Reflections on September 11: From Ground Zero

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Roanoke Star-Sentinel News Editor Gene Marrano at The World Trade Center site.
Roanoke Star-Sentinel News Editor Gene Marrano at The World Trade Center site.

by Gene Marrano

I just happened to be listening online to WNYC.org, a public radio station based in New York City, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center a decade ago. WNYC had a studio across from the Twin Towers, as they were called, and actually had a transmitter atop one of the 100+ story tall buildings. “Something’s happened across the street…” said the announcer, or something like that anyway.

I was working in Natural Bridge Station at the time, for a small firm where the company president and close co-worker was a West Point graduate and an Army Veteran. Then the second plane hit – many saw that live on national television, at the tail end of network morning shows that had all cut to the burning World Trade Center. At that point many thought a small plane had hit the first building. That wasn’t the case, or course.

Then the two towers came down and I went home about 10:30 a.m. Like most, I couldn’t work anymore and instead sat glued to the television until the wee hours of the next day. My boss resigned from the company and tried to reenlist; he was in his early forties at that point. We all watched the cleanup efforts at Ground Zero in New York and saw a smoldering scar at the Pentagon, right here in Virginia.

I was in New York City over this past Labor Day weekend, just one of the thousands who came to the World Trade Center (WTC) site, looking on as new glass and steel buildings go up where the Twin Towers and several other buildings came down. Nothing will be constructed in the exact footprints of the two fallen towers; that space will become a public memorial set to be dedicated this weekend.

People from all over the world, speaking in many different tongues, gathered there last weekend; some went into tiny St. Paul’s Church across from Ground Zero, where an exhibit pays homage to those rescue workers who braved perilous conditions, trying to save others. Many paid the ultimate price for their service.

September 11 still weighs heavy on many in the New York area; ads in subway cars still urge those adversely affected from the dust emanating from the collapsed towers to seek free medical care. Current stories in the local tabloids speak of lost loved ones and the damage done – emotionally, physically and financially – in the aftermath of 9/11.

Walking through narrow streets near Ground Zero I could only imagine what it must have been like as millions of pounds of choking clouds of dust  came funneling through those concrete canyons, even blocking out the sun for a brief time.

My mother broke into tears once again while telling the story of my cousin Rudy, who at the time worked for an insurance firm on or near the 100th floor of one tower. The only reason Rudy wasn’t in the tower with several hundred of his co-workers that sunny morning is that he had misplaced his wallet – and had to take a later train into the city. He emerged from a subway station at the WTC to see people jumping out of windows, choosing death that way instead of incineration.

Not long thereafter he reached a manager in his office on the 100th floor – they had just been informed by firefighters that the intense fire created by burning jet fuel meant they would likely not be rescued, that they were cut off. Rudy and the insurance company manager cried as they talked by cell phone, with my cousin assuring his co-worker he would contact the relatives of each family, telling them their perished loved one was thinking of them to the end.

The story my mother related to me, for the first time in so much detail, gave me goose bumps. We will all try this weekend to turn away from the television as they replay events from that day again and again, but many will be remain riveted. We’ll hear, no doubt, from surviving family members, journalists on the scene then and heroic rescue workers.

The “Freedom Tower” – designed to be slightly taller than the old World Trade Center buildings – is 70 stories tall at this point and still climbing. Let’s hope its eventual opening allows us all to move forward, searching for whatever silver lining can come out of that day a decade ago – a tragic event that claimed almost 3000 lives in New York City, Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.