The 11th Anniversary
“In some ways it feels like it just happened but in many ways it just feels like it was a bad dream so far in the past,” wrote my friend Pat Tambour, a NYC performer now living in Nashville. “Witnessing the whole event outside my apartment window has made it difficult in terms of not dwelling on it too much.”
Today is the 11th anniversary and I felt no dread anticipating the day. I am relieved that the ten year milestone is behind us. I wasn’t even sure I was going to watch the annual recitation of the names at Ground Zero.
Well, of course I am listening to the names. I will listen to each and every one because on this day eleven years ago New York City suffered great losses and we will never be the same.
11 years ago in Park Slope, many watched the towers fall from the rooftops. Dust, ash and debris from the fallen buildings floated over the neighborhood. People lined up to give blood at Methodist Hospital when they still thought there would be wounded survivors from the towers.
The local public schools stayed open until early evening refusing to close until every child had been picked up by parents or guardians, who were stranded in Manhattan.
Some parents arrived with thick white ash on their shoes. Some parents didn’t arrive at all.
By evening there was a growing list of missing Park Slopers including 12 firefighters from Squad 1, but there was still hope that they would surface. In the days that followed those hopes were dashed.
In my building on Third Street, many of us gathered in a neighbor’s first floor apartment to watch television while our young children played. We were desperate to follow the news of the day but also mindful (even in our hysteria) that the images were disturbing and confusing to our children.
During the afternoon, a woman on my block set up a folding table on the sidewalk covered with yellow pads and pens. “It’s for people who want to write down what they are feeling,” she told me.
I spent that evening and many days after in the apartment of a friend who’s husband, a Squad 1 firefighter, was missing. We called hospitals in New Jersey hoping that he had somehow ended up there. At midnight, two firefighters, their skin bright red, reeking of smoke and covered in ash and debris, arrived to assure my friend that there was still hope. “There are voids where the guys might be,” they told us.
In the days and weeks that followed, the neighborhood came together to mourn the dead and support the living.
The Community Bookstore became a community center, an information hub and a drop-off point for supplies needed at Ground Zero. The store’s front window was covered with supply lists, poems, hand-written notes and newspaper articles, including condolences and expressions of empathy people from all over the world. Indeed, for the first few weeks, before 9/11 was used as a reason to go to war, it felt like the whole world was in solidarity.
Across the street from the bookstore, Old First Dutch Reformed Church was kept open for prayer and reflection. One night that first week, there was a packed service for the community; everyone rose to sing, “God Bless America.”
On the Friday after that terrible Tuesday there was huge candlelight vigil on Seventh Avenue, which ended in front of Squad 1 on Union Street, where locals paid their respects to first responders who had given their lives and those who had survived. The guys at Squad 1 were our heroes and every time we saw a fire truck we waved in gratitude, a local custom that went on for at least a year if not more.
When word got out a few weeks later that the Fire Commissioner was planning, in a budget saving measure, to close Squad 1, there was a huge protest in front of the firehouse. Before the demonstration was over, his decision was reversed to the relief and jubilation of the crowd.
Eventually, Park Slope got back to a new normal. The kids returned to school and the adults got on with their lives.
The first few anniversaries were very fraught and very sad. More recently it has felt like just another day. Sort of. Those young children like my daughter who barely knew what they were seeing on the television back then, are in high school now. The middle schoolers, who watched the towers fall from the windows of MS 51 are now in college.
This morning on Facebook, I saw a status update from a young woman, now twenty years old, in memory of Dave Fontana, one of the firefighters who died that day. Mary used to live in our building. She was only ten years old in 2001 but she was very conscious of what was going on. Her Facebook note was simple.
RIP Dave: 1963-2001.