An Eyewitness to 911
By Sonia Agron
It never gets easier to write about September 11th, 2001; but I do it because I feel that is one of the ways I can keep the voices of all those that were killed alive. Does it make sense? To some, it doesn’t. But to those of us that have lost a loved one, to those of us that survived the attacks, to those of us that volunteered in the days after September 11th, it means so much to us.
My day began like any other day. Years later, I started to remember bits and pieces of what happened in my life hours before the attacks. To this day, when I give my tours at The Tribute Center near Ground Zero, those memories come back so very clearly. It feels as if had happened just yesterday.
Many people talk about the site today. They wonder why it’s taking so long to build. I used to do the same thing until I became a docent for The Tribute Center (http://www.tributewtc.org/index.php ). What I saw during my training and then my work as a guide filled me with hope. I saw progress. I see it every time I give a tour. I see hope. Some wonder, why hope?
Hope is something we can never lose. Hope is part of my faith. When I give a tour, I don’t just see progress that many people don’t see until they are on a tour, I see hope in their eyes. They come to the site because many witnessed on television the devastation and destruction that imposed itself in our lives that day. They want to see what’s left. They want to see up close what was unbelievable to them on that day. They see reality. And then they “see” hope. They see a community, slowly but surely rising back to its former self, a bit scarier but that leads many to become stronger.
When I give my tours, I don’t leave anything out. Many times there are children on the tour so I use words that they can grasp. It’s important that they understand that it wasn’t just terrorist that attacked us because of the freedom we have, it was hate. Hate is something you learn. You aren’t born with that. When I give my tours, I make sure to instill that in every one, especially the children. They are our future and if it is our responsibility to them to make sure that we leave a better world for them. I pray each time I give a tour that I’ve reached out to at least one person who will go back home and make a difference in the life of someone else.
September 11th is my husband’s birthday. He was with the NYPD at that time. I heard about the attacks through a phone call from him. I was in Manhattan and he was home. He went to pick up our daughter and I had to find my way back home via a city that had shut down. It took me almost 7 hours to do that. I watched in horror, in the lobby of a hotel, the attacks. I watched as the towers collapsed. I wanted to scream so many times because I knew my husband was there and I did not know if he made it out alive.
I remembered putting my faith in God. I became organized in my mind. I focused on getting home. I told God that I would ask him for one thing at a time because I knew I wasn’t the only one needing him that day, but I knew in my heart that I wasn’t the only one he was listening to either. My first request was to please get me home to my daughter. When that was accomplished, my second request was for me to hear that my husband was safe. It came an hour after I arrived home.
For about five minutes that evening, we were elated. But the television reports reminded us that many others had not been blessed as we had. So together with my daughter we prayed. We prayed that others would be found, alive. When my husband called us he told us he was heading to building seven to secure it and that his next break would be at ten pm. A half hour after his call, we watched in horror as building seven collapsed and for the second time that day, I found myself along with my daughter in fear.
For the first time in my life, I lost a little bit of hope. On the outside I was consoling a frightened sixteen year old and on the inside I was planning a funeral. But I believed even if it was just a little belief, that if I believed in what I was telling her, it somehow had to be true. That was hope.
When ten o’clock came and went and we heard nothing from my husband it was that little hope that grew into faith. By one o’clock in the morning, I was struggling with myself. I did not want to believe that he was dead but what I was watching on the television kept pushing me into a world of despair. Nine hours after his last phone call the most beautiful sound in the world for us to this day is hearing the jingle of his keys in the door.
My daughter and I stood watching him as he walked in. We were afraid to move. We wondered if we were both having the same dream. He came towards us and we hugged a very tired and soot covered man.
He was given a three-hour rest period and he chose to come home to check on his girls. Selfishly we refused to let him go. But once again, I knew that this was bigger than us. I told my daughter that God sent him home and now we had to send Joe back to help others. We cried that night, trying to fall asleep, hoping that no more destruction would take place during the rest of the early morning hours.
Two weeks later, I began a ribbon mission. It started out quite simple. I made red white and blue ribbons and started handing them out to any one I came in contact with. The days after September 11th, people in our city came together in a way I had never seen before. No one looked down on the ground as they walked to their destination; no one was in a hurry. People were kinder. Handing out my ribbons to complete strangers connected us.
I then began to volunteer with the Red Cross and once again I felt God had sent me on another mission. I was sent to the respite center at Ground Zero to work with the rescue workers when they took their breaks. It was during one of my shifts that I met a man. I don’t know who he is. I never asked his name. But he saw me standing outside in my hard hat and facemask and I pulled them off at one point. I told him that I couldn’t recognize anything. I thought maybe because it was so dark outside. He pointed out where the towers had been. I didn’t realize I was so close to the site. I started to cry and he took me in his arms. I apologized and he told me it wasn’t necessary. He was here to help. He told me he was from out of town. That’s when I knew September 11th wasn’t just a New York thing, it wasn’t just about us, and it was about an entire nation. That’s when I added the tags on my ribbon. I wrote that I was going to make one ribbon for every person that was killed that day. I wrote that even though the ribbons were different, the colors were the same because on that day, it didn’t matter what nationality or religion we were, we were all Americans.
The ribbons took a life all of their own. It connected people that didn’t know each other. I started to receive spools of ribbons, emails, letters and cards from people that had managed to get a ribbon from a friend of a friend.
Two weeks later, I was diagnosed with cancer and was told that they really did not know how long I had to live, as my cancer did not respond to treatment. There was my faith once again being tested. I could not and would not believe that God had saved my husband only to have me die months later. Then I thought, maybe that was why God did save him, so that my daughter would not be alone after I did die. It was six weeks before my surgery and I chose in that time to live instead of worrying about what was to happen in the weeks ahead.
I could not volunteer any more because of all the toxins at Ground Zero but I continued to make my ribbons and send my husband to work with baggies filled with snacks and candy for his crew. I felt useless doing nothing at home and this was the best I could do.
It was about a week before my surgery that I received a package and a note from a young man. He told me he received a ribbon and that it was special to him for two reasons; it came from a New Yorker and his aunt had been killed in the towers that day. For him the ribbon was a connection to her. I held on to that card. This little boy saw that kind of hope and connection in my ribbon. I believe to this day that God was speaking to me, because I had slowly started the descent into despair over my surgery.
The night before my surgery, in my room, I felt as if I was choking. The tears would not stop. I got on my knees and prayed. Praying for me is not reciting what I was taught in school as a child, praying for me is a conversation with God. And so that night, I got on my knees and told God that I didn’t want him to take it personal but I wasn’t ready to go home. I wanted to live and I wanted him to give that to me. I thanked him for saving so many on September 11th and I thanked him for saving my husband. I told God that I was going to ask for one more thing; but I knew, as did he that it wouldn’t be the last thing I asked for. I asked him to let me live.
Nine years later, when I do my tours, I share this story with the many visitors that come to The Tribute Center. I tell them about my lack of hope at one time. I tell them that I thought I had lost it and then I realized that in my hour of need, hope is my God. Faith is my God and if I don’t lose that, I know then that I have everything I need.
I’m always asked why I do the tours. I tell them I do it because I’m thankful that my husband came back. I do the tours to be the voices of all those that were silenced that day because of one man’s hate. In fact, I make it a point that every time I give a tour, I select the name of one person that was killed that day and dedicate the tour to them and their loved ones. I do it to honor the families that have to live with this pain every single day of their lives. I do it because I want to make a difference. I do it because it is my responsibility to keep the memory of that day alive, not only for it’s tragedy but to remind every one that hate is what brought this into our lives and we must never let something like this happen to us again. History has been our best teacher and yet, some how, we haven’t managed to grasp the lessons we should have learned years before.
I always end my tours at the Eleven Tears. It is the memorial site of the American Express Building. It is a very simple memorial yet very profound. The AMEX building had an annex office in the Twin Towers that they provided for the employees who traveled a lot. They had twenty employees that worked closely together in that office. On that day, nine did not come in to work but eleven did. They were all killed. American Express did not want to wait for the Memorial site to go up, so they commissioned The Eleven Tears Memorial. It is inspiring to see. It is a crystal quartz Brazilian stone that weighs about six hundred pounds. The architect chiseled it into the shape of a tear. It hangs suspended by eleven wires that come from the ceiling. The stone doesn’t quite reach the eleven sided granite pool that was constructed with the names of the eleven people that died that day. Inside the pool the family was asked to come up with seven to eleven words to describe their loved one. Those words are engraved into the pool of water. Tears fall from the ceiling into the pool at different intervals. The quartz was chosen as a symbol because it has healing properties and can be found all over the world. The water is also a symbol of healing.
I end my tour each time thanking all the visitors for coming to pay tribute to those that were killed, for honoring their memories and for listening to our personal stories about September 11th. I tell them to go home and share with others what they experienced on their tours and to spread hope, peace and love. I remind them about hate and how it is learned and not born with us. I tell them it is about perspective and I leave them with this thought: We can mourn that Roses have thorns or celebrate that Thorns have roses.
As I write this, almost one week before September 11th, I do not try any more to hold back the tears. I know for every tear I shed, there have been many more tears shed by the loved ones of those that were killed that day. I come home after each tour remembering that day but I also remember that God saved me for a reason. I used to say he didn’t want me just yet, because he wasn’t ready for me but I know it’s because he wants me to share my message of hope. And I am so honored that he chose me to do this.
I ask you now… what will you do, what can you do, to honor all those that were murdered that day? I ask that whatever hatred you may have in your heart; whatever anger you may feel for what happened that day, take it away. In its place, do something to make a difference in the life of someone that hasn’t experienced love.
I was asked why I have no hate for what happened. My response? What good would hate do? I’ve already seen what it’s done to us. Why would I want to feel that? I have extreme sadness in my heart. I no longer wish it never happened because it did. So now I move on, and think about what I can do to make sure that hate and anger doesn’t come visit us again. And the answer for me has and always will be, God.
Amen and Amen!