Philippine Daily Inquirer

New Yorkers mourn and move on

New York—I went to a 9/11 memorial service at Boston’s Logan Airport, from where the two airplanes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City.

I was there to help a journalist friend who was reporting on the event for a local radio.

I volunteered to take photos. I snapped pictures in rapid succession until I saw a group of firefighters standing quietly. Then I saw one of them put his hand on the shoulder of another and my heart skipped a beat.

My memory jumped back to that tragic day in New York 10 years ago and it was as if time never moved on.

A friend staying on my couch that week banged on my door: “Wake up, we are under terrorist attack!”

Confused and stumbling out of bed, I was led to the TV. The first plane had just crashed into one of the towers.  The phone began to ring—friends from different time zones were calling to check in.

Then the second plane crashed. People started jumping out of windows. Smoke billowed from the buildings. We looked on with horror. And then the unimaginable happened, the towers fell.

We started to call friends to check on them but the phone lines were jammed. A barrage of e-mails arrived, pleading, “Please tell me you are alive.”

Our first instinct was to try and find a way to help—to give blood, money, our time, our compassion, anything.  But at the time, the sky seemed to be falling and no one really knew how to hold it up.

That afternoon, we took a walk, hoping that it would lead us to the right place.

The usually busy city streets were empty. We ended up on the West Side highway, where all the rescue vehicles were going to and from Ground Zero.

Cheers for rescuers

As we stood there, I noticed a group of people standing on the middle island dividing the two lanes. What I saw and heard there made me incredibly proud to live in New York. As each rescue vehicle passed, the people started clapping.

I stood there watching for about an hour and by the time I left, the crowd had grown to line the whole street and anyone who went to help in the rescue effort received a barrage of cheers. In the midst of such tragedy, New Yorkers found a way to help.

A day later, we too became engaged.

I worked for a restaurant company at the time and when word got out that there was not enough food and drink for the volunteers, I was told to find a way to try and fix this. But the city was still in chaos and there was no one to call to ask how to help.

We rented a van, had 400 sandwiches made and drove as far south as we could.

Then President George W. Bush was arriving that day and security was tight.

We were stopped many times, but we were on a mission. Police saw our food and water and let us through.

We fixed a makeshift relief station at a closed gas station on West Side highway and spent the next 24 hours handing out food and drink.

Human touch

We learned that when you have spent hours in what looked like a war zone, food is the last thing on your mind. But the human touch helps, approaching rescue workers with a kind comment and warm smile helped bring them back to life.

People came to help from everywhere. One couple from Florida saw what happened on TV and jumped on the next bus to New York. One group set up a candlelight vigil and sang songs.

Stories from the rescuers were chilling. After convincing a fireman to eat the cookies I was handing out, he told me he had found body parts in the wreckage. I wanted to give him a hug.

I remember that for months afterwards whenever a fire truck would drive by, I would pause for a moment, with a renewed sense of what it meant to have courage.

And the names, faces and loving messages became part of the city landscape.

Streets throbbed with emotion as makeshift shrines and posters seeking information on missing loved ones whose photographs were pasted on them sprang everywhere. You could not walk past them without your heart beating a little bit faster.

I have been away from this city for five years. I was at a roof deck party the night before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It seemed like any other night, so I asked someone I just met why, despite all the media coverage, no one was talking about September 11th.

Moving on

He said it was because New Yorkers did what they do best and this was what made the city so strong: They mourned deeply for a week, and then picked themselves up and marched into the future with an even more determined sense of purpose.

It’s true that the ability to survive and move on is what makes the city so incredible. But moving on does not mean forgetting. As life goes on, it’s important to pause, even for just a moment of reflection.

When I look back at the 10th anniversary memorial service I saw on TV, I am filled with the sound of names being read, children sending special messages to parents they never knew, families tracing names etched solidly on a wall, tears falling into the waterfall over lives taken away too soon.

Our memories should be like the water—keeping alive that which has been precious, reminding us that love never leaves.

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September 13, 2011
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