It was a crystal-clear Sept. 11, 2001. I was on the 8:30 am shuttle to Washington, D.C. The plane I was on hurtled down the La Guardia runway and then suddenly came to a halt. The pilot directed the aircraft back to the gate noting there would not be any other flights that day.
I was peeved and confused. Since I had an important meeting at the Pentagon I jumped in a cab and directed the driver to take me to Penn Station hoping the trains would be running.
As soon as the taxi got on the Triborough bridge my intention was thwarted and my world was turned topsy-turvy. Not only could I see the gash in the World Trade Center tower, but I observed a plane circle and seemingly crash into the other tower filling the clear sky with thick, black smoke.
A cop screamed at my cabbie, “the exit to Manhattan is closed, keep going.” My cab driver kept going to the Bronx. I had to find out what was happening. At long last, I left the cab and walked to Hostos Community College where the TV was on. Now I was emotionally driven to know if my wife and children were okay. Cellphones didn’t work.
The police officers directing traffic would not allow anyone to cross over into Manhattan on the 147th street bridge. But when he wasn’t looking, I did so. Carrying my valise, I began the long trek home, a distance of 20 miles. I was hot and thirsty, but mostly anxious.
By the time I reached midtown there were people covered in soot crying and telling passersby how lucky they were to be alive. Mayor Giuliani had air National Guard planes clear the Manhattan skies, an appropriate response but one that contributed to my growing anxiety.
A package left unattended near Grand Central Station led to a panicky response as commuters insisted it was a bomb. When I made it to 14th street, a young National Guardsman asked for identification. No one was permitted south of this street who didn’t live there.
At this point the dank smell of smoke and debris made it difficult to breathe. My wife was safe at home, having already purchased surgeons’ masks which I promptly put on. My children were accounted for, relieving some of the stress.
Like many other New Yorkers we asked ourselves what we could do to help. However, the National Guardians would not let us get anywhere near the World Trade Center site.
At this point, I thought we should visit a blood center to assist those who may have survived the attack. But when we reached the midtown center, I was told there were so many donors, the center ran out of plastic bags.
The news on TV was grim. Twenty-eight hundred fellow New Yorkers were killed, a number that exceeded the Pearl Harbor attack. There was nothing we could do for the innocents killed in this blatant terrorist atrocity. However, we could set up a makeshift soup kitchen at St. Vincent’s hospital for the Emergency Medical personnel, firefighters, and police officers.
Balducci’s food store, among the most upscale stores of its kind, was nearby. I told the manager what I intended to do and he said “take whatever you want.” My wife and I and a youngster recruited for the task purloined turkey breasts, fruits, cakes, roasts, etc. There was so much food that I had to hail a cab — one shopping cart wouldn’t do — fill the back and front seats and told the driver to go to St Vincents’ Hospital as we walked the four blocks.
By the time we met the cab driver, the fare was about $15. I offered the cabbie a $20 bill for his troubles, but he looked at me quizzically and in broken English said “I cannot take your money.” This was truly amazing, a New York cabbie who wouldn’t take my money. I still marvel at that scene.
That night, the third night after the attack, we snaked our way around the barriers and observed the gas fires and devastation from several yards away. Words could not describe my feelings. I recalled an office I had on the 86th floor on the North Tower and how I loved the view. This view was ugly and demoralizing.
As we stood there jaws agape, several tourists from Texas who also managed to elude the police asked if we would join hands with them and sing “God Bless America.” We did so with tears streaming down our cheeks.
The next day we stood on West Street cheering the fire trucks and emergency vehicles that headed downtown. Flags waved and people sang. It was not a moment for celebration, but it was a time for unity. New Yorkers came together in a way that is almost impossible to describe today. I prefer to remember that solidarity rather than the devastation, I prefer to recall patriotic fervor rather than cowardly attacks.
Now I reside several blocks from the World Trade Center site that at long last has risen as a phoenix. The memorial is completed and the Freedom Tower has 80 stories with at least 20 more to go. There are new playgrounds across the street in Battery Park City and the World Financial Center is abuzz with new retail shops. Goldman Sachs has its recently completed headquarters across the street.
Here is living testimony of American resilience. We fight back by never allowing our enemies to leave an indelible mark on our culture. There was an extraction in the New York skyline; now there is soon to be a new New York skyline. Of course, complacency has set in. Memories of a decade ago have faded.
This New Yorker, however, will never forget New York’s day in infamy and how people came together in what was a shining hour.
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Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction Publishers).
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