September 11, 2001 was the first day I truly came to understand fear, in that weird way that you know it’s real but still can’t comprehend; can’t process what’s happening.
TV screens showed images scarier than anything I’d ever seen in a horror movie or video game; because this was real life. I was 16 at the time, and throughout the school day students names were read over the loud speaker to be told they were being sent home. Some of the calls were for kids with concerned parents wanting to have their children at home during the horrific events. Others were for kids who had a parent — or parents — that worked at the World Trade Center.
One girl from my school waited at her kitchen table for days before realizing neither of her parents were coming home. Another one of my friends, while we watched the horrors on television in Spanish class, told me confidently there was “no way” his father would die. It just wasn’t fathomable. His father was one of many to lose their lives. I still wonder if that friend remembers our conversation.
Over 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11. What’s crazy is I still remember that seemingly perfect morning. Glowing sun. No humidity. Bright blue skies.
Then at 8:46am, the time the first plane hit the North Tower, everything changed.
Not surprisingly, my entire sense of reality was shaken after 9/11. People died from cancer and guns and heart disease and old age… But terrorism? At the age of 16 this was a new word for me — hard to believe today with all the awful news stories popping up each day. It was just all so senseless. For the first time I felt like real life could truly be worse than my nightmares.
Being a licensed NYC tour guide I’ve done a lot of research on 9/11 beyond my own experiences. You simply can’t talk about this date without mentioning the word “tragedy” and saying a silent prayer for those who lost their lives to rest in peace.
It’s also important to point out, though, the tremendous bravery of certain individuals, as well as the support New York received from most of the world. One hero was a man named Rick Rescorla, a retired US Army officer who got a job as director of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (previously Dean Witter). He’d anticipated air attacks due to the vulnerable nature of the building, and pleaded with the firm to find a new office space. Because that wasn’t an option due to lease agreements, Rescorla enforced regular drills so employees knew how to evacuate in case of an emergency.
On 9/11 Rescorla was supposed to be home, but was covering for a co-worker. He is responsible for saving 2,700 people, singing inspirational songs into a megaphone while escorting people in and out of the building. Sadly, Rescorla did not make it out that day; however, his memory lives on through the Rick Rescorla Memorial and a book written by his wife, Touched By A Hero: A 9/11 Widow’s Journal of Love & Legacy.
The only female NYPD officer to lose their life in 9/11, Moira Smith was known for her intense dedication to being a police officer. According to NYPD Angels this was her second time risking her life in an extremely disastrous situation to help others. The first was during a 1991 subway crash in Union Square, which she survived and received the Police Department’s Distinguished Duty Medal for. Sadly, the second situation on 9/11 Smith did not survive, though she was seen selflessly saving others.
On 9/11 she became known as the woman with the flashlight who helped prevent mass hysteria and the blocking of exits. She saved hundreds of lives by directing people out of the South Tower and encouraging people to “Don’t look down; Keep Moving.” There is even a famous photograph of Smith heroically leading a bloodied businessman to safety, and an account written by another man she saved.
Welles Remy Crowther
Another hero on 9/11 was Welles Remy Crowther, known by the people he saved as the young man with the red bandana, which he’d used to cover his nose and mouth to protect against smoke and debris. Crowther had been a volunteer firefighter as a teenager, and during 9/11 was working as an equities trader on the 104th floor of the South Tower. When the chaos ensued Crowther took charge to move groups out of the building, going back in numerous times.
He saved over 15 lives, though lost his own. His memory lives on through the Welles Remy Crowther Trust, and his red banana can be seen at the 9/11 Museum. You can learn more about his story at Man In Red Bandana, a site for Crowther’s documentary. On the site you can also purchase a red bandana to help fund the film and donate to the Trust.
On 9/11 Stephen Siller had just gotten off from his job as a firefighter with Brooklyn’s Squad 1. When he heard about the attacks he called his wife to tell her he’d be late. He drove to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it was closed. Instead of giving up he strapped on his heavy gear — 60 pounds worth — and ran through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he lost his life selflessly saving others.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation hosts a number of annual events in his honor, including a walk/run of the route Siller ran that day.
St. Paul’s Chapel
To me, St. Paul’s Chapel is one of the most important attractions in NYC, and also one of the most overlooked. Not only is it the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City, dating back to 1766, but it’s also an important place to start your understanding of 9/11 heroes and what New York City was like in the aftermath.
Much of Lower Manhattan was damaged after 9/11, and the Reverend of St. Paul’s expected the chapel to be destroyed; however, when he went to see what he could salvage on September 12, he was shocked: St. Paul’s was completely fine aside for a six-inch layer of ash. A sycamore tree had fallen in such a way to save the chapel, which is also why in front of the affiliated Trinity Church down the street you’ll see a giant sycamore root system sculpture.
The Reverend took his fortune as a sign that he must help the community — especially those working on The Pile (the name for the rubble left from the Twin Towers). Can you imagine digging out dead bodies — 40% of which to this day were never found — in hazardous surroundings? In fact, over 30,000 people today have irreversible health problems from the horrific conditions.
St. Paul’s offered these workers a place of reprieve round-the-clock, and people came from all over the country to help by offering free medical / mental health services, meals, music, or simply a cup of coffee and someone to talk to. Because many of the workers began having foot issues, George Washington’s pew — yes, George Washington used to worship at St Paul’s — became a makeshift podiatry station. Hey, he was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and likely suffered foot ailments (and would have been happy to help).
St. Paul’s, A Church & A Museum
Today St. Paul’s, though currently closed for restoration until fall, acts as a church and a 9/11 museum — and you’ll 100% need to bring tissues, because it’s a very emotional spot. It’s free to enter, and inside you’ll find original photographs and letters left by those trying to find loved ones; a memorial altar; gifts donated by other countries (like colorful origami peace cranes from Japan); hand tracings from children around the world with hopeful messages; a signed banner of support from Oklahoma for Ground Zero workers; police and firefighter patches sent from around the world; original markings on the pews from the Ground Zero Workers’ boots while sleeping on them; and more.
After taking your time to peruse the exhibits surrounding the pews, exit through the back into the ancient graveyard. The headstones date back to 1704, and you’ll also see the Bell of Hope, given to NYC church by the city of London. Out of over 90 countries to lose citizens, the United Kingdom lost the most (aside for the US) with 67 casualties. The bell is rang each year on September 11th.
Continue walking straight to the 9/11 Memorial, an inspirational park paying homage to those who lost their lives, and the 9/11 Museum, a place to gain a deeper understanding of what exactly transpired on that tragic day.
This list is far from exhaustive. There are so, so, so many heroes that deserve recognition for their bravery during 9/11. If you have a hero you’d like to highlight, please leave a comment below.
For further reading on 9/11 heroes, check out 10 True Tales: Heroes of 9/11 and The 9/11 Dogs: The Heroes Who Searched for Survivors at Ground Zero.