
There was a deep feeling of loss and disappointment in the air, but still, at the same time, each person was reaching deep into their souls for the strength necessary to come to the aid of our neighbors. The faces of some of the firefighters coming off the pile of debris told me Ground Zero could make a strong man cry, or a peaceful man hate. One firefighter walked past me covered with dust from the pile. He stood about six foot three and the expression on his face told me he had just visited hell and that if he had the chance, he could crush those responsible with his bare hands.
I spoke to Charles Mancuso, an ironworker, who had watched the news on Tuesday night from his Yonkers, New York home. He went to Ground Zero Wednesday morning. He said that the debris extended almost 2 blocks from where the towers stood, and it was like a battle zone. He was working in the area near the pedestrian crossing, and did assist in the rescue of two firefighters who got trapped in one of the pockets while they themselves were searching for victims. The cheers of the rescuers, which arose as the two firefighters were liberated from the rubble, was just too great for Charles to put into words. There were also retired iron workers there helping who had worked on the construction of the towers 30 years earlier.
I also had a chance to speak to Dale, a police officer from Illinois. His partners were Joe Palfrey and Miranda, an 11 1/2-year-old canine search dog. They had driven straight through the night and went to work immediately; they looked like they had been to war. The only thing Dale had to say was, “We should find out who did it and pay them back.” Then he sat down on the sidewalk next to the building behind the fence [in the photo] and said, “We’re going to take a little rest.” I thanked him for coming to help New York.
As I walked back to my car, through the barren streets north of Ground Zero, I felt great sorrow for the victims and the rescuers. This was truly an evil act. There could be no justification for this crime. I could only hope the people involved in this attack would be brought to justice swiftly. There is no turning back. They’ve changed the world forever.
When I returned home, I turned on the news. The camera panned past Miranda, Dale, and Joe sleeping on the sidewalk where I left them some two hours before. They were there getting a little rest less than 1000 feet from where they would be returning to their search. I can only respect and honor all these volunteers who gave of themselves. They are truly heroes.
As we reflect 20 years back, few if any of us will ever forget where we were the moment we heard the news of the attacks. For all, it was a life changing event. Yet for many their personal lives would never be the same due to the lost of one or multiple loved ones. Each year, as the list of names are read during the remembrance ceremony in NYC, we think of the affected families and all of the lost souls, as well as the souls of those lost in other terrorist attacks. Now, 20 years later we are still dealing with first responder and volunteers fighting and/or losing battles with illnesses that are attributed to the debris from the towers.
First responders have such important roles in our society- let’s not ever forget to be thankful for all who put their lives on the line for us- our Heroes: Military, Police, Firefighters, EMS, Nurses and Doctors, and even the random person who jumps in when someone needs assistance.
As we reflect this year, maybe think about how we can each work on respecting one another and our opinions, and what we can each do as individuals to make our world just a little bit better.