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“Why are you HERE? Everyone else is trying to leave”- my family’s 911 Remembrance on Manhattan Island

Instead of the usual real estate post, I want to take a moment to remember a personal 911 story

The Invitation

After 8 days of watching the horrific 911 coverage from the safety of our living room in the suburbs of  Cleveland Ohio, feeling helpless and not knowing how to help, I got an email.  The email was sent to me from Rudy Guiliani on September 19th.  He decided to reach out to his Senatorial campaign donor list and he asked one simple thing – Come to New York.  In essence he said,  “We appreciate your sympathy and well wishes but we really need you here – NOW.”

We left for the New York the following day.

On the Road

I told the kids “We are leaving for New York City and our mission is to spend as much money as we can in the next 100 hours”.   The kids looked at their coupon clipping, “buy it on sale” Mom, in disbelief.  They said “OK” still in shock.  We packed and baked cookies for the road trip (8-10 hours), like we always did.  Later that day, my husband, Tim, picked us up after leaving early from work and we began to drive east.

We hit I 80 East the most direct route to Manhattan Island.   While we were driving through Pittsburgh something became clear to us.  A white Ford Explorer with Idaho plates and a sign in the window “NYC or bust!” pulled up next to us and we honked at each other in mutual recognition.  We started looking around us and began to study each vehicle and the other travelers and realized that they came from all along the I-80 corridor forming a motley caravan of families, just like us.  Doing the only thing they could do – travel to The Island.

The Island

It was 3 AM, my 6 and 8 year old kids were asleep and we finally arrived on The Island.  As  we started to cross the Washington Bridge  we noticed something different.  The United States military was there waiting, machine guns in position to meet all comers who ventured onto the bridge.  This was the new post-911 reality.   We were not ready for it.  The soldiers circled our little red minivan, two sleeping kids in the backseat and tried to figure out what the hell we were doing.  Looking my husband over pretty good, the Senior machine gun wielding soldier asked “Why are you HERE?  Everyone else is leaving”.   We could only say one thing –  “Rudy Guiliani asked us to come”.   He looked at us and said while shaking his head “Well then, Welcome to New York” and with that, he let us through.

Going Places We Wouldn’t Go

New York was never a top of the list destination where we would take “the kids”.  Too expensive, too adult, too everything.  But the mission Rudy gave us was clear.  Come to New York and spend as much money as humanly possible in the next 3 days.  I brought a large roll of $20 dollar bills and the determination to dispense each and every one on this trip to each bellman, waiter and others in our path.  The toney Omni Berkshire, located between 5th and Madison Avenue, was the type of hotel we typically would not stay at with “the kids”.  Today it was perfect.  They were open but struggling for business.  Bulls-eye.  We booked the “never happened before and never going to happen again”911 distressed rate of $86 per night.

When we showed up at 3:20 am the bleary eyed bellman greeted us with a hug.  One of the female hotel managers joined him and they hugged each of every one of our exhausted crew –  “Thanks for coming… we can’t believe you came all the way from Ohio, but we are so glad you’re here!”   We settled in to our room.  What a surprising New York welcome at 3 in the morning- but there was more of that to come.

We are in New York and we need to spend money FAST-now what?  In the morning we we hatched our plan-booked reservations for the Rainbow Room for tonight, Phantom of the Opera tix for Saturday and go shopping at Macy’s.  After breakfast at the hotel, we head to Macy’s Flagship store in Herald Square.  Going to the revered Rainbow Room we had reserved a window table, now we gotta get the kids dressed…  We always watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and it looked just like you see it on television.  We arrived at 11:00 am and we were stoked and ready to spend.  When we stepped inside the store was open but eerily empty.  We tracked down an elderly saleslady in the kids department for a money-is-no-object-get-the-kids-decked-out- for-later- that-night shopping spree.  More New York hugs.  before we left Macy’s our sales lady asked  “Have you been to Ground Zero yet”.  I just shook my head, no.  We left the vacant store to get ready for the evening and as we walked back to the hotel we could not escape the smell of smoke and the reality of why we came.

We arrived at the Rainbow Room at 7:00 pm at the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center.  We had asked for and gotten a window seat. The significance of this fact is that you could have booked months in advance and not scored a window seat – but we booked it that morning.   Eight million people reside in New York City with nearly two million on The Island alone yet, only 10 tables filled at the Rainbow Room on that Friday night.  NYC was definitely hurting.  As my family settled in for our meal we could not ignore on the horizon the fire still burning at Ground Zero and the amazing amount of smoke hanging over the city.  The kids asked us with trepidation as they watched the fire “Are we going to Ground Zero?”  I told them “that was not a part of “the mission”.

One after another New Yorker we ran into asked us that very question.  I had heard on the news that people were going to Ground Zero to gawk and I did not want to be a part of THAT group.  What a sick intrusion on this tragedy. However, when I arrived on the island, it was not that way at all.  It seemed that the Islanders wanted us to experience it, to share their pain and pay respects.  I might relent but it is a tough call when you have young children in tow.

Saturday, the boys and girls split off in different directions spending our dollars in different places-Saturday evening, Gina and I went to a performance of Phantom of the Opera which played to 45% capacity crowd and we hit Sardi’s afterward.

A New Mission

On Sunday morning we woke up having been warmly welcomed by the Island survivors for the last few days.  I arrived at a decision-the girls would go to Ground Zero to pay our respects and the boys (asthmatics, both) would stay away due to the intense smoke.  Gina and I grabbed our home baked goodies originally baked for the nearby firehouses and headed off to Ground Zero.

We took the subway to a stop near City Hall.  As we ascended out of the station we smelled the smoke and something else.  As we walked toward the site the smell got stronger and I realized what the unforgettable smell was-it was a funeral pyre. We solemnly joined the long line of  mourners along Broadway Avenue where the barricades were erected.  Gina and I slowly walked the barricaded line peeking past the buildings to see the burning rubble and what remained of the twin towers, a place I had visited in the past but my children would never be able to go.  As we passed the funeral site, a firemen asked us “Do you want a picture?”  We handed him the cookies but declined the photograph. Not here, not ever.  I watched the 911 coverage on television but it did not  compare to the impact of actually being there.  I can only describe the trip to Ground Zero this way-it was like arriving on the scene of a train wreck and a national funeral all rolled up into one.

“Why are you HERE?” the soldier asked us on our way into the city. Now I knew….and at that moment I finally understood why so many Islanders asked us if we had been or were we going to Ground Zero.  The Island wanted our financial support like eating at the restaurants,  staying in the hotels; but they wanted more from us travelers.  They wanted us to bear witness to the carnage so that we would never forget the horrific tragedy. In essence, a Pearl Harbor waged against a civilian population.  And they wanted us to remember and remind others.

And that is why I post this story today on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 911.


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