Like most Americans, I experienced the trauma of September 11, 2001, through my television. My wife, 1-year-old daughter Lauren, and I had just moved to the Cleveland, Ohio area, and I was a stay-at-home dad.
That morning I was in my living room while Lauren watched a children’s show. Our landline phone rang, and my brother-in-law said: “Turn on the news.” I changed the channel over Lauren’s protest.
Smoke billowed out of the first tower.
Watching a national tragedy unfold in the presence of a 1-year-old made an already surreal experience even more bizarre. I was unsure what to do first. I did not have relatives I needed to call in New York City, but then what? Call my wife at work? Call my parents? Shield my child from the images? At that point it was not clear whether the explosion was an accident, terrorism or war. In shock, I did nothing for a few minutes, taking in the news and tending to Lauren with split attention.
Soon, I talked to my wife; then a plane hit the second tower, and my mind froze. The awareness of needing to parent an increasingly fussy child, however, helped me focus. There was nothing I could do, and my oblivious daughter needed me. After a few more minutes of impossible news, I decided to take a break and walk Lauren to the park nearby.
But there was no escape from the media. At the park, a mom and her young child arrived with a radio on. After we talked about the third plane that had now hit the Pentagon, we heard more chilling news: a fourth hijacked plane was reported to be “over Cleveland.”
My mind refroze.
The entire country seemed vulnerable to planes falling from the sky. Keeping Lauren safe suddenly became a more pressing mission. As we now know, that fourth flight was United Airlines Flight 93 that eventually crashed in Shanksville, Pa., after heroic efforts by American passengers.
Impact of 9/11 remains hard to convey
Today, Lauren is 19, and her sister, Lindsay, is 16. As they grew up and started learning about 9/11, it was difficult to convey the shock, fear, and anger felt by so many Americans at the time. To my surprise, I found that watching Flight 93 together, a film which recreates that flight’s horror and confusion in real time, probably brought their teen minds the most understanding.
Ironically, Lindsay is now an aspiring filmmaker, and we recently visited New York City to tour film schools. By chance, we were in Times Square on July 13 when a blackout hit Manhattan at about 7 p.m. At first, the scene was not alarming. The sun had not set, some lights remained on, and people remained calm. But soon we started hearing and then seeing multiple firetrucks race through darkened intersections. After some fears of terrorism, word spread (thanks to cell phones) that the cause was electrical.
We also learned, however, that the firefighters were rushing to rescue people stuck in pitch-black, oppressively hot subway stations and elevators. As we watched Broadway theatergoers empty into narrow streets, a truck full of firefighters stopped right in front of us. We saw their intense faces as they jumped into action and headed into a building people were leaving.
At that moment, it hit us: first responders really do run into harm’s way for all of our sakes. While most of us change the channel, walk away or hail a cab out of danger (as Lindsay and I did eventually), first responders race to the dark places. The 2019 Manhattan blackout was no 9/11, but the faces of those firefighters in Times Square made the abstract concept of heroism concrete.
On the drive across Pennsylvania from Cleveland to New York City, my daughter and I had seen signs that read: “Safety Corridor Next 5 Miles.” That phrase struck me as what parents try to provide for their children for at least 18 years. By extension, a “safety corridor” is what firefighters and other first responders try to provide for all of us for the rest of our lives. The appropriate amount of gratitude is hard to convey.