It was a quiet morning in the condo on Top Sail Island, NC, the morning of September 11th. My friend, whose parents owned the condo, and I had driven out to the Atlantic coast with my two kids, aged 1 and 3, for a week on the beach. My husband had just started a new job that kept him at home, but we decided to enjoy some girl time sprinkled in with the demands of my toddlers.
That morning, I started the coffee as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake the sleeping kids. My friend joined me just as it was finished brewing and we turned on the morning news to get the weather report. I’ll never forget what we saw next. It was a shot of the Twin Towers in New York City, with smoke pouring out of one of the towers. The reporter was relaying the information that a plane had run into the tower and started a fire. The police and fire departments were already on the scene and preparing their command center to fight the fire and evacuate the building.
My friend and I were a little shocked to see what had happened. My husband is a pilot, so I called him back home to get his take on the situation. I woke him up with the news that an accident had happened and a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. As he was explaining to me how unlikely an accident like that is due to the flight patterns over NYC, we watched as the second plane hit the adjacent tower. And that’s when we knew – it was no accident. I finished up my phone call so that my friend could call her parents and let them know what was going on.
As we were immersed in making sure our friends and family were alerted to the situation, my sleepy little three-year-old made her way out of her room and into the living room without us hearing her. We realized she was up when she exclaimed, “My daddy! My daddy is on that building! My daddy is on that plane!” I quickly ran to her, turning off the TV on my way to picking her up, and reassured her that daddy was at home, safe. I even called him again so that she could hear his voice. It took a little convincing though as my husband had been in New York City, on the top of the Twin Towers, just a couple of weeks before that fateful day. I was flabbergasted that she remembered he had just been there, but then that child has always been a precocious one.
My son woke up shortly after we got my daughter calmed down. We then turned our attention to getting the kids fed and dressed. Wanting to avoid the news for the kids’ sake, we prepared to hit the beach to play in the sand and with the tiny crabs that liked the wet sand. We had a nice morning, trying our best not to focus on what was going on in New York City.
My friend and I actually met when we were both working in Civil Service, writing and administering promotional exams for the police and fire departments. We were intimately familiar with the standard operating procedures for first responders, including how and where they would set up their Incident Command center. We had even met a couple of officers from the NYPD and wondered aloud if either of them were at the scene.
Just as we were about to gather the kids up and head in for lunch, a couple that we had seen walking the beach talking to people approached us. They had been inside watching the events of the day unfold and then felt compelled to hit the beach and share the news with all of us. In the few hours that we were on the beach a lot had happened. And while the couple were off on a few of the details, they had one, gut-wrenching fact correct. The Twin Towers had fallen. Hearing that news my stomach dropped. My friend and I instantly knew the kind of devastation that had wrecked on the command structure of the NYPD and FDNY. We were certain the towers fell onto the Incident Command center, because we knew the most likely place to set up was at the base of the Towers. The collapse killed not just the frontline police and firefighters that were dispatched to the scene, but the lieutenants, captains, chiefs and commanders that were on scene to manage the response. The loss to the departments was unfathomable because the departments didn’t only lose an incredible number of officers, they also lost the wisdom and experience provided by their senior officers. By some accounts, the departments are still recovering from that loss.
In the days that followed September 11, we did our best to keep the kids away from the news. Even without the constant reporting and reminder of what had happened, we noticed changes around us. For one, the beach became eerily quiet because there was no airline traffic in the sky. We hadn’t realized how many international flights flew over the condo until they were suddenly gone. When we went into town we saw that the military base we had been on a few days prior was inaccessible. Every road in and out of Camp Lejeune was barricaded for security purposes. It all left me with the feeling that life would be different from here on out. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew things would change.
We left North Carolina a few days later and began the trek home to Texas. The massive rescue effort at the site of the Towers had become one of recovery. And the funerals for the fallen were just starting. We passed countless police and fire vehicles headed towards New York. They were from all over the country and were going to help in any way they could. For the most part they served as pallbearers, traffic control, and fill-ins for the police and fire departments as they buried their dead and began to figure out a way forward from their loss. Just as you see in the military, those that carry badges and fire hoses form a brotherhood. Geography matters not. Race matters not. Gender matters not. Sexuality matters not. They all bleed red and answer the call when needed.
So, on this, the 16th anniversary of the day the world stopped turning for a moment, I would like to thank the men and women that respond when we are in distress. Despite the occasional bad seed that gets splashed across our TV and computer screens, the vast majority of our first responders serve with honor, integrity and great courage. They want nothing more than to protect and serve despite knowing that each time they strap on their service weapon, or button up their bunker coat, they may be required to lay down their life. There is no greater love than that.
Thank you for your service. Thank you to your families that support you. Thank you for always answering the call. May those you serve never take you for granted.