What I remember most about September 11 is not what I saw.
Though I did see—I stood several miles from the Twin Towers, on the corner of East Broadway in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a beeline view of the buildings as they burned. It felt like I was watching a scene from a movie. This couldn’t be happening, really. This wasn’t an actual event.
But it was.
My neighbors and I were as close to the event as one could be without feeling any imminent danger. They mostly stood there, gaping, dumbfounded, incredulous. I headed to shul to daven. Not because I’m such a tzaddik, but because I had woken up late and hadn’t prayed yet that morning. When I came out, the buildings were gone.
But what I saw is not what I remember most.
As the day continued forward, there was nothing to do. No work to go to. No school, though my kids were too young for school. So we stayed at home and watched the news. But what good was that? What could they tell us that would improve the situation? Why did we have to watch video of the plane flying into the south tower over and over again?
It was early afternoon, and I had to do something. I was so close to the event, but I wasn’t in Hatzolah, I wasn’t trained in any capacity to assist in an emergency. So I told my wife I was going to the hospital. Surely they’d be bringing the injured there and they would need blood donors at the very least, maybe even volunteers.
I hiked to the hospital on 14th Street. It was a beautiful day. And quiet. Perfectly quiet.
When I arrived at the hospital, I saw hundreds of people outside waiting. Not patients, volunteers. They all had the same thought I had. We all stood waiting for the sound of sirens to break the stillness, ambulances arriving. But it never happened. The quiet continued.
I approached a doctor and asked him what was going on inside the hospital. Not much, he replied. It went unsaid: whoever walked away from Ground Zero was more or less okay. Everyone else was killed. “Anything I can do to help?” I asked. He suggested I try to get people to sign up to donate blood at a future date. The city always needed blood donors.
The silence enveloped New York for the next several days. Transportation to, from, and even within Manhattan was curtailed and to some extent shut down completely. People walked, but they did so gently, as if the very earth they stood on could crumble at any minute.
But the silence is not what I remember most.
The odor from Ground Zero quickly carried to our corner of the city. It didn’t leave quickly. It was the same smell as burnt rubber, but you knew it was more. It was—literally—the smell of death, of terror, of murder. Sharp and pungent, it burned your nostrils, and knowing the source, burned deeper than that.
But the smell is not what I remember most.
What I remember most is the people, the sudden bond that seized all New Yorkers, the silent brotherhood that was created by collective mourning. It was as if the entire city was sitting shiva. You passed people in the street but you didn’t talk. A nod of the head was all.
But nod you did. You didn’t ignore. People wanted to reach out to each other in ways they never did before. New York—noisy, arrogant, impersonal—suddenly became quiet, humbled, a family.
People kept saying that nothing would ever be the same again, but I found that more-or-less, life gradually returned to normal, albeit with heightened security in office buildings and airports. But I do believe that New York City became a nicer, gentler place. The proof came the following year. A blackout enveloped the city, and with the power out, people found themselves—once again—walking long distances home.
I walked home, from the bank where I worked to my apartment. Along with some colleagues, I trekked over the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan. It was late evening and the sun was setting. The bridge was packed with people in both directions. You couldn’t actually walk, so much as shuffle your feet forward a few inches at a time. But no one complained. Everyone behaved. No pushing, no shoving, no yelling, no screaming.
“At least it wasn’t a terrorist attack,” I heard more than one person remark. It’s what we were all thinking, as we crawled home, happy to be here, securely surrounded by family.