By Dr. Tony Kireopoulos
I’ll never forget that morning. I was in my office when my wife called to tell me about a plane that had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. She was in her office only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. At first, we didn’t know much: Was it a small plane? Was it intentional? Would the building come down? Some 15 minutes later, another plane crashed into the second tower. By now, we knew they were airliners, and my building, across the street from the United Nations, was being evacuated. At this point, we could only suspect that it was a terrorist attack, but the evacuation order anticipated this determination. I called her back, and my word to her was simple: Run!
In silence, my colleagues and I rode down the elevator, my thoughts on the lives that had no doubt been lost. We made the plan to gather at our boss’s apartment a few blocks away. As I walked there, I remember looking up and marveling at how blue the sky was, and how fresh the September air felt. By the time I got to the apartment, the television was on, and I entered just in time to see the first collapse. I found out later that my wife, after hearing and feeling the implosion, rushed her colleagues out of the office, and was now one of the people on TV running away from the rolling clouds of dust and debris. One of her colleagues, who had arrived at the office just moments before the collapse, reported that she had seen bodies falling to the ground.
Over the next hour, we all learned that another plane had hit the Pentagon, and another had crashed in Pennsylvania. Numb from the unfolding horror, and having heard that commuter train service, temporarily shut down as a precaution, was running again, I decided it to head home. But before leaving, I went to the roof of the apartment building and saw the smoke rising into the sky and spreading in all directions. I didn’t know it at the time, but I must have been witnessing the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the other tower. As she recounted later, my wife, rushing uptown toward Grand Central Station to escape the horror, had turned to see the second collapse.
The train ride home was eerily quiet. No one spoke; everyone nervously stared ahead, or at the floor, or out the window. I walked into the house to find my family huddled around the television. At first, I was irked that the kids, who had been whisked away from school to the safety of home by their grandmother, were also watching the horror unfold on TV, but there was no way to stop them. Like everyone, they were transfixed by the pictures, and even at four and five years old, they knew something real and terrible had happened.
My son, the older of the two, shrugged off his fear as soon as he saw that both of his parents were safe. He knew we worked in the City; as he no doubt reasoned, he had been to my wife’s office, he had played in the World Trade Center Plaza, and he knew it was now a scene of destruction, but we were all together now, so it was OK.
My daughter, however, didn’t process the situation as quickly. She became very quiet, even timid, and remained so for days. It wasn’t something so obvious, only something a parent could notice. It was only two weeks later, when her grandmother picked her up from pre-school, and she proudly and excitedly showed her what she had just done in the playroom. “Look YiaYia!” She pointed to two tall columns she had built with over-sized cardboard blocks. “I fixed the two towers!” In her mind, she needed to set things right, and she did so in her own tiny, but significant, way, and in her own time. And from that moment on, she was fine. The memory of her healing and restored innocence still brings tears to my eyes.
Twenty years have now gone by. Our kids have gone to college and graduate school and have started their careers. They have traveled the world, with us and on their own. My wife and I have changed jobs, and we’ve both come through health challenges. We live in the same house, and now divide our time between New York and Arizona. We’re already looking ahead several years to retirement. Life goes on, and perhaps because the world has since that day suffered all manner of violence, environmental catastrophe, and now a pandemic, the horrific events of 9/11 seldom come to mind. But they are never far away.
When I drive through Lower Manhattan and gaze up at the new One World Trade Center building gleaming in the sunlight, I miss the symmetry and even subtlety of the old towers, with their lined facades and twinned silhouette. When I attend special services at Ground Zero, I mourn the dead and pray for their souls; when I go to the 9/11 Museum, I stare at the austere displays and find hope in human resiliency. As I write this reflection, I think about the “war on terror,” the ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the resulting anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments that still plague our society even twenty years later. I also think of the interfaith relations that have flourished as a victory of goodwill over bigotry, the sacrifice of soldiers trying to build peace from chaos, and the idea of America that the terrorists were not able to destroy.
I know America is not perfect – partisan divisions diminish our national capacity; racism and other ills diminish our souls; hubris diminishes our relationship with the world. No, America is not perfect. But the idea of America is close to it. And it remains our duty – my duty – to the women and men who died on 9/11, to do our part to help make that idea into reality.
Dr. Kireopoulos is Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.
About this blog: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author and were prepared in the author’s personal capacity. These views and opinions do not represent those of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, its member communions, or any other contributors to this site.