20 years later, 9-11’s memories continue to sting


Twenty years ago I was completing my first year as a reporter for three community weeklies in Suffolk County: the Long Island Advance, Suffolk County News and Islip Bulletin.

It was a Tuesday, the kind of day that you wish for: sunny with a beautiful blue sky and warm.

That Sept. 11 in 2001 was the day, I was completing that week’s stories and then the peaceful morning was shattered.
We heard a radio report that an airplane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers belonging to the World Trade Center complex in lower Manhattan. Being New Yorkers, we first thought it was a small plane that had lost its bearings.

Then it was reported that another plane struck the other tower. It seemed surreal. No one yet knew the extent of what was unfolding. I had to go to the Yaphank firehouse to collect photographs I needed for a story.

When I got there the dispatcher on duty was monitoring communications that signaled that something very huge had happened. Suffolk County fire departments were talking about sending equipment and people to New York City. One young Yaphank volunteer exclaimed “we are at war.” Turned out he was right, but that’s another story.

I collected the photos and headed back to the office in Patchogue. Cell phones were not as ubiquitous as they are today, so I did not speak with my editor until my return.

It was decided that our focus would be what has come to be called 9/11. All the stories that were on the front and in the first half of the papers would move to the second half and features, including my story celebrating the Yaphank Fire Department’s 75th anniversary were held until the following week.

I left the office and went out into the coverage area. I found a man in Holtsville watching the news on television. We spoke about what we thought had occurred. I drove by the Internal Revenue Service that was also in Holtsville and saw that the federal campus was being evacuated.

I visited then State Assemblywoman Debra Mazzarelli in her Patchogue office to get her sense of what was unfolding.
Later in the day, I drove out to the county offices in Yaphank for a news conference where then Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney discussed the county’s response and first heard the phrase “search and recovery,” instead of “search and rescue,” which meant that now only dead people would be found.

On my return trip to the office, Building No. 7 of the tower complex collapsed.

In the days and weeks following, I wrote a string of obituaries. I was on the phone with a widow of a FDNY firefighter who was also a Bayport volunteer firefighter.

Her sadness and anger still stings me when I realized she was too emotional to speak and I asked her if there was anyone else I could speak with and she yelled “no, there is no one else.” She hung up and I kicked an old metal file cabinet. Don’t do that, it hurts.

A year later, I stood in the kitchen of a couple who lost a son in one of the towers. I knew the man from covering the Patchogue-Medford High School football team. At the games, Sam, a coach emeritus, would be in his bent over stance watching the game, now he was hunched over and looked much older. His wife had to leave the room when I spoke to Sam.

These are my indelible images from a day, a time, when I could truly say that the world I lived in the was ruptured.

Living near the water and being in the flight path of four airports, the silence from not hearing planes in those first days after the attack was deafening. Having to call families whose loved ones were murdered was heart wrenching. Covering 9/11, year after year, takes a piece of you.

That is nothing compared to what families lost that day. This is why my memories of that day remain so vivid and we remember those killed in the attacks, minus the hijackers, every year.