I heard a surprising fact recently – that many of those entering their freshman year in high school weren’t even born yet on September 11, 2001. It seems just like yesterday that this occurred. So how could it be something freshman are now learning about in their history books?

Underground When Both Planes Hit

At the time of the terrorist attacks, I lived in Brooklyn and worked as an investigator in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in Lower Manhattan, about a mile from the World Trade Center. Sometimes I took the subway route through the Trade Center, but most times I went a different route through Chinatown, closer to my office. That’s the route I took on 9/11. I saw the billowing smoke of the first plane, which must have hit while I was underground but could see when the subway car I was in popped above ground for a few quick stops. While I was underground again, the second plane hit. I didn’t realize a second plane hit until sometime after I was out of the subway in Lower Manhattan walking south to my place of work while everyone was running or walking north. As a member of law enforcement, running north wasn’t an option.

The Early Weeks – Viewed from My Guard Post

My job that day and the many days after was to guard the perimeter of the Criminal Courts building where my office was located. My post guarding the building eventually changed to months of assisting the FBI and other law enforcement agencies with finding witnesses, checking into countless leads (few that came to fruition), and tracking down any tidbit of intelligence that would aid in the fight against terrorism. Going to work day in and day out in Lower Manhattan was not easy. Hearing stories from my friends and colleagues about loved ones who were killed was heart wrenching. I went to the Ground Zero site the morning after 9/11 and numerous times thereafter in the following weeks and months. The sickly taste and smell of the underground chemical fires, and the pulverized glass, and concrete, and sheetrock, and other substances that covered the city’s surfaces and filled the air for months.

Change for the Better

Life in law enforcement changed; life in New York City changed; life in the other cities that were hit changed; life around the globe changed; but mostly people changed – for the better.

  • I remember the first responders, the National Guard, emergency and rescue workers (including the little known story of three court officers who responded to the scene and died while trying to rescue others); the fire and police officials from all across New York and other states who arrived to help; the military that quickly mobilized; the metal workers and other laborers who spent more time than anyone at Ground Zero, first helping with rescue and recovery – and later rebuilding; the medical professionals who helped the injured but who anxiously and sadly awaited what was hoped to be masses of more injured, but who never arrived.
  • I remember the children and many other New Yorkers who kept those of us in lower Manhattan fed during that time by bringing us fruit, granola bars, water, and homemade sandwiches in Ziploc bags with prayers for our safety and handwritten messages of encouragement.
  • I remember that the usually very hurried and outspoken New Yorkers were only in a rush to lend a helping hand, hold an elevator, help someone across the street, give a stranger a ride, give the many displaced people a room to stay in, and offer kind words of praise and love.
  • I remember the generosity of many corporations that donated or helped bring needed supplies to Lower Manhattan. I remember the logistical nightmare of Lower Manhattan But mattresses suddenly appeared near Ground Zero so rescue workers and emergency personnel had somewhere to sleep, or at least rest. Nextel phones arrived which helped us get back on our feet at work. The list goes on and on and on.

 A Tour of the Memorial Museum

I recently toured the 9/11 site and Memorial Museum – a beautiful and moving tribute. Touring it, of course brought back anger, sadness and a whole host of emotions, but I also learned so many new and wonderful stories about that day, and heard so many new accounts of heroism and the goodness inside so many of us.

A Special and Remarkable “Survivor” Tree

At the end of the walking tour I learned the history of one very special and remarkable tree – a seemingly ordinary tree standing between the twin reflecting pools. But it was anything but ordinary, and is in fact, now known as the “Survivor Tree.” This tree, then with snapped roots, broken limbs, and severely damaged and burned, was discovered at Ground Zero in October 2001. The Parks and Recreation Department in New York City spent nearly a decade caring for it. It now stands as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth.

On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and every anniversary, I choose to remember this Survivor Tree, all the humans who survived, and especially those who died and their families. I choose to always remember that crisp day and that indescribably blue sky.