Have you ever tried to feel emotion for an event you can’t remember? It is a difficult place to be in. Around you, there might be people wiping away tears or embracing each other in a hug that goes beyond words. And there you stand, wondering how to react when you feel like you are out of place.
On Sept. 11, 2019, I stood at the corner of Liberty and Greenwich Streets in New York City, a block away from Ground Zero. At that time, I was a student at Bethel University in St. Paul and was studying at The King’s College in Lower Manhattan for a semester through Bethel’s study abroad program. When I arrived in late August, I had heard from New Yorkers that the city does a remembrance tribute to the victims of 9/11 every Sept. 11, and being that I didn’t think I would ever be in the Big Apple on that day again, I wanted to go and pay my respects. Or stand in solidarity. Or cry. Or do whatever someone who has no memory of the horrific events that killed nearly 3,000 innocent lives would do.
The night before, my roommate who is also from Minnesota and I decided we were going to get up early and get to Ground Zero in time for the tribute starting at 8:46 a.m., the moment when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. In New York, no matter the time of day, there is also some action taking place on the subway. Even the rats have time to themselves in the cars. But on the morning of Sept. 11, the usually buzzing subway became nothing more than the amount of chatter in a doctor’s dormant waiting room. Nothing needed to be said. People knew what day it was.
My roommate and I got off the R train at Cortlandt Street and walked up the stairs out of the cavernous subway station. Just like on the train, as we saw daylight in Manhattan, the New York busyness came to a halt. All around the immediate area of Ground Zero, fences and barricades were set up, with only first responders and families of the victims allowed past.
As we stood near the closest fence, I noticed television reporters, standing, like us, just outside the fences, doing their live shots. Except none of these journalists were from America. They hailed from all around the world, including Japan, China, Mexico, and other nations. I began to understand that this one day goes beyond the border of the United States.
As the clock moved closer to 8:46, firefighters from the local FDNY Engine Company 10 came out and placed a red, white and blue wreath in front of a memorial to the 343 New York firefighters who died during 9/11. Engraved in bronze on the side of the station reads, “Dedicated to those who fell and to those who carry on.” And on the other side of the wreath is a phrase that is synonymous with the tragic day. “May we never forget.”
Never forget. The older I get, the more that line makes me stop and think. How can I never forget if I can’t remember it in the first place?
Living through 9/11
Roy Wetterstrom stood in the shower when he heard a loud noise. In New York City, loud noises aren’t at all uncommon. Never ending construction and busyness are just some of the reasons it is called the city that never sleeps. But this noise was different. Wetterstrom, who lives in Plymouth today, was a co-founder of a consulting company for Wall Street firms and lived part-time in Battery Park City, New York. Every Tuesday through Thursday, he would live in New York and Friday through Monday in Minneapolis.
On that fateful Tuesday September morning, Wetterstrom woke up in his 23rd-floor apartment just across the street from the World Trade Center, and when he got out of the shower, turned on the radio to see what the noise was from and heard something had happened at the World Trade Center. So he turned on his TV and saw the building on fire. “It was very surreal,” Wetterstrom said. Like many on that morning, he thought the fire in the North Tower was the cause of a terrible accident. But then a second plane ran into the other tower. “Then it became more concerning.”
After trying to get through to call his wife back in Minnesota, Wetterstrom miraculously made contact and told her he was safe.
But soon after, as he was watching the TV, he felt a loud rumbling sound. Wetterstrom said he had never been near an avalanche, but this was the closest feeling to it. His apartment building started shaking and as he looked outside, the bright sunny morning that once appeared now turned into a big mushroom cloud of smoke and before he knew it, debris had taken over the building and his apartment became pitch black. Like can’t see your hand in front of your face black. In the morning.
Not knowing what to do, he ran into the kitchen, got down on his hands and knees, and started to pray. “It was terrifying,” he said.
As the dust settled, the power returned and Wetterstrom turned back on the TV. To his shock, that out-of-body experience was the collapse of the South Tower. At that moment, a wave of unspeakable grief flooded his thoughts, thinking about the loss of life in that tower. “It was incredibly overwhelming,” he said.
While he is continuing to watch the coverage on TV, he starts to see the second building meet a similar fate as the first. As the mighty Twin Tower fell, Wetterstrom felt the same sensations. A cloud of smoke. Building shaking. Pitch black inside his room. Thankfully, he was not injured and around noon he began packing an overnight bag and he ventured out of the apartment towards the harbor to board a ferry and leave the city. With a towel wrapped around his face and a flashlight in hand, he walked down 23 flights of stairs towards ground level, where he saw several inches of standing dust and pulverized concrete. “I was in shock,” he said.
Wetterstrom ended up taking a ferry to New Jersey, where a friend from Greenwich, Connecticut came and picked him up and took him home.
But just because there was no physical wound visible, that didn’t mean Wetterstrom wasn’t hurting from living through 9/11.
For the six months after the attacks, Wetterstrom, usually a sound sleeper, didn’t get one good night of sleep. It is still hard for him to articulate why that happened exactly, but he said the overwhelming grief of knowing several people who died in the towers played a factor in his restless nights. “I think there was a PTSD element of it all,” he said. “Who in a million years would ever think that two jet airliners would crash into the middle of the Twin Towers and they would both collapse? You couldn’t make that up in the craziest movie ever.”
Each year on 9/11, Wetterstrom becomes reflective. “It is still pretty raw,” he said. “Even 20 years later, it cuts really close to home.” Twenty years may seem like a long time, but in a historical sense, the event just happened. Wetterstrom admits he hasn’t been able to watch any documentaries of the event because it is still so recent in his mind. And he knows that many people who, unlike him have no recollection of that day, will think of it as just a page in the textbooks. “I feel like there is a whole generation of people that for them 9/11 is another event in the history books.”
More than a history lesson
The first time I recall learning about 9/11 was in a middle school social studies class. On Sept. 11, we stopped our regular lesson plan and instead talked about something I had only heard of but never truly knew. We learned about the two planes hitting the Twin Towers in New York, one plane hitting the Pentagon, and the heroes on Flight 93 who died keeping the fourth plane from hitting another national landmark in Washington D.C. We learned about why there is now so much security in airports. And we learned that it was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil in American history.
For most students nowadays, 9/11 is viewed as a history lesson, just like the Challenger explosion or Kennedy’s assassination.
Teresa Askew has been teaching social studies for 40 years, the last 30 at Champlin Park High School. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Askew, 63, was in the high school library with her students. As she glanced towards the TV monitor, she knew something was wrong. Askew saw a plume of smoke over the New York skyline and said some of her students thought it was a video game. “What’s going on?” she asked.
When they got back to their room, the class watched more of the footage on TV. Two kids in her class were getting phone calls because they each had an uncle or aunt who was working in the Trade Center that morning. Some kids were visibly emotional, some yelled, others sat in disbelief, thinking it was a horror movie. “It was shocking,” Askew said.
With each passing year since 2001, Askew’s new group of students remembered less and less of 9/11, until recently, when some of her students hadn’t even been born before the tragic events. “It then becomes history and not a current event,” Askew said.
When it comes to Sept. 11 curriculum, Askew relies on videos, personal stories, and other primary sources to educate students who have no memory of the day. “You try and personalize it and grab their emotions,” Askew said. But that is easier said than done. “If you weren’t around, it is hard to elicit an emotional response,” she said. “But you try to have them remember.”
What Sept. 11 means to me
After the firefighters presented the wreath at Ground Zero, I looked down at my watch. 8:45 a.m. One minute later, everyone standing at the intersection of Liberty and Greenwich stood at somber attention, listening to tolling bells to honor the lives lost at that time 18 years ago. Again at 9:03 a.m., the bells rang. As I stood there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw family members inside the fenced-off area hugging each other, some weeping uncontrollably. To them, this tribute wasn’t just a bucket list item to experience. It was an annual reminder of their loved ones being taken away far too soon.
I could in no way understand the pain and anguish they were going through and have been going through for the past 18 years. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I wanted to relate with a stranger I just met who lived through those terrorist attacks, but I felt it insincere if I tried to artificially evoke emotion that just wasn’t there.
So where does that leave me now as we near the 20th anniversary of that horrific day? In the same place as I was standing near Ground Zero. Overwhelmed by the gravity of emotion from those who experienced the events firsthand, and yet yearning to relate and find some way to live the rest of my life with no memory of that day.
My roommate and I ended up going back to our high-rise Brooklyn apartment to work on a class project, or an essay, or whatever it was for homework, I can’t remember. But in the evening, we went back to Ground Zero. By that time, the fences were gone and we could go right up to the 30-foot-deep fountains, which reside where the former Twin Towers used to stand. Every year on 9/11, families of the victims place flowers or flags on their engraved names around the fountains. As we walked around both fountains, I didn’t say a word. Instead, I prayed. I prayed for the families of the victims, who will be forever affected by what transpired on that day. I prayed for the first responders, who could be called into perilous duty at any time, like on Sept. 11, 2001. And I prayed for our country, that God would keep us safe and evil like what happened that day would never again take place on our soil.
I ended up passing by the 9/11 Memorial several more times during my three-month stay in New York City. Each time, the first thing I noticed was the square fountain. Its constant stream a never ending reminder of what is not there. Since my time in New York, I have grown to learn that although I don’t have a personal connection to the day, I can still be a part of the national remembrance. My response may look different than others, but that is okay.
Even though I will never remember what took place on Sept. 11, 2001, like the waters at Ground Zero, I vow to never forget.