The past two years on September 11, I was in New York for the observances. Mostly it was research, for that chapter in the book I’m writing. Partly it was personal: a high school classmate died in the South Tower.
One of the things that struck me last year was the determination of people from around the world – mostly first responders – to come to New York at their own expense on the anniversary. I spoke to a young police officer from Toronto, who was there for the seventh time, and met firefighters from as far away as Australia. Without exception, they considered it a duty and an honor to be there.
It feels strange not being there. This year my daughter is a freshman in college in New York, and she’s headed down to St. Paul’s Chapel later, where there are observances all day.
There is a hierarchy of grief in the 9/11 community. Families are at the top, and I don’t object to that at all. Their loss is unimaginable. They’re the only ones allowed to attend the Naming Ceremony, or visit the Memorial and Visitor Center on the anniversary.
But there were many survivors who weren’t family members. There are the survivors – first responders, office workers, shop owners, reporters – who were there that day and ran from the cloud of debris that engulfed lower Manhattan.
There are survivors who – by the grace of God – were not there that day. I know three people who were supposed to be at or near the World Trade Center that morning: one overslept, one cancelled their meeting, another went inside and couldn’t find his meeting, so he left.
There are those whose lives and livelihood were directly impacted: people who lived or worked near the Towers, or for companies decimated by the loss of dozens, maybe hundreds of employees.
And there are those of us who watched in horror from hundreds and thousands of miles away, trying for hours to get a call through to our friends in New York, only to hear that “all circuits are busy” sound.
I had several friends in New York at the time, most of them women who were high school classmates. I didn’t call the men I knew; for some reason, I knew they were okay, but I did not feel confident about the women. One by one I talked to them: one was stuck on Staten Island for a couple days, another was afraid to go to her job in a high rise. It was three days later, when one of them called to let me know that Carol was missing. By then, we all knew what “missing” meant.
There are those who have turned 9/11 into a political football, and those who exploit it to sell lottery tickets and souvenirs. There are those who are tired of hearing about it, who prefer to put it away in a safe place and not think about it.
And there are those who used channeled their grief and horror into something positive, like Mychal’s Message, the nonprofit organization established in memory of Fr. Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who was one of the victims.
So I ask you today, as we pause to remember those we lost, to also remember those left behind. We are all survivors today.