A Bronxite’s 9/11 Story

IMG_3127Where were you? What were you doing?

This is a question I hear and see every year during this day and it is, especially, asked on social media. I have noticed over the past years that this question is popular among us New Yorkers and Bronxites. While people who live in other states will answer the question just as readily, it is usually always a New Yorker who asks it and proceeds to tell their story in such vivid detail that the listener could swear it happened yesterday. Excluding the stories of those who were in the Twin Towers, on the ground, those in the NYPD or FDNY, those who had family members on the planes, or those in the Pentagon, most of our stories start off as typical everyday stories. People are always willing to hear them and they stay glued to words that sound like the beginning of a common day.

Everyone who recounts their day, whether it’s through spoken word or social media does it because they were all touched by today. This is our oral history and perhaps this is our therapy. New York and especially The Bronx gets a bad rap, whether it’s the tired narrative of a “burning Bronx” from the French or negative stereotypes from Senator Ted Cruz. Yet none of these people who speak ill of us ever ask for our stories. Not just our stories from 9/11 but our stories from Bronx history, our cultural, religious,  and racial history.

For me, I’ll start with September 11, 2001.

September 11, 2001 was a day when I was more concerned about if I would make friends in high school, a typical teenage worry. The week before was the beginning of my high school life at a new school with new people. During art class my mind was clouded with how one successfully cuts school while the radio blasted in the background as students did their work. An announcement came over the radio, “A plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center” and just as quickly as the announcement lasted it was replaced with more music. I remember the art teacher asking, “What? Did he say a plane hit one of the towers?” as she looked to us for answers. “Yeah, he did.” said one of the girls and the teacher sort of shrugged and said, “That’s terrible, I hope no one was hurt.” There was no initial worry from any of us because the announcement was so casual that our images of the unfolding events were equal to a paper plane going ‘BONK’ off of a wall. No real impact, no real devastation. After ten minutes an announcement came over the loud speakers asking any who had family members working in Manhattan to come to the principals office.

That’s when the whispers started and would last throughout most of the day: “What’s going on? Must be more serious.”, “Do you think something serious is happening?”, “Something is happening, we should check the TV.” No teacher or faculty allowed us to turn on the televisions because they already knew and were trying to naively shield us. After 12 p.m., history class was when another announcement came: the principal said that two planes had hit the twin towers, one plane had hit the Pentagon, and one plane had crashed in the field in Pennsylvania. No students were allowed to leave school as she called for an official lock-down. She ended the announcement with, “these attacks were intentional.”

All staff were on guard trying to make sure none of the students left without authorization. The secretary asked me who was picking me up and I simply answered, “Someone.” In reality I had no idea if anyone was coming to pick me up but it didn’t matter, I was planning an escape in a few minutes. My father ended picking me up where we went to my mother’s school, an elementary school surrounded by frantic parents and teacher’s who were clearly stressed but showed absolute valor in making sure none of those children were scared or left behind.

I sat quietly listening to the stories of my father’s birthday turning into a day he could have never imaged, of my mother being thrown into a situation where she placed her student’s safety over her own, and where my sister had to hitchhike from Manhattan to the Bronx with no form of communication or transportation available. Instinctively I went to my Grandmother who experienced World War II and Pearl Harbor. Everyone followed her lead in doing the only thing we could do: talking about it.

That night I remember looking out of the living room window, all I saw was darkness with the sound of cars passing by the nearby overpass. A gentle wind blew a smell that I have never experienced before but it permanently imprinted in my mind…it was the smell of burning flesh.

My story is a small drop in the vast ocean of personal realities that millions of people experienced today. These experiences do not do justice towards the bigger aftermath from those events. The ripple of those events have effected people in ways that changed their political ideologies, members in the military have gone off to war or never came back, racial and religious dialogue of this country has shifted, rescuers and volunteers are still dealing with the medical and mental strain of being at the site of the Towers right after it happened.

Despite our diverse cultures, races, and opinions, us Bronxites have more similarities than we do differences. As much as today is a day of saddness, it is also a day of togetherness. No one is forced to tell their story but, from one Bronxite to all Bronxites, listen and speak so that all of our voices can be shared.

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