NEW YORK — It's a lot like the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant: No two people saw 9/11 the same way. No two came away with the same memory.
I will remember that day for the feeling I couldn't shake that morning: How would that day end? Was it the first of 30 volleys? Was our new president planning to respond immediately and violently? Would I see my family again?
It's a part of that day that I think has been repressed. We didn't allow ourselves to nurture those thoughts for very long. We were too busy trying to get our arms around two buildings that vanished before our eyes.
I will never forget knowing, as a former volunteer fireman with friends who rushed to the scene, that people were heading INTO those buildings. By choice. They died inside those buildings.
During those days, I was working on a prime-time evening newscast on MSNBC, in effect, a night shift. I was at home when the attacks took place. I was on the road when the buildings collapsed. People on the highways of the New York area that day were either driving at 20 mph or 100. Everyone was talking on their cell phones. When I came to an overpass on Route 3 in New Jersey — when the smoke plume came into view — cars were scattered all over. There were accidents as drivers froze at the sight before them. People stopped and took pictures and cried. Someone had already anonymously hung the first of those ubiquitous American flags on a chain-link fence over the highway. I found it enormously comforting.
As a kid, I watched those buildings go up. I could see the lights at night from the top of my street. In my town, one definition of success was getting a good job in finance at the Trade Center, and commuting daily on the high-speed ferry. My hometown lost 43 people.
I think of it when I'm walking in midtown Manhattan and the Rescue 1 rig drives by, on a call, sirens wailing. They lost their captain, Terry Hatton, on that day. Hatton was an ebullient and heavily decorated leader and veteran firefighter, whose favorite exclamation was, "Outstanding!" On the hood of Rescue 1's new rig, built to replace the one lost on 9/11, "OUTSTANDING" is emblazoned in gold paint.
During my first trip to the pit, under police escort, I found what appeared to be a human fingertip, dusty and trampled and misshapen, sitting there in plain sight at the edge of the smoldering pile. Heat still radiated and pockets were still smoking. I've thought back on my find, which was bagged and taken away. Was it identified? Was it all that was left of someone? One of my neighbors buried the jawbone of her son. That's all they ever found.
I do think we moved on too quickly. Every trip back to the site is a setback. The political argument over the 9/11 widows has become coarse and gross. While New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin chose his words sloppily, his central point remains: Where can loved ones go to mourn at the gravesite? Why can't the nation that won World War II build a proper memorial? At a very basic level, can anyone believe two jetliners took down those massive buildings and killed all those innocent people? It has changed us, and will continue to, in ways we can't yet fathom.
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