Eighteen years ago today I was a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City. I lived in Mt. Vernon with my cousin (far from school) and would often stay my dear friends’ in the Bronx (8 siblings).
That morning Noemi and I woke up to the alarm and the radio personality urging us to run to our televisions to see what was happening. We ran to the living room to find Ester watching the news when, from the left of the screen, we saw another plane fly toward the buildings and hit the second tower.
Confusion wrapped us all. We were unsure of what had happened. We watched replay after replay (like everyone else) in pure shock. We were glued to the television for what seemed like forever. Then the phone rang. My mother, “I just spoke to your father, DON’T LEAVE THE HOUSE. He’s ok. He felt the first hit and just saw the second plane hit. They’re telling him to stay in the building. He’ll be ok.”
Papi was at his office on Wall Street across the street from the towers. At the time I had no concept of distance between the buildings. I just became numb… In my mind, “Papi was there, but he would be ok.” That was all I could grasp. A little while later my cousin Omar picked me up to take me back to Mt. Vernon to be with Mami. I remember the conversation with Omar to be somewhat of a riddle. Question after question. No answers. Theory after theory. No certainty. Hope after Hope. No definites. It was the longest ride home. Not because of the conversation, but because… I just needed answers. “Had Papi called again? Was he ok? How will he get home? Is he ok? Did he stay in the building? Is he ok?…” And then we heard on the radio that the first tower collapsed… “What?!” Papi, is across the street! Is he ok?!” And then the next tower collapsed… Numb, yet again.
I got home to Mami. She was also numb and with no answers. She was just sitting by the phone watching the scene over and over again, waiting… I sat with her and did the same. At about 5pm, after hours of staring and waiting… the phone rang. It was one of Papi’s colleagues from Puerto Rico. As soon as he confirmed that this was my mom on the phone he began yelling, “Is he wearing a blue shirt and brown pants?!” “Yes!” my mom yelled in response. “He’s ok! I’m watching the replays on Telemundo. He ran from the debris! I see him. He’s ok! He’s ok. He got away! He ran by the water!” Mom began yelling, “He’s Ok!! He’s Ok!!” and celebrating like I had never seen her before… He was OK. ~Deep Sigh~ We could breathe again.
Papi didn’t get home until past midnight. We all pounced on him like you would a ball player that made the winning shot. But he was numb… He had walked all day from Wall Street all the way to 86th Street. Waited there for hours in a colleague’s home replaying the day’s events. Unable to get away from what he had seen and experienced. All of which we still do not know fully because he’s yet to talk about it.
Every now and again he’ll share a detail. Like how he decided not to stay in the building and how he had to practically carry one of his colleagues because she was in shock and unable to move. Only recently has he shared of coming out of the building, looking up, seeing people jump, and watching those around him stare motionless. He says that he was afraid but knew the building would collapse. He tells of how he started yelling at his curious and frozen friends, and people around him, “ We need to run toward the water.” And that they did. As they were running away, the first building collapsed. Had they stayed by the building…
Three months later he was back to work and I was back in school (my school was just a train stop away from the towers and was used as needed by the recovery team). One night we decided to meet and head home together. When I arrived at his office building and realized how close he was to the attack, the numbness I still carried became raw emotion. I could not hold back the tears, the fear, the disbelief, and the love I had/have for my father.
As I stood outside the building, looking in and waiting for him to walk off the elevator, I sobbed. He finally came out of one of the elevators and as I watched him laughing with a colleague and walking towards me the thought of not having him in my life overwhelmed me. I almost collapsed. Papi came out just in time and I held on to him for dear life. I cried and cried and cried… People walked by and I could feel him nod to them as if to say, “No explanation needed. We all know what’s happening here.”
The whole city was in mourning. Everyone was one story, one kind act, one memory, one sincere moment… away from tears. Papi held me for a good while. All he kept saying was, “It’s ok. Estoy bien. Estoy aqui.” (I’m ok. I’m here.)
Today I think of, and pray for, all the families whose loved ones are not ok and not here: May the God of grace and peace that surpasses all understanding inundate them will love and courage to live; to live fully, boldy, and faithfully… with God’s help. May those who watched from a distance and cannot fully grasp the tragedy, lean into the stories of those who understand it personally and expand their worldviews. May we all remember, never forget, and fiercely do our part so that this kind of tragedy never happens again.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.