September 11, 2003

An unwanted anniversary

Even though Darla and I now live in a small town in Virginia, we still hold dear our time serving in New York City. The events of 9/11/01 unfolded less than 6 months into our marriage and our time in NYC. Living in NYC on that day--modifiers fail to accurately describe "that day"--made us true NYers.

I would encourage all Americans to read transcripts of civilian and official emergency communications that day to be reminded of what happened on that day. Another excellent reminder is the 9-11-01 documentary produced by French brothers and aired on CBS.

That is why our armed forces are in Iraq, Afghanistan, and places we don't know. Last I heard, at least two acquaintances are still in Iraq serving us. A high school friend, Brandon Zell, is with Bravo Co, 4th Light Armored Recon of the Marines. Last word I have is that he could be back this month. Our former teacher, Todd Kappel, has been at the Baghdad airport. (Updates welcome from those in the know.)

I count my self priviliged to have attended several funerals/memorial services of FDNY firefighters lost that day. Last year, I used photos from those, along with some other photos, to create a commemorative issue of the newsletter that I produce and send to my freelance clients.

Below you will find my e-mail dispatches from 9/11/01 and the one year anniversary last year.

********* 11 Sept. 2001 *********

[sent at 9:34 p.m.]
For those who don't already know--we're sorry you didn't know sooner--Darla, my father, and I are all safe after today's horrendous events. So are our friends, pastor, and his family (also included in the "friends" group). As of yet, we don't know about all of our church people.

In the narrative that follows, I will fill you in on what has happened, from our point of view.

John Collins



In case you were unaware, Dad arrived in town Saturday morning. He was to fly out of LaGuardia this morning soon after 9:00am.

**Yesterday [9/10/01], business hours; Manhattan**

Dad and I spent most of the day in Manhattan, around 14th Street. We had a good view of the Twin Towers when the weather would cooperate. Our commute took us even closer to the World Trade Center on the subway.

**Last night [9/10/01]; Brooklyn**

As a closing event to Dad's first visit to our apartment, we took him down to see the sights of an upperclass neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. Adjacent to Brooklyn Heights lies a narrow park, commonly known as "The Promenade." The view of the Manhattan skyline from the Promenade is unparalleled.

On our way to sightsee, we drove through a blinding rainstorm, which ended just as we were arriving at our destination. This afforded us a clear view of the skyline, and great ambience to our stroll through the picturesque Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.

Using Michael's digital camera (which he sent with Dad), we captured some stunning, though not perfect, pictures of the Manhattan skyline. Of course, the highlight of most of these pictures was the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

**5:30 AM, today [9/11/01]; Brooklyn**

We woke to get Dad packed and ready to head out early to LaGuardia.

**7:00-8:30-ish AM, today [9/11/01]; Brooklyn/Queens**

Stepping out of our building, we were greeted with beautiful, fall-ish weather. Skies were clear blue, and the air crisp. Surveying the day, we remarked amongst our selves how beautiful that day was.

We left our house for the airport, giving plenty of time to deal with heavy traffic. Our route took us along the Harbor, giving us a perfect view of Lower Manhattan. After dealing with rush-hour traffic, we arrived at LaGuardia (18 miles away) an hour after leaving our apartment.

We left Dad after he checked in, which included checking his luggage.

**Disaster strikes**

Along the way TO the airport, we had noted heavy traffic in the opposite direction, so I tried another route home. We also encountered heavy traffic on this route. At 8:48 AM, I turned to my favorite source for traffic updates, 880 AM, WCBS (traffic every 10 minutes, on the "8"s).

The traffic report was just coming on, but instead of a traffic report, we heard an excited traffic reporter breaking the news that just as they were coming on air, they saw something go into the side of the World Trade Center (WTC) from their chopper. The anchors in the studio also saw the same thing.

We called Dad to tell him what happened. Although we did not know at the time, he was already on the plane. He got Michael's camera out of the overhead and started working wireless Internet for details. Seemingly only one other passenger, across the aisle, knew of the problem. He was talking to his office on the 51st floor in the "other" tower on his cell phone. They said they were shaken but okay when his call was suddenly cut off.

Even though Darla and I were driving through Queens, we could see some smoke in the sky. Near the outer reaches of New York City, we began seeing emergency vehicles, mostly unmarked cars, headed toward Manhattan in great urgency, lights and sirens. One police truck from the Emergency Services Unit (a SWAT team and a rescue team among other things, all rolled into one; the creme de la creme of NYPD) rushed by on the banked, grassy shoulder. At that point, we were in another pocket of heavy traffic.

About this same time, the second plane hit the other tower. Meanwhile, as we drove, we were trying to contact Dad at the airport to update him. We were also trying to get through to Mom to let her know that Dad was safe. However, the cell system was overloaded, and we couldn't get through.

Not much later, the indescribeable bad feelings that we had got worse; we came to a marshy area with a view of the towers, approximately 9 miles as the crow flies. The two gigantic structures seemed to be engulfed in smoke from their middles on up to their tops. We now had that horrible feeling plus a weakening queasiness.

Darla called Dad back with news and confirmation of the second crash. Dad did not have the heart to tell the man across the aisle of what had happened. His aircraft was closed up and the engines were starting when the pilot suddenly shut down the engines and came on the intercom saying there was a problem at the World Trade Center and the FAA had instructed them to clear the aircraft. "Leave the aircraft immediately. Take everything with you."

Eventually we got to our apartment, made our necessary phone calls to immediate loved ones to touch base, got a few things, and headed toward a friend's apartment to be with her and watch news on TV. She had seen the second plane hit as she watched from her window, and we didn't know if she was alone or not.

On our 4-mile drive to her apartment, we were passed by more emergency vehicles responding. Just before our arrival at her apartment, we heard the radio news with the unthinkable; one of the 110-story buildings had collapsed.

From the 4th floor apartment, we could see the huge dust cloud from the collapse mixed with the smoke from the fires. We were on the roof for a few minutes while I snapped a few photos. When a few planes were heard overhead, we all cringed. One that flew over the apartment was clearly an F-16. The dust cloud was approaching, so we moved inside and closed windows. Not much later, we couldn't see any of Manhattan.

Our friend's husband showed us a sheet from a book that he caught floating in the air. It was intact, but it smelled of fire and the like. Other friends in our neighborhood found charred papers floating down, approximately 6 miles from the tragic scene.

Since we couldn't see anything from the windows, we turned to the TV, which showed us the second collapse live. We heard the sounds of that without the aid of the TV.

**After the attack**

We continued watching the live coverage, in all its horrible repetitious monotony. After a while of taking in the latest reports, a few of us that had gathered the apartment decided to give blood. The Brooklyn streets were heavy with pedestrians, light on autos. The majority of the shops lining the avenues were closed.

At the nearest hospital, we could see small groups of concerned people. We were directed to the blood donor area, where we met hospital officials and security. The response of blood donors was so great that they could only take those with the universal donor blood type. They asked anybody else wishing to donate to come tomorrow.

When we finally headed home, our car and all around were covered with a thick coat of dust and ash---very like the aftermath of a volcano.

**Dad's adventure**

Upon evacuation from his plane, Dad began the process of getting out of the airport. The Lord guided his steps, and as the airport was evacuated in broadening stages, Dad was able to get his luggage back. His luggage had been checked and loaded on the plane.

Next, Dad proceeded to the Hertz rental shuttle. He learned that he couldn't get a rental without a reservation. Most of the people on the shuttle did not have reservations, and they couldn't get through on the reservation number. On Dad's first try, he got through and got a Ford Windstar at the rate for a mid-size car.

His next step was to get back with us, but he needed to go through Queens and most of the way through Brooklyn. And with the emergency, all highways, expressways, and other major auto veins were closed. So Dad bought supplies and began a trek through city streets to get to us. This began around 11 AM.

All the way in, Dad experienced blocked routes and heavy traffic. It wasn't until approximately 3:15 PM that Dad pulled up at the church. His distance in that time: 17 miles.

At this writing, the sun has set. A large column of smoke is evident even still. And we await word of survivors after the late-afternoon collapse of another building. Unfortunately, we hear that of the intitial 400 firefighters to respond, 200 are missing.

All lives have been changed by the day's events. And for some reason, the Lord has chosen for us to be here at this time. Surely, the populace has had its thoughts turn to eternity today.

We praise the Lord that Dad was not in the air, with all that could have entailed. We also praise the Lord that Darla's temp assignment in Jersey City is over. First of all, her daily commute involved a subway transfer in the basement of the WTC. Secondly, the people working in that area are stuck there overnight. Nobody can come to Manhattan from New Jersey. Thankfully we were able to be together all day long.

The three of us have had a wonderful, home-cooked meal at our apartment. We're winding down, and hopefully we'll sleep soon.

********* 11 Sept. 2002 *********

Well, an emotional day has come to a close. Yesterday, September 10 found me complaining in an e-mail about the media's constant mention of 9/11. It was bothersome, but after today, my criticism is less.

For me, today started at 4:00 AM. I rose early so that I could go photograph part of our city's 9/11 ceremonies. Starting early in the morning, bagpipers and drummers marched from the farthest reaches of all five boroughs, converging on Ground Zero for the main commemoration. Some groups marched almost 20 miles.

As I got ready in our bathroom, I heard a fighter jet fly over on patrol. It's been a while since that has been part of our life here, but with the anniversary, that picked up again. Just another reminder of the threat we live under.

For a city that never sleeps, the streets were pretty drowsy this morning. Near the coast, thick fog blanketed anything and everything. My destination: Flatbush Avenue, one of Brooklyn's main thoroughfares. Flatbush runs from one side of the borough of Brooklyn to the other. This was the route for the Brooklyn bagpipe contigent.

In the still of the morning, I witnessed an incredible scene. It was not even 5:00 in the morning, but New Yorkers turned out to take part of this impressive march. An honor guard led a large pipe and drum corp from the Police Department as they marched and played. Behind the drummers marched patriotic civilians in red, white, and blue clothing, many carrying American flags as large as the ones carried by the PD honor guard. Young boys even turned out in camos and fake rifles with their own honor guard.

Along the way, nearby fire houses emptied as the firefighters lined the parade route. Some firefighters saluted. Others stood in front of their rigs and applauded. And police came from everywhere to block traffic and be part of the occasion.

As the procession continued, the pipers and drummers rotated in and out about every mile, with only two pipers and drummers playing for most of the time. More and more people lined the streets. And more and more joined in the march.

One report that I read mentioned the somber march. There was that potential, but I feel that it was a victorious, defiant, extremely patriotic march.

The sun began to lighten the sky, and the marching crowd continued growing. We were to cross the historic Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The initial group of marching civilians was probably 2-3 dozen. By the time we reached the bridge, hundreds were tagging along.

The timing was perfect; we began crossing the bridge as the sun came above the horizon, and the clouds splashed warm colors in the sky. The procession proceeded via the car lanes with even more onlookers and participants joining on the pedestrian walkway.

I passed a lady handing out dozens of small American flags to anybody on the pedestrian walkway.

The march continued through the busy streets of lower Manhattan--the same streets that were engulfed in dust and smoke a year earlier. In the confined space of the downtown streets, the bagpipes and drums were almost deafening.

People on their way to work and students en route to school clogged the sidewalks to watch the spectacle. Many wore red, white, and blue.

The parade ended around 8:00 AM with Ground Zero in the background. The civilians cheered as the PD corps continued the few blocks to Ground Zero alone.

Darla's experience

Darla's job at Pfizer has been good. She's doing a good job, and being recognized for her work. The culture at Pfizer is very enjoyable.

In fact, the rumor swirled that September 11, 2002 would be a day off so that Pfizer employees could mark the anniversary their own way. But it was a rumor.

So Darla commuted to work on the subway as usual. The people were different. They were more introspective. Red, white, and blue led the fashion palette followed closely by black. Many wore patriotic pins or ribbons.

Darla didn't realize how much the anniversary would affect her emotionally. When she walked past storefronts and noticed that all the merchandise in the windows had been replaced by patriotic posters and flags, she had a tough time.

Two of Darla's coworkers had to call their children at home upon arriving at work to let the kids know they made it safely to work. They feared for their mothers' safety going to work on the anniversary.

At 8:46 AM, Pfizer employees observed a moment of silence. They also remembered 2 coworkers who were lost that day. One at meeting downtown, and one on Flight 93.

As she worked, Darla listened to the live radio coverage of the ceremony at Ground Zero. Later she watched coverage on TV. Hearing the flashbacks to last year's coverage was tough.

9/11/02 for the FDNY

8:46 AM found me outside a firehouse (Engine 205, Ladder 118) in Brooklyn that lost several men. Both pieces of apparatus were out on the street. The ladder truck, brand-new. The engine, still covered in scratches and dents. Members of the community gathered around the station, which has had a shrine outside of flowers, notes, and so on for almost a whole year.

The Fire Department observed a moment of silence and then read the names of all 343 members who gave their lives. They were still reading names when they paused for another moment of silence--9:03 AM, when the second plane hit the second tower.

Other fire stations around Brooklyn were much the same. The rigs were pulled out into partial or complete view. And firefighters milled around outside with people, presumably family, friends, and neighbors. As each tick on the terror timeline rolled around, the fire department observed a moment of silence.

But life in NY went on. As the names were read on one FD radio channel, dispatchers sent companies on calls on another channel. But the dispatchers talked in low voices, almost whispers.

And there was no rest for the weary. With 30-40 mile per-hour winds, the firefighters were busy dealing with fallen trees, sparking powerlines, accidents, fires, and so on.

Final thoughts

Lest you think I was zero-ing in on Darla for being emotional...

I was driving to a fire station and listening to anniversary radio coverage on the same radio station that we first heard of the tragedy last year. I heard the reporters looking back on that day, and I heard the soundbites from 9/11/01.

That was tough. Then they played the soundbite of the report of the first collapse. As I drove, I almost lost it. I've always admired firefighters for the work they do. These collapses killed firefighters from fire stations that protect my home and my church. I see the stations all the time. I just can't imagine...

Throughout the day something would come up, and I'd feel the tears welling up again.

But overall, I feel today was a proud, patriotic day. As the sun set, we saw F-18 fighter jets flying low over the city in the missing man formation.

All over the city, people are searching for peace. They're not looking in the right place. It's so sad to see all these people searching, and so few who can truly help them.

Posted by JRC at September 11, 2003 08:46 AM