Sand In My Shoes: Remembering those lost in the Twin Towers, 18 years later

Post-9/11 Babies Reach Voting Age




My son will vote in his first presidential election next year.

But on September 11, 2001, I was videotaping Liam, who had turned two a week earlier, playing with his Thomas trains on my living room floor as the TV broadcast “The Today Show.”

Then, at about 8:48 AM, a confused commotion blared from the TV. They cut to a live feed of the north tower of the World Trade Center Twin Towers smoking with a violent gash in its shimmering silver skin. As the reporter gave breathless first details, my son sang a Thomas the Tank Engine song.

I thought on that grim morning of several images at once. I remembered being with my entire family at Windows on the World for my mother’s 70th birthday where we thanked her for emigrating from Belfast and sailing past Lady Liberty to Ellis Island and giving all seven of her children the great gift of being born in America. I remembered working on Bankers Trust Plaza in the early 1970s across from the World Trade Center as a college helper for my Irish immigrant father’s union, Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, when a laborer on the south tower of WTC fell some 80 stories to his death. That single loss caused our job site to shut down for the day in solemn solidarity. I remember later the image of maintenance men hosing some of the remains of that poor soul from the sidewalk.

Now, I thought on that 9/11 morning, there might be dozens dead in that suspicious plane crash that made my skin pebble. I thought it was terrorism right away because I had covered the 1993 bombing of the same site, rushing from the New York Daily News to the crime scene that had claimed seven lives. I stood February 26, 1993, behind a police barricade on West Street with other members of the press when an NYPD Emergency Service cop I knew, named Billy Pieszak, hurried past. He spotted me in the crowd and gave me a furtive head nod. I met him a few hundred feet down the block, where he led me as the first reporter into the epicenter of the bomb site. I asked if it were a boiler explosion as had been suggested in early reports.

“Boiler my ass,” Pieszak said. “This was a f—ing bomb.”

He then showed me the damage — collapsed parking ramps pancaked together, cars crumpled like aluminum foil balls, girders twisted into cindered steel pretzels, deep gashes pocked the cement walls, ceilings, and crumbled ramps of the parking garage.

“These bastards bombed us,” Pieszak said. “This was terrorism.”

I flashed back to all those images on September 11, 2001, as the NBC reporter grew alarmed as a second jet plane circled the south tower, and then smashed directly into the upper floors in an exploding orange ball of flame and black jet fuel smoke. At my feet, my son chugged his smiley-faced trains around the track from what had been a 21st-Century American innocence and through a Thomas tunnel into the post-9/11 Age of Terror.

Post-Apocalyptic Scene

That morning I watched those towers that opened in an historic New York year vaporize to massive clouds of toxic dust, taking with them 2977 beautiful, innocent lives whose faces would cover the train stations of the city and Long Island with what have become known as Flyers of the Missing.

They weren’t missing. They were murdered. We were at war. My son Liam turns 20 this month and he has not lived a single American moment since when we have not been at war.

That unforgettable day, September 11, 2001, the bridges and tunnels and subways of NYC closed. Deafening F-16s roared low over Eastern Queens, where a fall breeze delivered a foul stench all the way from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan and to the Nassau border. A shivering panic also blew through the citizenry. People started turning basements into terror shelters, stockpiling guns, food, water, and medical supplies. People wrapped their homes in plastic to protect themselves from smallpox and saran gas. Hate crimes against anyone wearing a hijab or with Muslim names soared. Ignorant xenophobic morons attacked Sikhs and Hindus and others wearing turbans.

The next day I met another detective I knew in Brooklyn who gave me a cop windbreaker and a gas mask as he “badged” his way through the closed Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Ground Zero where he walked me through the smoldering aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

There were no dead bodies. Just piles of debris — twisted girders, beams, jagged silver hunks of building façade, papers, shattered furniture, pieces of planes, plumbing, steam pipes, electric cable, high heels, men’s shoes, briefcases. All covered in toxic dust. Iron workers cut steel with acetylene torches and deafening power saws. Cops, firefighters, and rescue workers dug in the debris searching for lost comrades, any sound of a human voice. Cadaver dogs sniffed for the lost in the toxic dust — that would later kill them and many of their masters.

I saw eerily naked mannequins from shattered clothes stores lying at crazy angles in the empty streets that looked like a set from a post-apocalyptic tale of “The Twilight Zone.” Lampposts bent like drunks at 45-degree angles. A poster for a Peter Max art show now looked like a Jackson Pollock canvas. A sooty-faced cop fed a gasping K-9 Unit German shepherd water from a Poland Spring bottle. I could hear my own rapid breathing inside my sweaty mask as I gazed around to get my bearings as my native New Yorker compass went haywire. I instinctively looked up for the Twin Towers to tell me what was north or south, east or west.

They were, of course, gone. They left a giant hole in the New York sky, a larger one in the city’s wounded heart.

The Pile

Nurses and doctors waited on the perimeter of what would become known as “The Pile” to help the rescued. There were none. Volunteers fed the wheezing workers, offering cold drinks and hot meals donated by the ritziest downtown restaurants. Few rescuers knew that they would also become victims of 9/11 in seven, 10, 12, 15, 18 — and counting — years, from related cancers from that lethal dust.

FDNY Captain Vinny Brunton, 43, from Ladder 105 in Brooklyn, who used to work as a bartender at storied Farrell’s Bar, where I drank my first legal beer with my father, was never going to make another four-alarm run or serve another foamy Budweiser.

A friend named Tommy Sullivan was luckier. From his desk at Fiduciary Trust on the 96th floor of the South Tower, he saw the first plane strike the North Tower and ignored the PA announcements urging everyone to stay put at their WTC desks. He rushed for the stairs, stopping to help a heavyset asthmatic woman from the 78th floor to the street, where he learned his tower was also attacked with just minutes to spare before the building collapsed into the darkest day in American history. Sullivan walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and all the way out to Flatbush Avenue to Marine Park before getting a ride to his Breezy Point home.

The next day, Lieutenant Thomas Sullivan was called up by the U.S. Army Reserves to report to Fort Totten and wound up serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After covering Ground Zero and the stories of the 9/11 for a solid month as the drums of war echoed across the nation, I needed to decompress from interviewing the families and loved ones of the dead, and the relentless sadness and mounting paranoia. I rented a condo at Montauk Manor on the eastern edge of America. Out here, after the crowds of summer had gone back to the forever-altered city, I wandered the empty beach, gazed into the healing sunsets and starry night skies and the sky-blue promise of each new dawn, and took the time to count my blessings that no one in my family had been lost. I had a toddler who was learning to speak in this scary post-9/11 world.

I played with him and his Thomas Trains late in half-empty waterfront joints, and after a week, I began to recover, like everyone else, from the initial shock of the attack on our homeland. I had been too close to the worst story of our time to give it proper perspective.

That story — especially all the lies by politicians like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that drove us into a senseless war with Iraq that had zero to do with the WTC attacks but caused uncountable Iraqis and some 4500 more Americans troops to be killed — changed me. Changed the country. My son grew up in that truth-challenged, politically-toxic post-9/11 world, and as a teen, became fixated with politics. And like millions of others born in this new century, he will be voting in his first presidential election next year.

Eighteen years after 9/11, I’m hoping that those who were babies that day will make some earth-moving history in their first presidential election.

They are the post-9/11 generation. Vote.

To the 9/11 lost — RIP.

denishamill@gmail.com