Editor's note: It has been 16 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Refinery29 has chosen to share the voices of women who survived as well as those who lost loved ones so that we may never forget. This story contains details that some readers may find disturbing.
There are many Sept. 11 stories to tell. I’ve written a lot of mine down, but whenever it comes to telling them, I try to wrap them up with a perfect bow. First, with a eulogy I read when I was 15 and still blindsided by it all. Then, at an FDNY 10-year anniversary ceremony. It’s nice to speak to these things neatly, I thought. I liked putting a hopeful, resilient spin on it because, after all, we weren’t going to give up. We were still committed to shining bright on behalf of the 3,000 people we lost. But there is a shadow of darkness still, a sadness that remains.
Rarely is there a magical moment of true peace with premature death, especially on such a massive scale with an unending aftershock. For us 9/11 "survivors," we evolve and grow. We keep moving to the unstoppable momentum of New York City. It’s our home and the place we love so much. It’s part of who we are. We survived with it. We rebuilt with it. My dad perished into the very foundation of this island. He was never recovered from ground zero, not even a trace. So here he rests, in my city and my heart.
My dad had an immense appreciation for all things Manhattan, from its architecture to its history. He was a fire lieutenant at Ladder 21 in Hell’s Kitchen and had been on the FDNY for 30 years, starting his career in the Bronx at Engine 92 during the 1970s. Back then, his was the busiest house, in a borough that was often up in flames during a very fiery time in New York City.
He would help you, any of you, if you needed him. He had a calm yet strong presence. He was smart— all by his own doing. He read endlessly, book after book, and collected hundreds of antique volumes and editions. He handed me a book any time I had a question. We didn’t have Google, but we had five sets of encyclopedias (cue teenage eye roll). "Go look it up," he’d tell my two older brothers and me. He could rebuild the engine on his '68 Jaguar XKE, string up our Christmas lights, build our pool, tell a good joke, grocery shop the sales, tutor me in math and science, and cook us filet mignon and Yorkshire pudding on New Year's Day. He could also make fun of me in the best possible way. You would have liked him very much. My mom and my brothers and I really loved him.
I can still see his silhouette walking out our front door, and hear the screen door shutter behind him. Joan Didion wrote about these “ordinary instants” — the moments that are so plain and normal, that in hindsight, you can’t imagine the fury and tragedy that will follow them.
He’d have an hour and half commute ahead of him since he moved us out to Warwick, NY, when I was a baby. We lived in a horseshoe-shaped neighborhood filled with trees and bi-level homes. There was a farmhouse behind our house with cows that would come right up to the fence and visit with us. My dad was the ultimate animal lover. We grew up with our English mastiff Amber and three other rescue dogs. He also rescued injured animals, like snapping turtles on the side of the road, and brought them home, much to my mom’s dismay. "Another turtle, Mike?" she’d ask, and my brothers and I would laugh at them while they bickered over it.
On that Tuesday morning, my mom was waiting on a call from my dad, which was their routine. It never came because he was already downtown. We found a picture of my dad and his men, all of whom were also lost, pulling up to the towers, from a surveillance camera on the West Side Highway. You can see my dad, leaning in and looking up. I often imagine seeing it through his eyes, what he must have been feeling, thinking. He was also on duty at the 1992 World Trade Center bombings, so I suspect he had a clue as to what was occurring here, despite the initial confusion. A few hours later, that same truck appeared crushed and buried in debris during some live news coverage.
We think he went into the north tower, and that he and his guys came out safely before venturing into the other one. I got no other details. Around 2005, the FDNY released many of the dispatch calls from Sept. 11. I listened in entirety for my dad’s voice, but never found it. They swabbed my mouth for DNA to try and match it to even the tiniest bone fragments that were being sifted out of the rubble. We never got a match.
The 9/11 Commission Report stated that, were it not for the first responders, the lives lost would have been far more magnified, and that just their presence made dire circumstances more bearable. “It is impossible to measure the calming influence that ascending firefighters had on descending civilians,” the report said. It was dark, with breached walls and pockets of heat and flames. The firefighters were on high floors trying to help the injured while finding elevators that worked.
That’s what I know about the day. But here’s what I hope; that my dad wasn’t hurt long enough to feel any pain. That he didn’t experience fear or suffering. That he knew in that very instant how much we loved him and that we would carry on for him. How we would value everything he taught us, appreciate how much he loved us and how hard he worked. That we would forever honor him and all the people he passed on with that day.
I recently asked my brother what he thinks about most 16 years later. He said there’s an underlying sense of what could have been. I think we all feel that way, directly or indirectly affected. What would life have been like for us without a Sept. 11? And I suppose that’s why we tell our 9/11 stories, not to share them in perfect prose or with a meaningful conclusion like I used to think. But to process it all the best we can, learn from it, remember the kindness we showed one another in the aftermath, and the unique lessons we learned. The heightened pride we felt in those months to follow for our country. It was a sad, life-altering, world-shifting day. So we remember it.
This story was originally published on September 9, 2016.