The day before was surreal. The day after, it seemed more tangible if not explainable. The strength and scope of danger was still unknown. I was still processing the images of commercial airliners turned torpedoes, exploding into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a random field in Pennsylvania. I was searching to understand who would want to attack America on her soil and would hold so much hate for our country. I had never before heard of al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden. Terrorism was not a real threat in the America I knew the day before.
It was this day that I knew the world in which I was raised had been shattered. I questioned everything. I questioned how I felt about American security and our military capabilities. I questioned who our American friends and foes were. I questioned why anyone could possibly hate us so much they would infiltrate and hijack our commercial planes and wreck our buildings and kill innocent civilians.
On 9/11, the world literally seemed to stop for a time. The day after, it seemed like it was starting to move again but not in any particular direction. Shock was real and disorienting. Katie Couric’s audible on-air exasperation on NBC’s “Today Show” when the second plane hit the second tower was ringing in my ears. The feeling of knowing the towers would fall, and then watching them fall and kill thousands of Americans was a bad dream the day before, and was still true when the sun arose again.
We had hotel reservations in less than a week at the Marriott Financial Center, two blocks south of the World Trade Center. Falling debris from the first plane injured pedestrians on the street in front of the hotel. The lobby of the hotel was quickly converted into a triage site and the guests were evacuated. The building next door caught fire from the burning jet fuel. The hotel then served the Red Cross for several weeks as a respite center for emergency workers.
There was no realistic way we were going on a trip to a city that was effectively at a standstill, by traveling on an airline that had just been hijacked by suicide bombers, to stay at a hotel that was no longer open. Then we got an email saying that our hotel reservation had been relocated to the historic Waldorf Astoria and that New York was asking, if not pleading, for visitors to come and visit. Tourism is their lifeblood and they couldn’t handle a final knockout blow.
We went. We arrived in New York City on Sept. 17, 2001. To say the mood in Manhattan was somber is an understatement. The smell is something I won’t ever forget. Even after burning for several days, it was a strong odor mostly of burnt plastic and burnt paper. While I hadn’t visited New York before, the city felt empty and completely preoccupied and confused. A spirit of survival, hurt, anger, and grace permeated the streets and faces of the people.
Lower Manhattan was shut down and completely inaccessible. Our experience turned into an astonishing medley of visiting the accessible landmarks around Midtown in one of the strangest times in history to do it.
We attended modified attractions that were open or half open with small lines and abnormally tiny crowds. We strolled from one sidewalk vigil to another, stopped at impromptu memorials set up in front of a fire stations.
Walls were plastered full of notes and posters seeking lost friends and family members with condolences, pleas for peace, hope, love and survival. Aside from the smell and the visible smoke, there was no way to avoid thinking about all of the fallen lives and twisted metal and debris just blocks away from us. We were trying to be normal in a place that was not normal.
We spent an entire day being shuttled by a network limousine from one talk show to another to help fill the audiences so the television shows could go on. We boarded a Circle Line ferry boat at Pier 83.
It was the first public trip allowed back on the Hudson and as we slowly approached the sights of Lower Manhattan, the boat captain audibly wept as he saw the skyline without the towers for the first time. A constant stream of smoke was still billowing into the air at Ground Zero. Building facades all around were scarred with holes and shattered glass. It is an image I will never forget.
It’s the day after the storm that defines us. Do we wake up and vow to be better, stronger, and smarter? America changed the day after 9/11. I woke up and knew the world would never be the same. Some days I worry whether we are better, stronger, and smarter than we were before Sept. 11, 2001.
Then I remember the Freedom Tower, known as One World Trade Center, standing as a representative of American greatness as the tallest building in the United States and the Western Hemisphere. It’s how we rebuild from any tragedy that matters most.
Dustin Manwaring is a business and estate planning attorney in Pocatello and served in the Idaho Legislature from 2016-2018.