By Hank Nuwer
“Stay the hell out of New York.”
The message blipped onto my laptop screen, sent by a journalist friend who was suddenly covering the biggest story of his life. If words on a screen could be heard, these would have been shouted.
Life had been tranquil earlier, ordinary. Just two hours into Sept. 11, the day had already proved a long one. I had just concluded an interview with a source for a future book, now long published, and at about 2 a.m., began driving to my friend Ken’s house who lived right off an interstate highway leading to Manhattan.
He was sparing me the cost of a hotel room in New York.
Once arrived, I slept for three hours, awaking to a shower and looking forward to a trip into the city for a cable television interview based on an alcohol-related death at Indiana University. I grabbed my suitcase and laptop. I patted my friend’s dog, Aspen, goodbye. Then the phone rang.
It was Michael, a relative of my friend. He asked if I’d heard that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. My friend is a pilot and Michael had called hoping to reach him.
“I’m headed into New York,” I said. “I’m leaving now.”
“I wouldn’t go,” Michael replied. “Turn on your TV.”
I hung up and turned on the television just as the second plane hit. Normally Aspen is a quiet dog, but the sounds I made when witnessing the towers in flames scared her and she began to yap insanely.
I called the cable network with whom I had the interview. The producer’s voice mail picked up. I sent an email to the producer and then one to a friend, a reporter at ABC. My friend responded with such brevity, I thought the email had misfired. He said only, “Stay the hell out of New York.”
He had seen those in the World Trade Center jumping from their office windows. He had viewed the footage brought in. He had seen the photos that most us have been spared from witnessing.
Still thinking the interview might occur, I gathered my things and headed out to the bus station for the commute to New York for the TV taping. It was then an adult nephew of my host came into the house saying, “You can’t get into the city. All the tunnels and bridges are closed.”
I called my mother to tell her I was safe. In her eighties, she was confused by my call. I told her to turn on her television and hung up.
I felt helpless upon my return to the Midwest. I wanted to do something, anything. It was later when I remembered my reporter friend and the photos he had seen. It was there I found inspiration. I created a Web site to honor the victims, those who died in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. I wanted to show them alive and vibrant, as they were the moment before the flames took their precious lives.
Because I often write on fraternity affairs, I thought the simple site could best honor the fraternity and sorority members lost in the attacks. Day after day, month after month, I added victim after victim. I taught computer-assisted journalism for Indiana University at the time as an adjunct, and the skills helped me find dozens of names. And once I launched the site, I heard from national greek groups, schools, ordinary greeks — each with a new name to add.
Soon, I had a long list of names together with scholarship sites set up to help the children of victims.
To all those hundreds who helped me put up a site online 20 years ago, thank you.
I have some definite thoughts about the 9/11 attack as I write in 2021.
First, the pilot friend who put me up is dead. Always proud of his vision, Ken Oppenheim died not long ago from complications related to melanoma of one eye.
The cable TV show producer rescheduled in one week and I drove into the city in a pickup. Every few blocks, police waved me over to search the vehicle. Tensions were high. But I recall the cordiality of the police officers, the TV production crew, and the staff at a low-budget hotel where I stayed.
Americans everywhere were coming together as one nation united. We mourned and mourned but were proud to know that there were brave, unselfish heroes among us — the First Responders.
My return to New York City for the cable taping coincided with major league baseball resuming after a game stoppage. I watched the Mets-Braves game in my hotel room. It seemed that every fan in the stands held an American flag, every player wore either a New York police or fire department ballcap.
I recall being choked with tears. If you didn’t feel emotion during the national anthem, you lacked a pulse.
It seemed like every member of both teams came out to give one another heartfelt hugs.
This was a time to rejoice in being an American.
Our nation took some really questionable actions after 9/11. History teaches us that. The venerable New York Times bears some responsibility. The flawed reporting of Judith Miller regarding Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction led us down the rabbit hole into Iraq and Afghanistan.
It cost us trillions of dollars and, worse, the lives of so many proud soldiers who died, not to mention the psychological wounds and missing limbs of so many fine men and women.
The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan. My heart goes out to all Afghan women, Afghan partners to the USA, and all Americans and green-card holders stuck there.
My wife happens to be in Poland today. She’s headed 9/11 to a New York airport en route to our home on the Stateline border.
I pray that the despicable terrorists have no plans to stage some sort of terroristic uprising to commemorate the 20-year anniversary.
I pray that we can come together as Americans, defeat the deadly pandemic, and put aside our personal differences for the greater good of our nation. We did it that unforgettable New York-Atlanta game.
My flag flies from my house, as it always has and always will.
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave; O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
To each victim, the families of the victims, and our cherished troops over the last 20 years, we will never forget you.
Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line.
Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.