You cannot blame people for allowing tragedies to become textbook events. When enough time elapses, even the most monumental occurrences fade into history. But with Monday marking the 16th anniversary, I would like to take the time to share one story of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks that reminds us why it is so important to remember.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a second grade student at Franklin Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. The terrorist attacks shattered my sense of safety, comfort and childlike rationality. An already somber child at age 7, the destruction of my beloved New York upturned my sense of security. But this is not my story. It belongs to many people, and one of them is my father.
Anthony Polini was born in Queens, New York. His blood flows with pride for the New York Yankees, Mets, Giants and Jets — an almost cardinal offense to native New Yorkers, but he embraced all symbols of New York pride.
“Almost every day I’d be there for some reason,” he told me, referring to the World Trade Center buildings. In September 2001, Polini held the title of Wall Street equity analyst. He worked in downtown Manhattan in One Financial Center, the building next door to the famous Twin Towers, which for many stood as a proud symbol of progress, industry and international advancement.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was scheduled to have lunch with a client at the Windows of the World, a venue complex located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, also known as Building One — the tower that would be struck at 8:45 a.m. that day, 18 minutes before the South Tower would be hit as thousands of commuters arrived at what at first seemed like a normal Tuesday at the office.
But my dad, who usually caught the 5:30 train and arrived to work by 7, never anticipated making that lunch. The morning before, his client had called and requested the lunch be held that day; he agreed without hesitation, entertaining his client in what was once known as New York City’s tallest building.
“I remember that Monday when I was going to lunch, thinking just how cool it was to be there,” he said, as he recalled the World Trade Centers with a mix of respect and awe. The Towers, Polini said, were alive with shops, people, professionals and tourists alike. “It was really a very cool place to be visiting on a regular basis.”
My dad recalled stopping by a friend’s office in the South Tower that Monday after lunch. The office building was close to the top; less than 24 hours later, the majority of the people on that floor would have lost their lives.
When the first Tower was struck, Polini’s friend and his colleagues were instructed to remain where they were and not leave the building. Luckily he and a several of his fellow workers decided to ignore orders and flee the building — a decision that saved their lives. At 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, the South Tower would be struck beneath where the people worked, making escape an impossibility.
My dad was one of the lucky ones.
“I got home that Monday evening, laid out my clothes for the next day, and my wife said that there was a special speaker at church the following morning and would I like to go, and I said actually my lunch meeting was moved to today so I’m free to go. … It was a nice day that morning, the weather was nice, and I decided to stay home and go to church,” my dad said.
After dropping us three children off at school, my dad and mom, Anne, went to St. Helen’s Church. While in service, somebody announced that a plane had crashed into one of the Trade Centers and that everyone needed to pray.
“Everyone assumed it was a small private plane that occasionally hit things in Manhattan. No one assumed anything more than that,” my dad said. “When we went home, we watched the TV, and we actually saw the second plane go in, and we realized that the first plane was a commercial jet … and then we started to appreciate the severity of the event.”
Dad said the attacks were life-changing. “People in the U.S. always felt safe and somehow isolated from the terrorism that was sweeping across Europe, and this was the first attack by foreign terrorists on our soil.”
It was difficult to contact people at work. Shutdown cell reception and mass chaos made it a nightmare to determine who was living and who was among the dead. My dad managed to connect to his partner, who did go to work that day, and was trying to get off the island amongst traffic and confusion.
“One of my best friends was in the Trade Center. I couldn’t get a hold of him. And it turned out he escaped,” Dad said. Another friend missed the train to work that day and was also saved.
But in the days to follow, my dad learned that nearly 100 people he knew well had passed away, including two very close friends and over 60 colleagues from a single firm. In the following weeks, he experienced anxiety and tension when riding in the tunnels to get to work, a sentiment that he said all New Yorker commuters seemed to share.
“The destruction and chaos downtown was incredible. Nothing was open, there was still dust and debris everywhere, you couldn’t get close,” he said, adding that he watched the debris slowly get cleared out. “I watched the Trade Center basically get ripped down to nothing but a giant hole. And it was very eerie.
“The biggest loss that day was the loss of innocence as a country. The rebuilding process was long and hard, but New Yorkers united.”
Ten days after the terrorist attacks, major league baseball resumed play in New York. My dad took his brother to the first Mets game at Shea Stadium (now Citi Field), where the field was flooded with the valiant first responders of New York City, including the police and firemen who had selflessly risked their lives in the aftermath and were lucky enough to have survived. Beloved catcher Mike Piazza hit a home run, bringing the Mets to a comeback victory, and Diana Ross sang “God Bless America.”
“New Yorkers were not going to give into terrorism and were going to live their lives with dignity and freedom,” Dad said.
Rebuilding after 9/11 was no easy feat, but over the years, Ground Zero was transformed from a barren and bleak reminder of terrorism to a site of remembrance and strength. On the 10th anniversary of the attack, the 9/11 Museum — located at Ground Zero — became open to the public. Lizzy Fischetti, a fellow 2012 graduate of Westfield High, now works there as a Special Exhibitions Researcher, and she was gracious enough to take a moment to share the importance of the museum and remembering the attacks.
“There are so many extraordinary and inspiring stories from 9/11, and I encourage anyone who can to visit the Museum, or our website, to explore them,” Lizzy wrote to me. “One of the most poignant lessons I’ve learned in my work is that living and growing up in what has been called a ‘post-9/11 world’ means that there was a ‘pre-9/11 world’ before the attacks. A sentiment that feels obvious, but being eight at the time of the attacks has made me accept what is dubbed ‘post-9/11’ as normal. I grew up in New Jersey, and remember the day very clearly, but even so, I’ve never really known a world in which I don’t have to have my bag searched at a baseball game or go through strict airport security. 9/11 changed everything about our nation’s foreign policy, the threats we face, the skills of our military, and our overall approach to public security.
“It also means that there once existed a world where nearly 3,000 people lived alongside their family, friends and coworkers, celebrating birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries and enduring losses, struggles and hardships. Each was a rich, fruitful life that was taken 16 years ago. Sometimes it feels like the imagery of the Twin Towers falling or the crash sites at the Pentagon and near Shakesville can eliminate the personal losses of that day. I am routinely reminded of how personal the attacks were for family and friends through my work, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share in commemorating their lives and hearing their stories. ‘Never forget’ means remembering how they died, but equally importantly, celebrating how they lived. For survivors and families and friends of victims, 9/11 is not something they have the benefit of memorializing only once a year; to them, it is daily. At the Museum, we remember 9/11 so that each individual’s memory is preserved.”
The Sept. 11th terrorist attacks are now something that is written about in history books. It may not be your story; I remember the aftermath of the event as vividly as memory can be trusted. But it isn’t just my story either — nor does it just belong to my father or Lizzy. As Americans, it is our story to remember. We will not be defeated by terrorism. It is our duty to persevere, to honor the fallen, to remember the past in order to erect a brighter future.
Emma Polini is the managing editor of the Van Alstyne Leader, Anna-Melissa Tribune and Prosper Press. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.