By Stephon Johnson
I turned on the television and saw one tower standing. Alone. Like it wanted to say goodbye to the skyline before it departed.
You know what happened next.
My friends asked each other via AOL Instant Messenger if we had gotten into contact with our family members. No. Cell phone towers and switching equipment from landline phones became collateral damage in the attack. The cell towers that were available crashed. The only means of communication was online. It was 2001 and having a computer wasn’t necessary yet.
I finally contacted my mom at 8 PM on September 11, 2001.
I needed to make sure my father got home from the night shift at his job one block away from the World Trade Center. My mom was on her way down there that morning. I forgot the reason. She was in the middle of her subway trip from the Bronx. Her train stopped right before the 14th St.-Union Sq. station on the 4,5,6, R, N, Q, W, L lines. She said the train stopped before it reached the platform and didn’t move.
I’m glad it didn’t.
During Thanksgiving break from college, I made it my mission to hit up ground zero. I picked the Tuesday before the holiday. When I told my mother that I was heading down there, she shook up. She asked me how I could take the subway with the memories of the attacks still fresh. She hadn’t taken the subway since that day.
I told her that she should come with me and ride the subway for a bit, at least into the city. Conquer her fear and (I hate using this cliché) not letting the terrorists win. I essentially strong-armed her into standing with me on the platform of the Mt. Eden Avenue stop on the 4-train line. She lasted until 59th Street. She thanked me for doing this, walked to the uptown side, and went home.
I kept going.
As any New Yorker knows, when walking up the steps of the Brooklyn Bridge subway station, the bridge greets you on one side, and City Hall greets you on the other. After the attacks, a third thing welcomed you.
There were still thousands of unidentified bodies trapped in mountains of steel. The combination of that, the smoke, and everything else forced you to recognize that you were walking around a temporary morgue.
But I still had to see it.
I walked as close as I could to the police “Do Not Cross” fence to see as much as possible. I don’t remember my remarks while staring at the area, but a first responder overheard me, and we started talking. We developed a rapport. He gave me a hard hat. He took me across the police line and closer to hell.
I couldn’t forget that stench. I couldn’t ignore the machinery and the men and women who were, somehow, making it work. They didn’t have a choice, though. That lack of choice resulted in the death of many workers (much of it cancer and respiratory-related) due to the toxic dust that engulfed lower Manhattan.
We talked about the dangers of walking on steel in the rain, the aftermath of discovering a body, a part of a body, a piece of jewelry, an ID card, or a family picture.
The items survived. The people didn’t.
The rest of the country experienced 9/11 as a national tragedy from afar. Many New Yorkers just saw it as someone messing with their city.
The rest of the country was ready for war and blood. The city still needed to clean up the blood on the streets.
The rest of the country loved New York. By the end of the decade, divided by politics, war, and popular culture, we were back to being “cultural elites” again.
Nothing lasts forever.
One World Trade Center now stands on the ground that held mass death 20 years ago. There are shops, memorials, an NJ Transit subway stop, and benches to sit and relax. No different than many places in Manhattan.
There are New Yorkers who have sworn never to go near that area again. New tower or not, it didn’t make sense for them to volunteer themselves to be triggered. To those who have no desire to conquer this fear…I understand.