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We'll Never Forget



Most of you have vivid memories of that Tuesday morning 16 years ago – the day referred to as 911.  Here are some glimpses into mine.   I had been asked to take a temporary assignment in New York City until a new Regional HUD Director was secured. 


That Tuesday, I was up bright and early welcoming a “picture perfect” New York morning – one forecaster said it was quiet up and down the Eastern Seaboard- “too quiet” he stated.  New Yorkers were heading to the polls to vote for a mayor and other public offices; many parents were taking their children to school – some for the first time.  We’ll never know how many lives were spared due to these two time consuming detours.  I took the subway to the Federal Building, and rode the elevator to my 35th floor office with breathtaking views of the East River, Brooklyn Bridge, and Twin Towers – so close they provided shade to my office which I didn’t realize until they were gone.


At 8:45am, a colleague and I were standing at a co-worker’s desk – with the towers in clear view.  Literally out of the view, the building shook, windows vibrated, and a huge fireball exploded from the north tower. 


My colleague, a native New Yorker, screamed in horror that it had to be a bomb – recalling the 1993 car bomb denotation at the WTC that killed 6 and injured hundreds.  The terrorist had hoped then that the explosion would cause the North Tower to fall on the South Tower but fortunately their attempt failed.  After settling my colleague, I went to the lobby where security guards were scurrying about in confusion.  The media was reporting a small aircraft had crashed.  Returning to my office with that possibility, my immediate focus was to create some calm amidst the growing anxiety.  Then I watched the unbelievable, horrific scene unfold thru my binoculars.  Others covered every available window space anticipating an air rescue team to carry those above the hit to safety.  One of my most vivid memories was that of a young woman whose office was above the 80th floor, waving what appeared to be her red top – an S.O.S. – sadly the heat proved too intense to carry out such a dangerous mission.   What felt like just minutes later, a 2nd plane slammed into the South Tower.  I instinctively knew then we were under attack and ordered the staff to evacuate by shouting “We’re outa here!”.  Some continued to be frozen in shock and disbelief.  I contacted the other floors and ordered everyone out – those you were able to take the stairs and reserve the elevators for those who needed them.  On my way down the 35 flights, I honestly thought this was the end as we formed a human chain and held hands tightly.  The FBI and Homeland Security were also tenants and some thought we were the next target. 


What you don’t think about in that type of mass emergency is that people have different levels of endurance.  The person in front of my suffered from an injury, another’s asthma started acting up.  It took a lot of inner strength to continue at a slower and not panic. 


Once outside, it was eerily quiet – cell phones weren’t working and people were simply speechless.  A colleague grabbed my hand and pulled me with him to the subway.  Most people had no idea what had just happened.  That decision to leave haunted me for quite some time. 


I walked to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to say a prayer and sat on the steps – not knowing what to do next.  Someone shouted and pointed at a huge white cloud (like photos I’d seen of the atom bomb) – mushrooming from the site of the WTC a few miles away – it was the collapse of the towers.  Almost immediately, the air was consumed with sounds of sirens. 


Returning to my hotel, I felt restless, vulnerable, concern for others, and an overwhelming to reach my family.  Telephone networks had crashed and I went to the nearby Sheraton to use their pay phones, only to be told I could not enter unless I could prove I was a guest.  New York was shutting down quickly.  The normal hustle and bustle was evolving into a city gripped by fear and sadness.  The city was in a lock-down mode – you couldn’t get in or out.  Suspicion was rampant and all available firefighters, medics, police, and military were called to duty.  We were in a war zone.   


The HUD Secretary offered to send me home as soon as things settled, and I advised him my retired Navy Chief husband totally supported and encouraged my staying put – I was now a New Yorker at heart and wanted to remain as long as I was able to make a positive contribution.  The days following, my adrenalin was working overtime – my senses were heightened – my brain spooked at anything unfamiliar such as noises from above to people I encountered anywhere.  A plane, even today, appearing so small flying near tall buildings sends a chill up my spine – an instant re-play. 


NYC streets were devoid of people, autos, buses, taxis – it was beyond a strange scene.  Stunned police officers were still patrolling their beat, exhausted and grieving firefighters were grateful for treats, meals, or simply a nod of gratitude.  American flags adorned their trucks and they sounded horns when people waved or gave them a “thumbs up”. 


My sister compared “Ground Zero” to Armageddon with first responders and all manner of volunteers helping and serving food and beverages to very weary workers – many who were searching for their loved ones in the smoldering rubble.  It was a graveyard and respected as such.  A military salute was given to anyone whose remains were uncovered as they were being removed from the site.  Days passed, the number of missing rose – to as high as 4,000. 


The Federal Building reopened with executive staff only reporting to work.  Lower Manhattan was designated a “frozen zone” and required special ID to enter.   A thick layer of ash the streets and interior office windows and a strange odor permeated the air.  The building’s carpet was hosed down daily and I was required to wear a gas mask that covered my entire face. 


We strongly supported each other and the message was that we’ll never get over it, but will work together to get beyond it.  The windows of major department stores were either stripped or draped in black.  Somber processions of mock funerals with mournful drumbeat filled 7th Avenue throughout the night.  Houses of worship, hotels, office held vigils.  Subway stops became photo galleries for missing persons – hospitals were overburdened and make-shift morgues were set up throughout the city.  Posters went up everywhere noting available resources to help. 


In February 2002, I retired to Richmond leaving behind so many memories of NY.  Topping the list is the deep love and respect for a city that, under the most unimaginable siege, rose up and did whatever was necessary to help heal the hurt and rebuild the unimaginable damage. 


The population in lower Manhattan is now 3X what it was in 2001 and the world warmly embraced the beautiful monument dedicated to all those we lost.  We remember them today- loved ones to some, strangers to most.  We recall the harrowing reports of the heroes aboard United Flight 93.  Today we continue to hold proudly our reputation as the greatest nation on earth – the land of the free and the home of the brave. 


Our stories and experiences do, in many ways, define us – who we are and who we’re yet to be.  And the haunting memories of 16 years ago live on.  May we all remember the patriotic spirit we’ve treasured for more than 260 years and may that spirit be woven into the stories we share.  We’ll never forget……


Mary Ann Wilson
Comfort Zone Camp Volunteer and RAC Member

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