The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., set off a cascade of worldwide catastrophes over the subsequent two decades — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and many other terrorist attacks, in multiple countries. September 2001 seems like a lifetime ago, but for those old enough to remember that terrible year, it remains a haunting memory, a fever dream that we try to lock in the backs of our brains but is ever-present.
For those of us in Nassau County that day, we could only watch in horror as gray-black smoke plumes spiraled out of the twisted, shattered remains of the twin towers upward into an otherwise perfect azure sky. The plumes were visible from points across the county.
Shortly after the attacks, people started to gather on the beach in Lido and at the Norman J. Levy Park and Preserve in Merrick — the highest point on the South Shore — to watch the billowing smoke, staring silently in stunned disbelief.
The United States homeland was under attack for the first time since World War II, and at that moment, we had no idea who the invader was, or the future suffering in distant lands that the attacks would bring. It was all incomprehensibly terrifying.
In a front-page story in the Heralds’ Sept. 13-19 issue, “Terror at the Towers,” reported by Scott Brinton, Carrie James, Laura Lane, Jeff Lipton, Larry Maier and Cindy Roth, this is how we described the scene:
“A wave of fear and despair raced across [Nassau County] Tuesday morning after terrorists slammed two hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center, sending the Twin Towers crumbling into Lower Manhattan.
“In the afternoon, surviving victims of the attack filtered into Nassau by Long Island Rail Road, like refugees from a war zone. Many, who were still shaking dusty, white debris from their clothes, were not from the area but had taken the first train they could out of the city and gotten off at the first possible stop.”
We sent our reporters to the train stations to meet the survivors of the attacks.
Sylvia Melendez, who worked in Lower Manhattan, described the chaos after the towers crashed to the ground. “The rush of clouds of debris forced everyone out into the streets,” she said. “Everyone was running away.”
Here in Nassau, people were glued to their TVs and radios, watching and listening, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. “I’ve been listening all morning,” Luisa DeGirolamo, who worked at La Margherita Pastry Shop in Bellmore Village, said. “I’m devastated. I can’t get over it.”
Rollen Cagoles, of East Meadow, said, “I’m really scared. It’s so scary if we have something of a World War III. I’m really, really scared.”
Many parents rushed to their children’s schools to pick them up and take them home, fearful of further attacks. “A lot of people came and pulled their kids out because they didn’t want them to be in a place with a large group of people,” said Pat Brace, PTA president of Bowling Green Elementary School in East Meadow. “They thought they would be a target.”
Nassau police doubled patrols around municipal buildings, schools, houses of worship and transportation lines. Police also diverted westbound traffic away from New York City. Motorists who had to travel major thoroughfares were advised to stay home.
The military closed down the airspace over Long Island, with unlighted F-16 fighter jets streaking overhead above John F. Kennedy International Airport into the night of Sept. 11 to 12.
Nearly 500 Long Islanders died in the attacks at the World Trade Center or later succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses. Each one was a life extinguished too soon. We must remember all of them — their essential goodness, their essential humanity.
In the coming days, there will be solemn ceremonies in remembrance of the dead. Consider attending one to show your support for the victims, or stop and pause for a moment at 8:46 and 9:04 a.m. on Saturday and reflect on or say a prayer for the victims. In this way, you will help to keep their memories alive for generations to come. “Never forget” should never become a trite slogan. It should be a motto by which we live.