It was around 9:00 AM. I was on my way to work at WNEW, sitting in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge when the second plane hit.
I watched United Airlines Flight 175 fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. From my vantage, the plane looked jet black, flying so low it was shrouded by the shadows of the skyscrapers above. Effortlessly, silently, almost in slow unbelievably cinematic motion. Like something you might see in a video game, a summer blockbuster, or a nightmare –except it was real. Only too real.
After the flame and the smoke, the sky swirled with what seemed like a billion bits of white paper, as everything went quiet like the silence of snowfall. I was already live on the air as I watched this all unfold, reporting what I was seeing during the aftermath of American Airlines Flight 11, which had struck the top of the North Tower 17 minutes earlier. I’ll never forget the hosts back in the studio reacting to everything I was seeing a few seconds later because they were watching it happen on TV.
Fifteen years later and I still have nightmares from time to time. So much has changed since then in every way but I can tell you one thing for certain: I’ve never loved this City more.
The way our minds catalog memories has always amazed me. There are things that happened yesterday that feel like a lifetime ago while there are other things that happened a lifetime ago that feel like they happened yesterday.
September 11, 2001 was a long time ago as far as the calendar is concerned and so much has happened and changed for all of us since then – things in our personal lives, our families, our jobs, our friends, our lovers, where we might be living, our neighborhoods, city, country…our entire world. And yet most of us can still remember September 11, 2001 as if it were yesterday.
We remember the way the sky looked, the way the air felt, the random little things that we did differently in our daily routines that innocent Tuesday morning that we’d reflect upon days later as we all desperately searched for meaning in a disfigured skyline and reason in the remains. 15 years later, we still need to keep those memories alive. Why? Because it could have just as easily been any one of us.
Remember the way we all came together in the hours, days and weeks that followed? Little things like people being more courteous driving, yielding the right of way just because they wanted to show some consideration, or being polite on the subway, things that somehow then, and once again now, get overlooked in the normal rush of business in the greatest city in the world. But on 9/11, and for some time after, we were all changed in some indefinable way, having shared this awful, tragic and for many traumatic experience. We all know this city comes together like nobody’s business, just imagine if we stuck together all the time simply because we’re all New Yorkers. Imagine if we stuck together just because we’re all human beings fighting our own private battles and bearing our own burdens invisible to others. Imagine if we could stand together every day like we did in the shadow of a tragedy 14 years ago today. Imagine what that world would look like?
All the rules and laws in the world can’t force us to co-exist. Nothing can. We just need to do it because it’s the right thing to do – because we’re all in this together. When we leave the house each day we need to remember that there are other people on the planet besides us. And these people matter. Let’s start there. In our backyard, in our neighborhood. Baby steps can quickly become a parade.
I just keep coming back to how so many of us are hiding some sort of burden that we alone must cope with. And so what if when we saw a stranger on the street we saw more than just the way they looked and instead saw another human being with hopes and dreams, problems and pains, of their own, would we treat each other differently? Would we be more forgiving of each other if we could see the burdens we all silently bear?
The September 11 attacks were the deadliest terrorist act in world history. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured that day. Nearly 1,500 first responders and rescue workers who rushed to the scene in the hours, days and weeks after the attacks and stayed there helping for months have since died from illnesses caused by exposure to toxic dust. Around Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, we renamed 30 streets in honor of neighbors who perished that day.
Whether we think about it or not, every day we live is for them if only because it could have just as easily been any one of us. Each day is a gift. You’ve gotta live loud, laugh hard and love deep. Think about others with a little more compassion and feeling, like we did in late 2001. And simply remember September 11, 2001 as if it were yesterday. For them.
Justin Brannan is a community activist, born and raised in Bay Ridge. He and his wife Leigh own a small business on Third Avenue.