I was 14 years old when my mom took me to Ground Zero, six months after 9/11 happened. The streets were still filled with dust and the rescuers were still looking for bodies amongst the rubble.
It was March of 2002 and there I was standing on a wooden platform overlooking where two tall beautiful buildings once stood. I wrote my name and "God Bless America" on the Memorial Guestbook, a large banner pinned up to a piece of plywood.
Temporary fencing had been put up to house all of the missing persons announcements, memorial mementos, and patriotic displays. I was overwhelmed with sadness, but also a deep love for this nation.
We had come from Kansas with gifts of appreciation for the FDNY firefighters and NYPD officers from our local Wichita Fire Department. They wanted us to give them their shirts as a sign of respect and admiration.
We had tickets to the observation deck at 6:30 pm and had arrived a little early. We walked up to a NYPD police officer who was guarding the barricades that led to Ground Zero and asked him where we could find the nearest fire department. We told him about the shirts we brought and that we wanted to show our respect.
He said, "Follow me." He then proceeded to bring us across the street, PAST the barricades, INTO Ground Zero. We were walking near feet away from the big hole in the ground and into an abandoned building that had been made into a temporary station for the firefighters.
We were then greeted by what I can only describe as HEROES. We handed them the shirts and told them how much we appreciated their bravery and strength on 9/11 and the weeks after.
What happened next will forever be etched in my memory. The FDNY firefighters then took the SHIRTS OFF THEIR BACKS to give us to bring back to our local firefighters. I can't help but cry when I type these words but it is a moment I will never ever forget. In a New York minute, 9/11 changed this country. And my trip to Ground Zero changed me.
Twenty years later, I woke up this Saturday morning and cried in my bed remembering what took place that fateful Tuesday morning in 2001. My 4 year old crawled into bed and asked why I was crying. I contemplated for a moment if he was too young for me to tell him about 9/11, but then decided to tell him a short version. After listening, tears welled up in his eyes and he said, "That's the saddest story I've ever heard. That makes me sad too."
It's hard for a four-year-old brain to fathom that kind of evil. As a middle schooler, I couldn't believe it either, sitting on the gym floor in PE class when another teacher came in and told us the chilling news. We went back to class and a TV was wheeled in, and we watched as airplanes crashed into two buildings, and then as they collapsed to the ground.
Since that day I will always think of the horror and fear those people on the plane felt after being hijacked and headed toward the World Trade Center. And I'll never forget the images of people jumping to their deaths from the building to avoid the flames and heat of the jet fuel burning inside.
I will always grieve the lives lost that day in such an evil act of terror. My heart breaks for the families who lost their loved ones on those flights and in those buildings. May we never forget their names and stories. May we never forget those who rose to occasion to rescue others and to defend our nation from future attacks. May we always be grateful for our freedom and those who have fought for it.
God bless America.
(All photos are mine taken in March 2002)
PS - We are still in touch with the NYPD officer that allowed us into Ground Zero. We will never forget you, Joe R.