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There are days that we never forget. There are days that everyone remembers.
I still remember the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944. I was six years old. Everyone was crying. It seemed the whole nation was weeping for the president who had led us out of the Depression and through most of the war.
I vividly remember the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was living in New York City. People stood on the street listening to their portable radios. They clustered in small groups, sharing the unbelievable news from Dallas. I was out part of the day, going to the doctor, but then hurried home, where I was glued to the TV, watching the horrible news as it happened.
September 11 was another day that riveted the attention of everyone, it seems, in the nation and many abroad. Today, on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, we remember that grim day.
I was at home in Brooklyn Heights, just two short blocks from the waterfront. I remember a tremendous noise as I sat at the breakfast table, having a second cup of coffee. I thought it was a bad automobile accident on the BQE (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). Then I got a phone call from my friend Mary, urging me to turn on the television. Something awful had happened at the World Trade Center. A plane crashed into one of the towers. Maybe it was a small plane that was off course. No one knew.
I grabbed one of my dogs and hurried down to the waterfront. Just as I arrived and looked up, I saw the second airplane slice into the second tower of the World Trade Center. The first tower was in flames on the upper floors. The sky was a beautiful, cloudless blue. I stood with a stranger, we looked at each other, and said something to this effect, “Terrorism. Not an accident. Not a small plane. Terrorism.”
I rushed home to turn on the television to see the first tower collapse, then the second tower. It took time to learn that nearly 3,000 people died that day, including hundreds of firefighters who were running up the stairs as others were running down.
Mary came home, and we went to the local hospital to donate blood. But they turned us away because the hospital was not getting any survivors. We went to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge to see hundreds of people heading in our direction. Some of them were shoeless. Many were holding briefcases. All of them were covered in the ash from the fires.
Everything in the city came to a halt. The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subways were closed. There was no traffic. There was a steady rain of ash that covered all the cars, streets, and yards in the neighborhood. In our backyard, we found a scorched and charred piece of paper that had been on someone’s desk only an hour or two earlier.
For weeks afterward, the “pile” continued to smolder and burn. The air smelled foul, a combination of burning plastic, melted steel, and human flesh. That acrid odor remained in the air for many weeks. The only sound was the sound of sirens and the whoosh of military jets overheard.
I was by no means a victim, but 9/11 had a dramatic effect on me. Every night, as I tried to fall asleep, I imagined the terror inside the buildings. I imagined those who made the decision whether to burn to death or jump out the window. I couldn’t stop thinking about all those who were lost.
9/11 was a tragedy for the victims and their families. It was a tragedy for our nation. It was a tragedy for the nations on which we made war. It is impossible to look back on our “revenge” and sense any satisfaction. There had to be retribution for mass terrorism, for an unprecedented attack on our country, but our remedies were wrong. Easy to see in hindsight. Not so clear in the moment, when passions ran high. The least we should expect from our government is: tell the public the truth. Always.