Scott Macgregor (@scottmacgregor), who penned a short post on LinkedIn about an ID card that he had kept from a visit to Cantor Fitzgerald just before 9/11, inspired me to sit down and write this post. It’s the first thing I’ve ever written about 9/11. I worried that I might be too late to write for the 15th anniversary. Driving by the flags set up on our Town Green this morning, however, I realized that my story still mattered, even if it happened to be more than a week late in the telling, and that I owed it to those who perished on that fateful day to paint a picture of the months following 9/11–different from what we all saw on television or in cell phone footage–but a very important picture, nonetheless. **Please see addendum below for 9/11/17 update to this piece.
I worked at 195 Broadway, and our building was uninhabitable for almost 2 months after the attacks on the WTC. When we returned to our building, the air inside was heavy–I broke out in weird hives, which would remain for months, and had trouble breathing. The air outside was still punctuated with the leftover acrid smoke, and whenever the wind blew, it carried ash and soot with it. And every day, there were groups of dedicated police, fire and rescue/recovery personnel working away in the middle of that very smoke and ash and soot. There was no way to escape the reality of what had happened so close to us, but there was also no way to process it.
My office overlooked the site, and my floor to ceiling window forced me to confront the site and the activity going on in and around it every single day. But it also forced me to confront the memories of the two buildings that had always stood “over there”–and still did, really. It was difficult to grasp the empty space up on my floor where there had always been others working along with me just across the plaza in their own sky high offices. The Towers had been a presence for me ever since I’d worked in NY and ever since they had served as the gleaming backdrop of one of my favorite photos of me with my mother as we pulled out of NY Harbor on the QE2 headed for Southampton, England back in 1986. The empty space that I faced outside of my window was a stark reminder that our world was no longer what it “always” had been.
I viewed my place above the site as sacred, and I took the responsibilities of someone entrusted with a position of such importance very seriously, as utterly heartbreaking as those responsibilities were. I knew that I was in the unique position to honor and pray for and think about people I’d never met. On a daily basis. I realized that I was the last “civilian” to witness the incredibly respectful way in which the first responders treated the remains they brought up from the site. What I saw, day in and day out, was a group of responders–police and fire–who, through their actions and the solemnity with which they carried them out, showed their dedication to, and love and respect for, thousands of people who did not have the comfort of being with their loved ones when they were besieged by terror. And they did so when they thought no one was looking.
The slow wail of a siren rising from below the ground would signal to those on street level that remains had been found and were being brought up to the surface and into the light. The siren sounded often, but each time it did so, it was as though it were sounding for the first time. Because it meant that another individual was coming back to us. And each and every individual deserved, I thought, to be recognized and honored. So with every siren, I rose and stood, looking down from my window, at what became all too common a scene. I watched what looked like little golf carts climbing up the hill and over the debris as they carried the remains, covered with a white sheet and strapped onto what appeared to be a backboard of some sort, of yet one more human being who had been loved while here on this earth. And every time, there were quiet tears and thoughts for the victims. But when the siren stopped wailing its slow wail, and the cart disappeared from view, my time with a particular victim was over. It was time to return to my desk. But it was extremely difficult to turn my back on the window and the site and try to focus on “work”. How could I focus on “work” when innocent people were being brought up several times a day by heroic people who took such great care with each and every body or bone fragment they found? It was surreal and heartbreaking. But I desperately hoped that the victims knew that they had a friend high in the sky at 195 Broadway who was thinking of them. They were not alone.
Nothing was “normal” for a very, very long time–for anyone. In fact, the first time the 2 beams of light were projected into the night sky, the glow to the heavens haunted me. I was leaving the office at 2AM, and during the walk from the lobby of my building to the Town Car outside on the street, I felt alone in that sacred space in a way that I had not yet felt and have not felt since. The place where the towers stood truly was, and remains, sacred ground.
After a little while, and only once we were back in our offices at 195 Broadway, my firm was forced to lay off close to 60 people. I was part of the first wave of those let go (I may be the only person ever to be thankful that I was a LIFO). The partner who hired me was part of the next round of layoffs. Things were tough for a while, just as they were for everyone. The NY office of the firm is thriving now, because that’s what New Yorkers do. They rebound and come back stronger. And I’m proud of my wonderful colleagues for working through the worst possible experience and its aftermath and doing so with grace and dignity. But I am proud of myself, too. Because for 15 years, I have carried with me from one apartment to the next and finally to my current house, one of the boxes of things that had been packed up from my office shortly after that horrible, horrible morning. The work related boxes were opened for us at our temporary base of operations in midtown. But the personal box was sent home. After 15 years, I was finally able to open it.
On 9/11/16, I was flooded with memories of walking through the site behind our building in order to enter the building and retrieve some files that a client “needed” (why he could not wait, I will never know); of attending one of the most heartbreaking funerals I have ever attended–that of a colleague who was a volunteer firefighter and who died while helping others in the Towers; and of taking calls from my pro bono client, a 22 year old firefighter’s widow with a new baby. Her husband was, by all accounts, beyond dedicated to his calling. In fact, he was called “Holy Man” by his ladder company. But his remains still had not been found by the time I left NY for Boston. So opening that box released so many memories–and yes, there was a lot of dust and debris, as well. Everything that came out of that box saddened me. But I’m so glad that I opened it. Even if it took me 15 years. And I will keep that box, and the memories contained within it, always.
I spent the weekend on Nantucket, and before my afternoon trip back to Boston, I made sure that I made it down to Cisco early this morning. It was in the Cisco Beach parking lot that I first heard Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Rising” back in 2002. I was, as I was today, alone, and I remember that I just wanted to be able to sit in my husband’s Defender–a strong, rugged vehicle that made me feel strong and rugged when I was anything but–and just think. And grieve. I knew that I’d end up breaking down as I relived that day–that impossible day–of less than a year before. I just wanted a little bit of time in a perfectly peaceful spot. Not the beach, but the parking lot. That was all I wanted. No people. No buildings. No noise. No nothing. Just music, empty space, air, sky and the incredibly beautiful horizon.
I remember sitting in the driver’s seat and just listening to Springsteen’s words. I thought he captured everything about 9/11–at least all of my thoughts and feelings about it–perfectly. So perfectly that the tears came and remained through a second play of the album. Even now, every single time I hear “The Rising”, the tears well up in my eyes and roll down my cheeks, and I feel that they will never stop.
But today, 15 years after listening to “The Rising” for the first time in the Cisco parking lot, I got out of the Defender. I was alone on the beach. I was never alone on that beach. There were always people around, whether they were the stray one or two surfers or entire families enjoying the sand and surf. But today, I was alone. Sitting on the sand, I looked up at the sky. And, as it has been almost every year since 2001, it was “still that unbelievable blue” that Springsteen described in “The Nothing Man”. But it was also a sky of “blessed light”, just like the light that he wrote about in “The Rising”. It was a peaceful sky that seemed to implore me to live with the living while never forgetting those who had passed. I took several minutes and thought about all of those who lost their lives on 9/11 and their families. I thought about two gentlemen, in particular, who lost their lives in the attack. One of them I had known in life and the other I met in death through his widow and his beautiful baby daughter. Both of these men died while helping others. My friend and law firm colleague was a volunteer firefighter who evacuated our office and then went over to help in the Towers because that was the kind of person he was. Always helpful, always optimistic, always kind. He was found with his medical bag beside him. The other was a firefighter who answered the call. Both were true American heroes. Both walked “into the fire”, and I think that both answered Springsteen’s pleas (“Into the Fire”) for strength, faith, hope and love. And today, on 9/11/17, we are seeing more heroes. More people who are, metaphorically, walking “into the fire” and working dangerous rescue and recovery missions on the Islands, in Florida and in South Carolina. To witness such heroic efforts (and to have witnessed them for weeks, beginning in Texas) on this, the anniversary of a day of horror and a day of strength, faith, hope and love, is incredibly powerful. To the first responders and to the volunteers who are working so hard to help their fellow citizens in distress, I will once again turn to Springsteen…”May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love bring us love”. You are walking into the fire, and you are doing the work of heroes.
Photo: NY District Attorney’s Office to Library of Congress. Photographer unknown. Public Domain.
Betsy Roberson Gibson
Betsy Roberson Gibson
Nonprofit Fundraising and Development Consultant