This week, as the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks approached, the internet was sent into uproar over a commercial posted by a Texas mattress store regarding their “twin towers sale.”
This company claims there is no better way to remember 9/11 than with a mattress sale. And they are obviously wrong. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on September 11th, 2001, and attacks forever changed the state of world affairs. It ushered in an era of enhanced airport screenings, a seemingly endless effort by the U.S. military to combat terrorism, and a sense of paranoia among people all over the world who constantly are thinking “when’s the next one going to happen?”
I think there are many proper ways to remember 9/11. If you live in the New York City area, visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan, which is one of the most moving places I have ever been. Perform an act of community service like donating blood. Or learn about what people went through on that horrendous day. While my father and I didn’t even come close to experiencing the brunt of the attacks, we were each left with tense, emotional, and vivid experiences that would be etched into our memories forever.
One of the earliest memories of my childhood occurred at the World Trade Center. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old when I attended my great Uncle George’s birthday party which was taking place at a fancy restaurant at the WTC complex. When the festivities were over, I remember looking up towards the top of the buildings. I recall feeling the strain on my neck as I craned it at 90 degree angle. It was probably one of the first times in my life that I was overtaken by overwhelming amazement – the buildings were so tall and magnificent!
One of the reasons 9/11 is significant to me is because my father was in New York that day. At the time, he worked in advertising for a large bank at 100 Church Street, a mere 2 blocks away from the Twin Towers. And just like many people on that day, something prevented my dad from arriving at his office at the time he usually did.
He was shooting a print advertisement at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, almost 6 miles uptown from the World Trade Center. Instead of stopping at his office first, he took the PATH train from Harrison, New Jersey, where he had parked his car, to the WTC. Arriving at 8:30 AM, about 20 minutes before the first plane hit, he immediately took the E train uptown.
As my dad and his team were shooting the ad, word got around that something was amok downtown. Someone put on the TV. It was rumored that a single engine plane was the flying object involved. Then a second plane hit one of the towers.
A feeling like no one had ever experienced enveloped the hotel suite where they were shooting the ad.”We just had no idea what to do,” my dad told me. And after thinking for a bit, he announced to everyone “I guess we should keep shooting,” fearing that his company would become mad at him for wasting precious time and money.The gravity of the situation had not quite sunk in. Fifteen years later, he still feels ridiculous for his words.
I was almost finished with my lunchtime meal of chicken nuggets and rice at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Wayne, NJ when the 2nd grade teachers hurried into the cafeteria. That’s weird, I thought. Normally we would go outside to play for recess before returning to the classroom. But instead of heading to the playground, we exited outside through the door of the cafeteria and walked towards Ratzer Road, a main thoroughfare in my town. No explanations were given as one of the teachers blocked traffic to allow the steady stream of students from all grades to cross the road. We headed to the gymnasium of the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, only a short walk away from school. Inside, the principal addressed all the students, only vaguely referencing the events that just took place in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania and how all the schools in the township were evacuated as a precaution.
It wasn’t too long before we headed back to the school grounds. Many parents, including my mom, were waiting to pick up their children, which I also thought was weird because it wasn’t the end of the school day yet.
I only began to realize the true nature of the situation when I turned on the TV at home and saw the footage of the falling towers. My eyes remained glued to those images for the rest of the night.
My dad walked the streets of Manhattan that afternoon, surrounded by people with only blank facial expressions. He tried giving blood, but was turned away – the lines were simply too long. That night, he was able to stay in the hotel room where he shot the print ad earlier in the day. Returning to New Jersey was impossible, as all the Hudson River crossings leading out of the city were closed.
On the morning of September 12th, my dad was able to make it back to Harrison to retrieve his car. Each day prior to September 11th, he would give $5 to the parking lot attendant without saying a word. Things were different on this day though. Upon seeing my dad, the attendant was overjoyed with relief: “I’m so happy to see you,” he said as he hugged my dad.
In that instant, the gravity of the situation overtook my father. He gazed around at the rest of the parking lot. There were about 20 cars that had yet to be claimed. “I realized then that I was one more person that had made it, and that some of the cars were not ever getting driven home,” my dad had told me, “and that’s the first time after the attacks that I started crying.”
School had returned to normal the next day. My father wanted to visit me to let me know that he was okay. I was on the blacktop during recess when I saw him, still wearing the same suit that he was wearing from the previous day’s madness. He gave me a big hug, and let me know that he was safe. While my father already had an emotional understanding of what had transpired the day before, my second grade mind had still not quite grasped the intricacies of all that was happening. I carried on my day as normal.
15 years later, as I look back at September 11th, 2001, I realize that the day is still clear in my memory. The images of pure destruction, victims with dust covering their bodies, and planes hitting the buildings partially ruined my innocence – they were a lot for a 2nd grader to take in. Even today, I have a hard time watching documentaries with images from that dark moment in our history. But we must never forget.
Never forgetting isn’t about mattress sales or Coca-Cola 12-pack art displays at the local Walmart. It’s about coming together as a community and remembering those who were lost that day and learning about the stories of those who survived. It reminds us that we should not take for granted living in a country that is a beacon of freedom, democracy, and liberty. And it should make us strive to be the best we can be. And I hope this story, one of many that transpired on September 11th 2001, will help us get there.