Reflections on 9/11

Reflections & Hope

Loretta Henke

Written shortly after 9/11/01

I’m a New York City teacher working and living in Manhattan. On the morning of 9/11/01, I did ordinary things and had ordinary thoughts. I went to vote and remembered how worried I was that I was going to be late for a meeting I had to attend. Traffic was heavy and I was getting anxious.

I got to my meeting on time, and while the meeting was in progress I remember thinking how unusual it was that another teacher walked to the front of the meeting and was whispering to the speaker at length. She would bend over, whisper something, stop and then resume with her whispering. Finally, the TV/VCR was turned on and we were told what was happening. We watched in horror as the second plane hit and the twin towers fell and confusion and sorrow began to spread. Tears were beginning to fall. I think I was in shock as I bolted from my seat.

My adult daughter who works and lives in Manhattan was supposed to be traveling on business on that day. This time I didn’t ask her if she was flying or driving. I hysterically tried to reach her when I learned that one of the planes that hit the Word Trade Center had flown out of Newark Airport, an airport she could have flown out of. I could not use my cell phone as it was not working. I was luckily able to have access to a telephone in an office adjacent to my meeting. After over an hour of trying to get through to her cell phone and then her office, she picked up her telephone and I cried from relief, “Oh my God, it’s good to hear your voice. I didn’t know where you were or if you were traveling.” She told me that everyone in her office near Grand Central Terminal was crying. The father of one of the girls in her office worked in the World Trade Center and she did not know where he was. I told her that I loved her a lot and would speak to her later. I had already reached my husband who was at home.

After the meeting broke up (which was not at the school I work in), I walked the four blocks back to my school in East Harlem where teachers were in a daze listening to radios. Parents were nervously running into the school to pick up children, and all teachers stayed at school until every single child was picked up. Afterwards I walked approximately ten blocks across 125th Street thinking that it was a really safe route in case of further attacks until I realized the street was blocked off to traffic because of the State Office Building and President Clinton’s office. I miraculously got a bus going close to where I live in the Hudson Heights section of Washington Heights. I had to walk over a mile from where the bus left me, but I later found out people had walked for miles — some without shoes – dazed and covered with dust from their narrow escape from the Word Trace Center.

Like so many others, I found myself glued to the television and hyper alert to every sound around me. Disbelief, fear and memories surrounded me. I worked near the Word Trade Center for 10 years until six years before the attack, went shopping there often, attended an educator’s conference at the Marriott there in May of 2001 and took the PATH train to and from New Jersey into the World Trade Center often. I was near the area when the last bombing occurred and I graduated from nearby Pace University long before then. That was my neighborhood for work and school for over 20 years! I went to the Italian Feast in Little Italy, ate at various Chinese restaurants and even taught evenings at the Adult Education Center at Murry Bergtraum High School near police headquarters for awhile.

I felt violated. I kept trying to remember my last steps through the WTC and whom I saw at the Marriott at the conference. Who was running the elevator? Who served me coffee at the shop on the street level? I wanted so badly to remember the face of the security guard I asked for directions to the Marriott as I walked through the various WTC buildings from the subway. I wanted to know from whom I bought the paper or magazine at the newsstand at the lower level near the PATH where I often stopped. My mind became a movie camera replaying scenes over and over again as I walked through the WTC buildings shopping at Christmas or buying clothes at the Alexander’s Department Store that used to be there.

I traced my steps to the Cortlandt Street Stop of the IRT and my visits to the World Financial Center for a flower show or my visit to the Windows on the World restaurant, my stop at the book store or so many of the other stores I enjoyed browsing in.

I couldn’t bear the thought that the person who cheerfully gave me directions or the person who sold me coffee or the woman who helped me pick out a shaving mug and soap at Crabtree and Evelyn’s or countless others might be among the many who were killed. I couldn’t bear the thought that someone like myself, who innocently was attending a meeting or conference at the WTC or the Marriott, was gone. I also shuddered to think that my daughter also had a meeting at the WTC a few months ago. Who lost their daughter, their mother, father or other loved ones because someone decided to senselessly fly into the WTC? I worked it out in my mind thousands of times but just couldn’t find an answer. There really was no answer.

I returned to work on 9/13/01. I was never so grateful for work and for the ability to lose myself in work with innocent young children. What answers could we give them when questions were asked? We met with counselors and administrators before students returned to school and learned how best to deal with traumatized children and what not to say as well as what to say. Children were not allowed to play outside for many days. After they were allowed to return outside to play, one first grader told me that he did not want to go outside to play “because of the smoke,” which he must have seen so much of on television. Another second grader gave me a huge hug and told me she was afraid of the “bad guys.” I hugged her back with tears in my eyes and knew that certain innocence would never return to this generation of children.

Countless e-mails and phone calls were exchanged as so many tried to deal with the trauma enveloping us. It was hard to go anywhere in Manhattan without conversations or tears developing from the attack.

I found out through an e-mail message from a family member that my second cousin’s husband escaped from his job on the 102nd floor in Tower Two at the WTC. They saw the first plane hit Tower One and heard a message telling everyone to stay where they were. His secretary urged him to get everyone out and get himself out immediately. It took them 45-50 minutes to walk down, and they were on about the 50th floor when their building was hit. They just kept moving and survived. He wanted to go back for his computer but did not. Many people in his company perished. They had several floors. He witnessed the wounded. It was said that they asked people to stay where they were to avoid an exodus and people being hit by debris from the 1st tower — not knowing that another plane would hit the second tower!

A long-planned visit from my stepson and his girlfriend who live in Colorado was cancelled after the attacks. As Mayor Giuliani and others encouraged people to “return to normal” and come to New York, my stepson decided to come for his planned visit the weekend of 10/12/01.

I bought tickets to see Chicago at the Schubert Theatre on a rainy, dreary day before his visit. I couldn’t have felt more despondent “as I tried to get back to normal.” I walked up Eighth Avenue and passed a firehouse, the front of which was covered with tributes, flowers and pictures of lost firemen. I burst out crying. It was all just too much! People were finally coming into the city yet “getting back to normal” just wasn’t happening at that point.

My stepson came into the city on 10/12/01. I took him and his girlfriend to see the play Chicago on the 13th. We then went on the A train intending to get off at the Broadway and Nassau Street stop so that we could walk to the Staten Island Ferry. I did get off at Broadway and Nassau but exited near John Street where we could see Ground Zero clearly. There was a choir singing nearby with many members crying. It was surreal. After nearly getting crushed in the crowd, we walked down to the ferry, glancing at the many surrounding buildings with flags and tributes, and took the ferry ride back and forth. The view of Manhattan without the WTC was so very sad and overwhelming emotionally.

Afterwards, we walked by the water to the Seaport, which was slowly getting back to business as usual, then up to Chinatown where we ate and Little Italy where they bought souvenirs, and we stopped for dessert.

I went home exhausted. Was I feeling better? Not really. Passing Ground Zero and seeing the remnants of the WTC and feeling the pain in that area of Manhattan were just adding to the heartache.

Seeing a fireman’s funeral procession in my neighborhood the following weekend added more pain. Was it every going to end? Would this heaviness in my heart go away?

I know people who lived in the WTC area who told horrific stories of not being able to return to their homes and how they had to stay with kind strangers the first night of the attack as they escaped from their apartments when the attack occurred. Some individuals grabbed their pets and ran without money, identification or clothing. The nightmare began for countless individuals in the area that day. Individuals told me that vehicles were often not allowed into the area to move personal possessions out for over two months! The red tape was endless for many who already had been traumatized.

I know a girl who worked across the street from the WTC and watched the whole incident with people jumping out of windows who barely escaped with her life. She had to travel to New Jersey every day to work as her company “temporarily” relocated. She eventually decided to move out of the city.

Thanksgiving 2001 had a different tone as my gratitude was enormous for all I had and all I know I “didn’t lose.”

Christmas lights were going up, but they didn’t have the same meaning. There’s not that joy in the season in Manhattan when you know there are so many people that don’t have their loved ones and when you know that so many bodies have not yet been recovered.

I won’t be doing a lot of Christmas shopping this year. I’ve always bought too many frivolous gifts. If I buy a few gifts, they will be meaningful and well thought out. I’ll give money to an old mission not far from Ground Zero that I’ve been giving small amounts to at Thanksgiving for years. I’ll add an extra Christmas donation this year as they have done so much extra during this difficult time.

Of course I can get back to normal, but I can’t deny that I somehow have changed. Life is different for me now. I am more spiritual. I’m trying to be a better person and trying to really examine what I want out of life and how I can grow as a human being. I want to be a better teacher to the children I work with, and I want to communicate better with them. I want them to know that I care about them. I want to be less materialistic and less afraid of taking risks. I want to be around good people, and I want to steer clear of people who are mean-spirited and feel superior to me and other humans in some way. I want to work for and with people who are “real.”

I honestly think this horrific attack has made me a better person and a better and more patriotic American. I’ve always loved my country, but I love it in a different way now. I love it passionately. I cherish my freedom like never before.

I wrote the following poem — Rising From the Rubble

Rising From the Rubble
By Loretta Henke
9/12/01

Hearts aching
Dreams broken
City under siege

Arms linked
People reaching out

Trying to make
sense of it all

People walking
People staring
Dazed yet caring

Churches open
Dust in the streets
Cell phones ringing
under the debris

Praying hard
Feeling vulnerable

Can’t go underground
Afraid of every sound

Children playing
Laughing without care
Parents whispering
Feeling confused

Their once safe world
of dreams and plans a blur

Will life ever be the same?

Will we find the ones to blame?

Can this enter into history
without adding
revengeful
catastrophe?

Where will it end?

Today this is still
a frightening mystery.

Read more: Reflections on 9/11
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