September 11th, As Told From The Daughter of a Fireman and First Responder

September 11th has come to mean a lot of things over the years. For many, it is a chapter in a history book, a moment in history whose geopolitical consequences are talked about far more often than the moment which caused them. “9/11” has become highly politicized, used as a recruitment tool for military and Jihad alike. It has lead to unprecedented national security overhauls and vigorous debate about privacy and the role of government. September 11th is not discussed in the context of 2001, but rather in the present. It has become a hyperbolic symbol of both the best and the worst of our nation. While September 11th is often referred to in the context of our “post-9/11” world, for some of us, we’re still very much stuck in 2001.

For those of us, like myself, who witnessed that day firsthand, September 11th is still very much cased within the context of what happened in 2001. While I can divide my life perfectly between the ignorant bliss I lived in before 9/11 to what has come after, on this anniversary, I am not able to live in the present. For that day will always be a very personal one, one which would come to define my young life as much as it would define the world at large around me. I am the daughter of a NYC firefighter and 9/11 first responder and this is my story…

Actual radio recording…

911 OPERATOR
Go ahead Battalion 1.

BATTALION 1
We just had a –  a plane crashed into an upper floor of the World Trade Center. Transmit a second alarm and start relocating companies into that area.

911 OPERATOR
Ten-Four Battalion 1. All companies stand by at this time.

WESTERN NASSAU COUNTY, NY (14 miles from the World Trade Center)

A phone rang, just as I was already late to school. My father, a fireman with Engine Company 58 in Harlem (Manhattan) would be my ride. Lateness for me was becoming a habit. I had recently transitioned back to district, following many years in private school, and I had an argument with a childhood friend about lunch table seating. We shared a first period class, and I was determined to miss it. It was my father, on vacation at the time due to bereavement following the loss of my grandmother, who convinced me otherwise — just ready to leave, I picked up the phone.

It was my father’s firehouse, the fireman on the other end sounded very serious and asked to speak with my father. “A commercial plane?” My father seemed shocked to hear what was told to him — “turn on CNN right now,” he urged me. “The department has recalled the entire force, I have to go into Manhattan,” he told me as CNN sprung to life on TV, a gaping hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center from a helicopter view.

We barely had time to digest what we were seeing; undoubtedly the worst plane crash to befall the US in years — when the second plane came in on live TV, crashing into the South Tower in a massive fireball and screams…

I think part of being the daughter of a fireman, you sometimes discredit how dangerous their job is. You know they can die, the danger is real, it is omnipresent, but every time your father returns home — they’ve escaped that danger, and you begin to take for granted that they will continue to come home. As the footage repeated on loop, the anchors struggling to compose themselves, the danger became clear all at once. The old moniker of the FDNY “When everybody runs out, we run in” felt less like a tee-shirt slogan, and more like the grave threat it stood to actually represent. My father was not headed to fight a fire, not to respond to a plane crash — he was headed to war, and on the front lines.

As I exited his car to make for my High School, I turned to hug him and told him I loved him. To most, this seems like standard protocol, but my father was always a very stoic man, not one for hugs or much in the way of physical expression of his care. He always quietly expressed his love. He would do what he could to interest me in baseball, bring me to games, coach my teams — hugging just wasn’t one of the ways he showed he cared. On September 11th, 2001, I hugged him, and he hugged me back. The fear in his eyes was palpable and real, in the back of both of our minds this was not just a hug, but the potential for good bye. It was understood from the very beginning, that men would likely die this day and he pulled away from the curb knowing that, as I entered my school knowing it too.

Long before the days of social media, I was one of the first to bring news about the attacks to my High School. As the periods went by, and the scope of the tragedy became clear, we understood there would be no learning today. Parents came to collect their kids from school. The usual noisy airspace en route to JFK overhead fell eerily silent following the grounding of America’s planes; quiet but for the occasional F-15 that would become common place over the skies of New York in the weeks to come. It was evident even before the Towers fell that we were living in a War Zone. Much like my parents reacting to the news of the JFK assassination, kids like me knew America would never be the same again. As it was in 1963, the optimism around the election of Kennedy, would fade into a decade of complex geopolitical tragedy and perpetual war along with the activism and cynicism that it would instill in my parents generation. 9/11 would become the same for my generation, with the latter half of my life living under jingoist fervor, and perpetual war with a grave existential enemy.

As the Towers fell, it was evident thousands had died. I kept replaying the scenarios in my head, assuring myself my father wouldn’t have had time to get down there. In my heart, I knew it wasn’t true; I knew that there was a good chance that he was dead. I began to think about all of the moments I could recall with him at once; a projector image of happy memories to distract myself from the horrors of the present. I watched the news replay the implosion — and I hope that no one need ever feel what it is like to watch as your loved one dies in front of your eyes — It is a horrible, horrible feeling, and it is what I felt watching it at that moment. It is also why, largely due to PTSD, I am unable to watch much footage from that day.

As I made my way into the guidance counselors office, the scope of the tragedy became clear. The counselors were overwhelmed, as so many in my town had parents who worked in the fire department, police department or in the towers themselves. One girl was on my soccer team, she was one of the girls who had been mean to me of late. Today she was besides herself in tears, her parents both worked in Cantor Fitzgerald and her aunt was on the way to pick her up. Both her parents were assumed dead, as the firm took a direct hit from the hijacked airliner.

All of the lunch table drama was forgotten then, as we talked, tried to come to terms with loss. I recalled the times playing Mario Kart on N64 in her basement. Her mother once picked several of us up from soccer practice and ordered pizza, while we played games and blasted the Spice Girls. If there is one thing I remember on 9/11, it’s how much I missed the 90s. I so very much wanted to return to the days of soccer practice, pop music and N64. I longed for the days of Manhunt and Pokemon cards. In 2001, I was forced to become an adult a lot sooner than I wanted to be. I had to learn to understand things that I wasn’t meant to come to terms with until much later in life. The reality of pre- and post-9/11 became so incredibly, painfully clear to me at that moment.

The hours dripped by slowly from there. The school was practically empty as parents had picked their kids up. The school remained open, because for kids like me, a fireman father and nurse mother, my parents needed to help others. I felt like an orphan, sitting as the only kid apart from two others in my 8th Period class. Though I kept trying to bury the thoughts, tired of crying, it was also possible that one of my parents was likely dead. I sat there in English Class with all this on my mind. My teacher, she sat behind the desk, very still. She told us, we didn’t have to do anything, today would be a moment for reflection, and free-writing if we wanted. Nobody moved.

When I finally returned home, thanks to the help of a neighbor, I was told the news. My father was in the hospital, several of his company were critically injured in the collapse. He was there to provide comfort, before returning to the wreckage to try and find their Lieutenant, buried under the Command Center of the Marriott Hotel. Lieutenant Nagel survived the first collapse, taking refuge in an elevator bank. Unable to escape, the rest of Engine Co. 58 had teamed up with a local ladder to try and use heavy equipment to free him and others trapped beneath. His last known words were not of selfishness, a Vietnam veteran, and natural leader — his last words were “how’s my men?”

As the second tower fell, the company made for a parking garage. Yet debris still took its toll on the survivors. One of the men was rushed to surgery, in serious condition.

The most physical connection I had of that day was the smell. You could see the smoke, but the smell was the worst part. It had a metallic burnt smell, like an electrical fire mixed with heavy chemicals. The worst smell of all was that of burning flesh and the trauma as a 13 year old, knowing that was what I was in fact smelling.

14 years later, September 11th is still very much within the context of 2001 because for those who dealt with its consequences firsthand, it is not a documentary, it is not a chapter in a history book — it is reality.

As Lt. Nagel asked “hows my men,” the answer is, many are sick and/or dying due to the exposure to toxic air while digging at the disaster site. While the EPA fraudulently claimed the air was safe, those like my father who dug down there knew they were risking their health to try and find survivors, or any part of a body to give a family closure (Lt. Nagel was never recovered). My father, the picture of good health, a fitness enthusiast and marathon runner, has been diagnosed with cancer twice. Thankfully both were curable. Others have been less lucky, and even my father has a nodule on his lung that will one day likely become cancerous and need operation. Our local representatives have worked tirelessly to reauthorize the James Zadroga Act in Congress to help permanently fund the World Trade Center Health Program to provide health care to the thousands that desperately need it.

On an even more personal front, my parents divorced in 2003. The trauma of 9/11 on my father was too much to psychologically bear. He was inattentive and unable to communicate the horrors he saw, only once ever telling me about the time he dug out a human arm from the debris. He served as family liaison to the Lieutenants family, guilty about not being there, that he was on vacation. Survivors guilt is real, and it is a pressure that was too much to come to terms with. He spent more time with his fellow firemen, and his lieutenants family than he did with his own. The Concert for New York City, and Bowie’s Heroes playing through my dads cell phone as he called me from the event was a high point, and about the only one. The rest of that era is mired by divorce, family drama, war and what has largely become an intentional blur for me.

Since that day, I’ve done a lot with various Firefighters organizations. I helped give private testimony on the importance of the Zadroga Bill.  In 2003, working with my father and several other 9/11 survivors, and the School of Visual Arts program of Art Therapy, we created a tile mural that is now on permanent display in Bellevue Hospital in Lower Manhattan (where most of the days injured wound up). In 2016, I hope to run the NYC Marathon to raise awareness of 9/11 illness and the various complex cancers that make up a large share of those cases (I have been training for it constantly, as it is also the one race my father never was able to run).

I have grown a lot from that day, and grew up a lot on that day as well. Each and every time this anniversary comes around, the day and its immediate aftermath plays on endless loop. Despite many years in therapy, the day is still fresh in my memory, to the point where the adage “never forget” seems almost tacky. How could anyone ever forget 9/11? As many turn to documentaries and special tributes to mourn the tragedy, those of us who witnessed the event firsthand will forever play our own documentary in our heads. While this anniversary is September 11th, 2015, for those of us who lived through it in NY that day, today is again September 11th, 2001 and will be for the rest of our lives.