9/11 memories: A day when nothing felt real

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Part of the Essex County 9/11 memorial at Eagle Rock Reservation, which has a clear view of New York. (Photo by Erin Roll)

How it’s New York: New York is a city that’s always been very dear to me, and I now live right across the river in Montclair.
How it’s Irish:  My ancestry is part Irish; I’ve got roots in Belfast, Armagh and Antrim.

As a journalist and a researcher, I’m used to asking other people to share their stories, especially whenever the anniversary of 9/11 rolls around. I’ve interviewed first responders, police, memorial planners and – most significantly – people who lost dear friends and loved ones.

So it feels a little odd sharing my own feelings and memories of the day, outside of all the talks I’ve had with family and friends over the years.

I remember watching the CNN tape loop of the planes striking the World Trade Center for the umpteenth time on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, right after I’d gotten home from school. “So this is what the end of the world feels like,” I thought vaguely.

That was a day when nothing felt real. Everything playing out on the television news – and we had the news on pretty much all night – looked like something out of a big-budget disaster movie with tons of special effects. If only it were…

I was fifteen years old on Sept. 11, and in my sophomore year of high school in Virginia.

It occurs to me, and not for the first time, that for half my life now, we’ve had Homeland Security, color-coded terror threats and the ever-present reminder, “if you see something, say something.”

And the first generation of kids born after 9/11 is now the same age I was on that day.

That particular Tuesday morning progressed for me as Tuesday mornings tended to. At 8:52 a.m., the time that the first plane struck the North Tower, I would have been on my way to French class, the first class of the day – a narrative that I’ve repeated every year whenever the inevitable “where were you when…” question comes up.

It wasn’t until the mid-morning break, around 10:30, when I heard some teachers out in the hallway talking about “suicide bombers.” And one of the seniors said, half-joking, that maybe we should close the school. My next class of the day was English lit. And it was then that rumors started flying. A plane hit the World Trade Center. No, two planes. The towers are destroyed. No, they’re still standing.

During science class, the teacher pulled up a news site on his computer. Plane hits the Pentagon. My first thought was, “Was that what it was? All that stuff about the World Trade Center was a rumor?” No, it wasn’t. For during study hall, our teacher stood at the front of the classroom and told us what had happened. “The towers are gone.”

The group reaction was “What? Seriously?” The World Trade Center towers, standing high over lower Manhattan, gone in a second. The Pentagon in smoke, and a smoldering ruin in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people dead, in the space of a few hours. Events and numbers too difficult to wrap your brain around.

My brother and I came home, put on CNN – and there was the video of the planes striking the towers, and the towers collapsing.

Neither of us said anything. But after 45 minutes, I had to take a break from the news, so I went and took our two dogs for their afternoon walk around the neighborhood. “It’s been a bad day,” I said to them. (And speaking of dogs, last month, Essex County added a new statue to the Sept. 11 memorial complex at Eagle Rock Reservation – one honoring all the search and rescue dogs.)

It’s clear that New York has rebounded since then. My family and I visited many times in the years following the attacks, and I now live right across the river in Montclair. Last month I spent a hot, sunny day kayaking near the Downtown Boathouse, just a short walk north of the gleaming new 1 World Trade Center.

Will the day get easier to remember as time goes by? I don’t know – for those families who lost a loved one, it will probably never get easier.

As a postscript: my class went on a trip to New York about four months before the attacks, and my mom was one of the parents who came along as a chaperone. Late one afternoon, while the rest of the group went to Macy’s, Mom and I split from the group and went to the Empire State Building, where we stood on the observation deck and watched the sun setting over New Jersey and lower Manhattan. And you could see the two towers of the World Trade Center standing out in sharp relief against New York Harbor.

For some reason, I found myself wondering, What would happen if one of the really tall buildings in this city fell over?

I mean, of course, the thought sounded preposterous. At least not until 9/11 – when the unreal became real.

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