There is a palpable heaviness in New York in early September, a kind of knowing hush. This year feels particularly heavy, as 2021 marks two decades since the deadliest terror attack in American history. The lives of nearly 3,000 people were claimed that day, which, at its start, was by all accounts ordinary. Clear blue skies and pleasant late-summer weather greeted folks just heading into work as flight crews and passengers buckled into their seats, daydreaming about their destinations. Parents dropped children off at school, kissing them on their foreheads and thrusting lunchboxes into their hands. The monotony of the subway lulled straphangers to sleep, paper cups of lukewarm coffee teetering precariously in their clasped fists. At the Capitol, the usual hustle of lawmakers, interns, and analysts alike filled the hallowed marble buildings, while across the Potomac, Pentagon employees scanned identification badges for clearance. It was a Tuesday morning and we were in the ebb and flow of our daily routines—we grabbed greasy breakfast sandwiches from street carts, yawned and stretched at our desks, waited in classrooms as teachers took attendance. Maybe we told those we loved how we felt or perhaps such a declaration absent-mindedly slipped through the cracks of the morning rush. It was impossible to know then what we know now: over the course of the morning, our lives would be irrevocably changed. Along the way, all of us would lose something, but some of us would lose everything.
I was rather young on September 11, 2001, though like many New Yorkers, I carry the memory of that day in the core of my being—the announcements, frighteningly calm, over the loudspeaker; solemn conversations between teachers in the hall, their hands clasped over their mouths; the cold glow of the television we huddled around at home. Friends and family all seem to recall something from this day: paperwork, the debris of the day-to-day, carried boroughs away, the heavy layer of soot and ash that seemed to eclipse all light, the frantic phone calls, the last-minute changes of plans and sick days that completely rewrote history. Many were subjected to (and still endure) the sting of bigotry and hate, unfairly associated with the perpetrators due to their names, their religion, the color of their skin. And then there are those who suffered the unimaginable, whose fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends, and children were so cruelly taken from them.
Our collective sorrow was unfathomable, and the fracture of a once-complete skyline felt hollow, as if the cityscape itself was grieving. But in spite of the shock and sorrow, there remained a glimmer of hope and recovery. Strangers and neighbors banded together, cultivating a sense of community built on decency, kindness, and an intimate understanding of the grief that each and every one of us carried. The days and weeks that followed the attacks demonstrated both the depths of our resilience and our capacity for empathy and unity, even in the wake of an event that initially felt impossible to recover from.
From the courageous passengers and crew of United 93 who sacrificed their lives to save countless others, to the first responders and bystanders who ran headfirst into fire and rubble to find survivors, to all those who were simply heading into work or a meeting at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, the lived experiences of those who died on that day—and of those who survived them—serve as reminders of how precious and how fragile this one existence truly is. We choose to remember and honor them every day, but especially today: with 20 years of distance, time spent grieving and healing and reliving each moment of tragedy and recovery, historical and personal perspectives alike have become all the more complex and poignant. And while these personal accounts of those who lived through each moment are central to our understanding of September 11, 2001, they are even more significant for the humanity and depth of soul that they convey.
Oral histories and memories passed down through storytelling have been a vital part of humanity's shared culture since the dawn of civilization, and it seems we've all had such moments of pained reminiscence in conversations within our own communities: Where were you on that day? What do you remember? How does it make you feel? There are few accounts more powerful than these audio recollections of the lived histories of 9/11—their words, their voices, their stories all ensure we will never forget, that the passage of time will never erode the memory of those loved, lost, and left behind.
This day is painful for so many; if you’re struggling with grief or trauma, you are not alone. The resources below offer support, whether you’re in need of treatment, assistance, community, or simply looking for someone to talk to.
Crisis Text Line: Text “CONNECT” to 741741.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Call 1-800-950-NAMI or visit nami.org/help to chat online.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotline: Call 1-800-622-HELP.
NYC Well: Residents of New York City can reach a trained counselor by texting “WELL” to 65173, calling 1-888-NYC-WELL, or chatting online at nycwell.cityofnewyork.us/en.
The Voices Center for Resilience: Visit voicescenter.org to access a range of services and support for survivors, families of victims, responders, and communities affected by the attacks.
Tuesday’s Children: Geared towards families who suffered as a result of the attacks, you can visit tuesdayschildren.org to learn more about programs for youth and adults alike.
September 11th Families Association: Those seeking peer support and resources for recovery can visit this organization at 911families.org.