It’s been 16 years since that awful day. Sixteen years. It’s such a long time, and yet it seems like yesterday. It’s amazing now to meet people that don’t remember it. They were too young, or weren’t even born. That really is difficult to believe, because to me it is the biggest, most significant event – probably in my entire life.
And we are told to “never forget” and “always remember” and frankly I wonder if people understand what is really meant by that.
Do they mean never forget how hatred can destroy us?
Never forget those heroes who died trying to help others?
Never forget all the other people who died?
Never forget how America was ONE true united nation on that day?
What exactly does the phrase mean? I always wonder when I hear it. I guess it means all of those things, and yet to those of us that were in some way involved – either peripherally or in actuality – it’s nonsense. None of us will ever forget a single, solitary, moment. Not one second of that horrible time. It’s etched into our brains, into our memories, it is cut into our skin and into the fiber of our being. No one who was there will ever forget. No one who even watched it on TV will likely ever “forget’ and certainly no one that sat huddled for days awaiting some final word about a loved one…will ever “forget”. I both hate those slogans and sayings…and I love and respect them. It’s quite the conflict of emotions.
My husband is a NYC firefighter, so are both my brothers. I awoke that morning to my brother pounding on our bedroom door yelling at us to wake up, get up, a plane had just hit one of the twin towers. We startled and stumbled out of bed to our living room where my brother had already put on the television. The news was saying it might be an accident but as the minutes passed it appeared more likely it was terrorism. My husband looked at my brother…a long and meaningful look – and then he quietly turned to me and put his hand on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said “We have to go”. I knew that already….of course I did. I knew he would immediately go….but my insides curled and I inwardly screamed NONONONONO..and then I said out loud…”Wait here, wait a little while. You’re off today, wait until they call you…you don’t have to go right now…more could happen, just a wait a little bit.” My brother softly said, he would meet Tommy back in the driveway in ten minutes and he left to go back to his house, next door, and Tommy gathered his things, and kindly told me he had to go. And then the second plane hit.
And my insides shattered and I knew he had to go, but still I pleaded with him to wait a while – that this was now obviously a terror attack and more was likely to come, could he please just wait at least one hour….but he stopped and turned to me and said that hundreds of firefighters would be going into those buildings, hundreds….and this is what they did, and he had to go. He kissed me goodbye quickly and they left.
After a while of sitting in my house alone staring in shock at the television, watching as the buildings collapsed, knowing hundreds if not thousands would be dead….I couldn’t help but wonder which firefighters were working. Which of our friends were there. Which wives were sitting at home with no word….and I can’t remember who called first, or how it happened, but all of us wives started calling each other. And we called the firehouse and asked someone there to give us the list of which firefighters were on duty. At first they refused. They were afraid we would upset the wives whose husbands were working. Then we got loud and angry. We told them that those wives were sitting alone right now in front of Tv’s….alone and terrified and that we were all family and we were going to be with them. They relented and gave us the names. We all split up, each of us going to whatever family was closest to us. We showed up and just wordlessly hugged them and we didn’t need to talk or make platitudes or pretend. We all knew how bad this was. And I hate to admit this but a large part of you is looking at them and so shamefully and horribly glad that it is not you. That you said goodbye to your husband this morning and that as of a few hours ago, he was alive. And you are relieved and ashamed and you are horrified too, and you don’t know how to feel. How you’re supposed to feel and so you just try to be there. To hold a hand. To look at them and offer some hope. After all, in every major collapse don’t they find pockets of rubble where people are safe and pulled free sometimes weeks later? Yes…and so maybe you say that. And in my case the wife of one of our good friends, turned to me and looked me in the eye and said “He’s gone. I felt it. I felt it the moment his spirit left this earth. I felt it. I’ve never been so certain of anything in my entire life. He is gone from this earth. He is gone.”
And so what do you say?
You say nothing,
Because you know…she is right.
And you are consumed and filled with grief…and anger…and yes, relief…relief that she is not you. Your friend. A person you care about. And you desperately hope that you will not be there in that place in the next few hours…and then you are filled once again with disgust for yourself for even thinking such a thing…this is your friend. You love her. You loved him….but you can’t help it…you’re desperate to come out of this with your husband coming home to you. Just desperate..and yet, you’re unsure if that will happen.
Over the next few days you barely hear from your spouses. You are mostly at the other wives houses. There is nothing really to do but watch the television. You can’t do anything. You can’t eat. You barely remember to breathe.
Your husbands don’t come home for weeks and weeks. When another building collapses your husband stops what he is doing to call you and tell you he is ok….that it was a building four down from where he is. Because in the aftermath of the towers coming down, the other buildings were so unstable that there was concern they would come down too. We knew our husbands were in those buildings and around those buildings and next to those buildings…and so whenever he could, he would call me when one fell and tell me he was ok.
I remember at the time that cell phones were not as available and popular as they are today. When another building fell, he would also give his phone to anyone around to call their wives as well. We had a small plan and I kept getting alerts that we were over our usage. The bills were climbing and one day a week or so in, Verizon called me to tell me our usage and bill was over the top and I needed to make payment or be cut off. I asked if they could give me a payment plan and explained that my husband was at ground zero and that he was allowing others to use his phone and it was very important it not get shut off. A second later a manager came on and asked me for some contact info on my husbands firehouse. They sent down 200 phones, fully charged with backup batteries and unlimited plans and asked my husbands firehouse to please hand them out to be used as needed. They also wiped my entire bill away for the next three months. It’s why no matter what, I will always be a Verizon customer.
When you think of what happened on 9/11 when you are asked to remember – THESE are the things many of you don’t know and are not capable of remembering. I write this blog to encourage you to remember the things you had no idea about.
I will tell you that most of us did not see our husbands for many weeks, and then only for 24 hours when they were finally forced to go home…and the whole time home they could not focus or talk to you…they could only pace and wait until they would be allowed to go back to work and continue to sift through the rubble. I remember my husband calling me with excitement because they found a helmet with a piece of skin still in it and they were praying it could be identified. Or a leg bone with a piece of metal that might identify who it was. These were the things they lived for. Pieces of their friends. Something to give their families to bury. Think of that sentence. They lived…to find PIECES of their friends and their brothers. Pieces. A piece of skin. A fragment of bone. Something to put in a coffin. Something to identify them.
They were all gone.
All of them.
In one day my husband lost about 90 of his friends. In one day, they were just suddenly all gone.
And here he was for months, hoping and praying and working himself to death to find a fragment of something from one of them. They all were. Thousands of firefighters did this without rest or thoughts of themselves.
And we wives ran our households for months without them, and tried to be there for each other and tried to do the best we could for the wives who were still waiting for some word.
And for weeks and months this went on. Finally the mayor said NO MORE. And to this day my husband hates him for it. But to be completely honest, I was relieved. Finally, he would be forced to come home. Because it had been a very long time and as long as that pile was still there, there would not be a single one of those men that would leave. They would continue to work there, and not eat, and not sleep and barely function, because they weren’t capable of leaving all those brothers behind. They simply were not capable of walking away on their own. And they had to be forced away.
So when you hear NEVER FORGET…..never forget that.
I remember once after a couple of weeks of not leaving there, they were forced to start taking shifts, they were forced to at least go back to the firehouse for 12 hours and try to eat and sleep before being allowed to come back. Now remember, these firefighters had been there this whole time. They didn’t have any tv’s to watch, they really didn’t know what was going on in the world. Their focus was on one thing. They had no idea what was happening in the world outside that pile of rubble and lost friends and brothers.
And as they got onto their truck…. exhausted and filthy, covered in black, and bleeding from their fingers, the rig pulled out of the temporary fences….and there, lining the streets for miles and miles …in the dark of night…were hoards of silent people, holding up signs that said “THANK YOU“.
And it was at that time, that for the first time, many of them broke down and sobbed openly.
One of the heartbreaking parts of this were the funerals to follow. We went to so many funerals over the next six months that sometimes there would be three or four every single day to attend. One time there were 18 funerals on the same day. Some of the wives refused to have them, waiting for word, or proof …or …I don’t know. Some buried empty caskets. Some held simple memorial services. Some had a piece or a part of something they could bury. You can not judge any of them. We attended as many as we could with respect and love and many, many tears. So much emotion. So many shattered lives. So many children standing alongside coffins.
This was the worst of times. Truly. So when you hear those words, NEVER FORGET…this is what it means. Ok? They aren’t just words. It isn’t some stupid slogan. It was the witnessing of the true life destruction of thousands of lives and thousands of families that would never be the same. It was also the destruction of the emotional health of many of the rescuers down there. Because you do not live with something like that and come out of it the same person. Every one of those people were changed forever. How that manifested itself was different for each.
And still firefighters are dying from related illnesses. Of breathing in all that terrible air for so long…we are still losing them to that day.
And so I end this blog with those simple words, and I hope that this has given you some clarity as to what it means.