if this is goodbye…stories from the city
It seems fitting to begin this story while sitting at an airport after doing the dance we do these days to get us through the security lines, pat downs, x-ray machines, inspections, documentation and public display of the potions and lotions that we use in private. So many of my fellow travelers find the entire process either degrading or maddening, a waste of their precious time and a theater-like experience devised to present the illusion of safety by some conspiratorial government entity. They groan and grunt, sigh and shake their heads. They complain to those around them who might listen with their stories of other times, other flights. For myself, I find it all comforting.
You may wonder where the music will be within this post, since this No Depression and not Conde Naste, and that’s a question I’m not sure I have the answer to yet. For my purpose of putting these words onto my monitor is rather singular…I want to share the stories of two women. It is a promise I made; a commitment I’ll keep.
I’m leaving New York today after several days visiting family and friends, and on Tuesday I felt the pull towards lower Manhattan where the new World Trade Center memorial has now opened. You may have seen the pictures: a quiet park-like setting, two one acre pools of waterfalls where the towers once stood, surrounded by wide metal railings with the names of those who died on 9/11stenciled in. When you enter the site the sound of the city disappears as if someone has put a cork in a bottle, and there are not a lot of people, not a crowd to contend with.
Tickets are needed to get entry, and this week you would have to wait a month or longer to get one. I didn’t have a pass, but went to check out the small temporary visitor center run by WTC Tribute. As I stood in a short line I was asked by the door man if I had my ticket and when I said no, he asked where I was from. I said I was visiting for a few days from California, and he took me aside and quietly said “I’ll take you in”. After a few moments I had a pass, as well as the opportunity to join a small tour led by two women who are docents for WTC Tribute. I had just seen a short film about these people who volunteer their time…each have some personal connection to the events of 9/11 and the loss of a loved one.
Tracy and Teresa led about fifteen of us onto the street and pointed skyward to where the first plane travelled and hit the North Tower. How low it was that day, how fast it came barreling in. This wasn’t the first time since 9/11 that I’ve stood on this spot, but doing so with these two women who were about to share their stories was a powerful moment.
Tracy was a first grade teacher, and her husband Marty worked for the Board of Elections. At 9:30 he called her out of her class to give her the news. Their 24 year old son Terry had gone to work that morning at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 104th floor of the North Tower. He had left his cell phone at home, and he hadn’t called yet to check in. A friend was watching it all from New Jersey, and reported that the smoke and fire looked to be rising up from the 90th floor.
Tracy’s classroom had no phones, no internet and no television. She got her news updates throughout the morning as parents came to school to pick up their children. By three it was just her and one other child left in the classroom. She began to worry that her student’s parents may have fallen victim, but they showed up late. Tracy made her way home to the horror of 9/11.
There was no call or message from Terry. His friends were fanning out to check every hospital in Manhattan on the hour. Marty made up flyers like you see here, and he and Tracy drove to all five boroughs to put them up in the hopes that their son was perhaps lost, confused, or laying hurt and unable to reach out.
Terry never came home.
Teresa and her husband Jim stayed up late on the tenth, watching the double-overtime Giants game that was on Monday Night Football. He usually didn’t get to his office until mid-morning, but he had a conference call scheduled for 9:00, so in the morning she took him to the LI Railroad station near their home and he was at his desk in the South Tower by 8:40. A half hour later he called home…a passenger plane had hit the North Tower and he was okay but getting ready to leave and come home. There were pre-recorded safety messages that were broadcasted in the towers that day, telling everyone there was no need to evacuate…it was best if they stayed at their desks and waited. Jim wanted out…he had been there in 1993 when a bomb was detonated in the basement and was aware of the possibility of a catastrophic event.
Throughout the day Teresa expected Jim to walk in the door. Friends and family came to wait with her and their three young children. She tried not to watch the terror on her television screen. The minutes passed, the towers had fallen.
Jim never came home.
Neither the bodies nor any trace of DNA has ever been identified for these two men.
On the day that these two women shared their story, it would have been Jim’s 59th birthday. Teresa chose to mark this day by coming to the city and volunteering to lead this group. We were now sitting on the mezzanine of One Financial Plaza, overlooking the site we call Ground Zero. Most of us are feeling tears fall down our cheeks; several of us hugging each other. Strangers connected by the feeling of loss and the terror of that day.
Tracy, Teresa and all the other Tribute volunteers ask just one favor…for each of us to go home and share their stories. To let people know what happened that day, and for the memories of their loved ones to be passed on.
I’m back in California now and this morning I began to try and find something to end this piece with. As I strolled through the You Tube search engine I found a video that someone put together as their own way of remembering that day. They use the Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris song “If This Is Goodbye” as the soundtrack, and it seems like the way I should close out this post. And so it is.