EDITOR’S NOTE: The below article and postscript were written for The Dillon Herald by the late Bob Braddy, who was in New York on September 11, 2001. He wrote the postscript in 2010. We are pleased to be able to share it again with you.
By Bob Braddy
Published originally in September 2001
What was it like to be in New York when it happened?
Shock. Disbelief. Horror. Then terrible grief and sadness, as the impact of the event in terms of loss of life became more and more apparent.
Alice and I, along with Joe and Helen Moffett, had arrived in New York on Friday, September 7, for a weeklong vacation, which had been planned for months. The apartments we had rented were in midtown Manhattan, a great location for sightseeing and enjoying the city.
After a delightful weekend, which included dining in Little Italy and a Broadway show, we set out on Monday morning (my birthday) for a visit to Ellis Island. None of us had been there, and we were very impressed with this historic place where millions of immigrants had arrived in America.
On the ferry boat ride back to Manhattan we were dazzled by the spectacular view of The Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline; which was dominated by the steel and glass twin towers of the World Trade Center, glistening in the morning sunlight. It was only a ten minute walk to the WTC from the boat landing, so we headed there for lunch. We shopped, strolled, and then had coffee and ice cream in the huge mall which filled the basement area of the towers.
How could we know that by noon of the following day these huge structures, along with many surrounding buildings, would be a twisted, flaming mass of metal and glass, containing the bodies of thousands of innocent victims? We were watching in our room as it happened on TV, but with total disbelief. The wail of sirens and the roar of fire and rescue vehicles, which began as soon as the disaster occurred, were deafening. Routine traffic disappeared as if by magic. Soon, the streets and sidewalks were filled with people moving northward as lower Manhattan was evacuated. Some were walking, some running, many with their faces covered with handkerchiefs from the acrid smoke from which they had just emerged. Many were crying uncontrollably. Many had cell phones, obviously trying to reach family and friends. Radios blared from the shops along the street, giving the evacuees news updates on what was happening at the scene of the disaster.
Meanwhile, TV coverage was showing the bridges of lower Manhattan choked with people walking towards Brooklyn and Queens, hoping to find shelter with family and friends.
The entire area of lower Manhattan below Canal Street, at least 25 percent of the city, was immediately closed to all but fire and rescue traffic. All subways and busses stopped. Stores and restaurants, banks and offices, theaters and amusement centers closed. By noon of that day, midtown Manhattan was a ghost town. The sky was incredibly blue, but we could look down Broadway and see the billowing smoke rising from the debris. That evening when we returned to the Times Square area, some of the spectacular lights and signs were flashing, but the people were gone. Only the frequent wail of another police or rescue vehicle broke the silence.
Throughout the following day, the streets remained empty except for fire and rescue vehicles. Frequent caravans of city buses, all empty, would roar down Ninth Avenue toward Ground Zero, with police escorts, their sirens screaming and their lights flashing. A fleet of at least twelve US Mail tractor-trailers came tearing by the same way. We could not be sure, but we thought they were being utilized to transport victims and perhaps bodies.
We were of course following everything that was happening on TV, just as you were. The New York stations suspended all programs and broadcasted coverage of the tragedy around the clock, with no commercial interruption. You saw, as we did, the heroic efforts of the firemen as they frantically tried to rescue victims who might be trapped in the wreckage. As you know, there were few. As the hours passed, family and friends of the missing became more desperate for any news of their loved ones. Crude, hand-letter signs, most with pictures, began to appear on buildings and poles, pleading for any information from anyone. The futility of their pleas as the hours passed with so few recoveries was heartbreaking. You have seen and heard many accounts of the courageous work of the firemen and police officers. Be assured that all of these accounts are true, with many more untold. We saw firsthand the terrible loss suffered by Engine Company 54. Their
station was on Eighth Avenue, about a block from where we stayed. They were reputed to be the best of the best in rescue operations, and a crew of fourteen brave men from their station was among the first to arrive at the towers. They were inside, assisting with the evacuation, when the tower collapsed, trapping and killing them all. Their fire truck was totally destroyed, buried in the rubble.
A makeshift shrine was created on the sidewalk by the many New Yorkers who came to share their loss. We placed flowers there, and stood with the others who formed a semicircle, staring at the pictures of the missing firemen. Candles burned, prayers were lifted, and tears were shed. The firemen, still responding to their duties, came and went, each time greeted by cheers and words of consolation from the crowd on the sidewalk.
The response to calls for assistance was overwhelming. People came in droves in response to the call for blood donors. There were hundreds of medical volunteers who came forward to help in the emergency rooms and at the scene. People brought food, water, anything that was known to be in short supply. New York’s darkest hour became its finest hour.
By Wednesday afternoon, American flags were flying everywhere. You could feel the uniting in spirit of the New Yorkers as they shared their grief, anger, and defiance. Mayor Rudolph Gilliani provided outstanding leadership, almost from the moment the tragedy occurred. He was at the scene before the second tower collapsed and almost lost his life, along with his aides. From that moment on, he seemed to be everywhere, encouraging the rescue workers, consoling, holding out hope, and assurance that everything possible was being done to recover the missing ones. Along with the Governor of New York, he met several times daily with the media to answer questions, report on rescue efforts and the like.
On Thursday, he told his New Yorkers that the best thing they could do was to return to normal as much as possible. He urged them to go shopping, eat in the restaurants, and visit the museums and theaters. And to a considerable degree, they did just that. But the slow, painstaking recovery effort at Ground Zero continued. Bucket by bucket, inch by inch, the firemen and rescue workers dug, searching for signs of life. It was not said, but it became increasingly clear that “search and rescue” was becoming “search and recover.” At the present count, some five thousand innocent victims are still missing, presumably buried in that terrible mound of glass and steel, most of their bodies burned or mangled beyond any recognition. The job which lies ahead, is inconceivable, virtually hopeless. How will they ever be able to identify those bodies? On September 11, 2001 the face of America was changed forever. We lost our innocence, but we
rediscovered our unity. We must respond to these unspeakable acts of inhumanity with weapons and tactics unlike any we have used before to defend and protect our freedom. But we will respond, and we will win. We will unite as we did in World War II. We will sacrifice, give full support to our President, the Congress and our leaders. We will show our pride in military, and welcome all who join us in this war against terrorism. Most importantly, we will pray, humbly and fervently, for God’s guidance and blessing throughout the difficult days which lie ahead. Without Him, we will surely lose this war. With Him, through determination and united effort, our world will emerge from this a better place for the generations to come.
(Written in 2010)
P.S. As I re-read this article which I wrote nine years ago after returning from that horrible experience, I am struck by what has transpired since then. We are still united in our love for our country, and in our determination to win the war against the terrorists. We can disagree but we must always put patriotism over partisanship.
Although we cannot celebrate it as a final victory, we can all be thankful that the combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq this week. We paid a terrible price to reach this point, and we still must face the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The important thing is that we remain united in this struggle, and in our determination to win.
I ended the first article with a plea that we join in fervent prayer that God would guide us to final peace and blessings through the difficult days ahead. Let that be our continued prayer. God Bless America.