Coral Kelly McCree
A barren, decimated space lined with cranes and chain-link metal fences surrounded the once-familiar landscape. Makeshift billboards clung to the fences, blocking the view to the inside, with depictions of a bright and new future terrain. Tourists and locals alike hustled along the crowded side streets, making their way to places both exciting and mundane. The building to my right stood tall and proud with darkly tinted windows that reflected the absence of structures that once dwarfed its impressive stature.
“Babe, do you see that building?” Justin said as he pointed to the tall, dark one I was admiring. “Do you see how tall it is?” I cranked my neck back as far as I could to see the top. “This one is only half the size of those two.” He motioned with a thumb over his shoulder toward the fences.
“Incredible,” I replied, somewhat despondently, as I spun to soak it all in.
Three flags were raised on staggered poles, the tallest one holding the United States flag and the other two were unrecognizable due to the lack of wind that morning. I battled with my emotions. I was in awe, but felt as though I should act with more humility and put my camera back into my bag. Was I photographing a landmark, a grave site or an historical place? I did not know, and continued to turn in circles photographing the buildings that still stood around me.
Two mornings earlier, sitting in a suite at the Grand Hyatt in New York City, Justin and I watched the ceremony on television, solemn and silent, exchanging remorseful glances in between the calling of names. A young girl dressed in a white suit stood at the podium, and in a steady but tearful voice recited, “And my father, Calixto Charlie Anaya, Jr.” I reached for an embossed napkin and blotted the corners of my eyes as they continued reading names alphabetically. The recitations came to an end as a man approached the podium.
“And now, a moment of silence,” the man announced to the crowd surrounding a pool of red, pink and yellow flowers they had tossed in memorial of family and friends.
The silence was heart-wrenching. There were no spoken words to distract me from the emotion or reality of that day. An unforgettable piece of our American family was taken from us on September 11th, suddenly and without justification. My thoughts and memories were all I had to hold on to at that point. A bell chimed and a banner along the bottom of the screen indicated the time the first tower, the North, was hit, 8:46 am. The moment of silence endured the sniffles that escaped me. A second bell chimed and the banner indicated the time the South Tower was hit, 9:02 am. My chest rose high and my breath stuttered as I tried to choke back the tears.
“This gets me every year. I—just—can’t—watch—this part,” I blurted to Justin as I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. Makeup was bleeding down my face, and the more I tried to pull myself together, the more the tears continued to flow. I took a few deep breaths, touched a dry washcloth to my cheeks and proceeded back to the living room, mustering momentary composure.
“I can’t believe it’s been nine years. It feels like it was yesterday,” I whispered to him across the couch, our eyes glued to the television.
When I heard the news on September 11, 2001, I was in my second week of classes as a freshman at Lynchburg College in Virginia. I strode obliviously into my 9 a.m. English class, surprised to see the television on and the class huddled closely together, whispering, watching, some with tear-filled eyes.
“The World Trade Center in New York City was bombed this morning. They’re thinking it was a terrorist attack,” a student said to me as I placed my things beside her.
We all sat motionless for the remainder of the period, fixated on the news. The clips, repeating over and over again, were painful, shocking, and provided us no answers. As the bell rang for us to move to the next period, I moved slowly, cautiously and searched for friends as I made my way toward Hobbs Hall. Moments after taking a seat in my Physics class, we learned that a plane had also crashed into the Pentagon. Many of my classmates were from northern Virginia and had family that worked in Washington, DC, myself included. Panic began to set in, and after a few minutes of watching the repetitive, painstaking collisions, we were dismissed.
I hurried back to my dorm room to turn on our tiny 13-inch television and stood in shock as I watched the towers get hit dozens upon dozens of times as the newsreel replayed. My roommate rushed in speechlessly and we held each other closely, staring in astonishment, tears running down our faces. Each recapitulation made me weaker, more emotional and nauseated. Then, more devastating news broke; there was a fourth hijacked airplane heading toward Pennsylvania.
Within minutes, news reports on every station were providing updates that both Twin Towers had disintegrated, one section of the Pentagon had collapsed and the fourth plane had crashed in rural Pennsylvania with no survivors. Even the most eloquent and seasoned reporters could not put the disaster into discernible words. No one knew what was going on. No one could explain why—or how—or who.
This was unlike anything I had ever witnessed and, for the first time in my life, I was hundreds of miles away from my family. I was terrified. I didn’t know if there was more to come. I didn’t know if I would ever see my parents or sister again. I reached for the phone to call my mom only to hear a busy tone.
“Babe? Coral? You okay?” Justin said as he shook my shoulder, his touch ceasing the tormenting nostalgia.
“Yeah, I’m okay. It’s just hard watching this every year. I still can’t believe what the people in this city went through. It must be such a difficult day for them.” I scooted closer to him, kissed him on the cheek and squeezed his hand. “I’m glad we’re here today but I don’t think I would be able to be down there hearing all those names called out with the families all around. I would lose it.”
We avoided the city that day and headed to Connecticut to visit with family. Upon our return to New York City that night, we caught a glimpse of the Empire State Building illuminated in red, white, and blue, and were swiftly reminded of the day.
Justin’s parents dropped us off at the Village Tavern near the Financial District to meet up with a few college friends for the remainder of the night. Justin, his sister, Michelle, and I ordered a drink as we were introduced to and reunited with several people. Brad, a long time college friend of Justin’s, introduced us to his roommate Bill. He was in great spirits, very talkative and, after Brad left, offered to buy the three of us another round. It was during this last drink of the night, on September 11, 2010, that Bill recounted the loss of his father in the World Trade Center attacks. His father was a prominent business man of whom Bill was very proud. He didn’t go into much more detail, but he didn’t have to. We made one final toast to Bill and his family, holding it a moment longer than usual to remember, and never to forget. We thanked him for the drinks and stepped back onto the city streets, changed yet again.
Two days later, the subway dropped us off at our destination: Ground Zero. I wasn’t sure if it was out of fear or respect, but I stayed across the street to capture images of the destruction and construction. Lost in a moment, Justin took my hand and led me to the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site museum we had come to visit. It was small and visitors packed in like sardines as a man at the door clicked a counter. I made my way to the reception desk.
“Is it okay to take pictures in here?” I asked sheepishly.
“Yes, photography is permitted,” the man muttered without making eye contact.
A timeline, matched with real-time photos of the events that took place nine years and two days prior, spanned the length of the top of the wall. Beneath the timeline was a breathtaking and bittersweet portrait of the Financial District skyline taken sometime before that fateful morning. I took a picture of it and my eyes welled up once more.
There was a helmet on display worn by FDNY Lt. Mickey Kross on September 11, 2001 while attempting to rescue survivors in the North Tower. The accompanying sign read:
Lieutenant Mickey Kross of FDNY Engine 16 responded to the escalating disaster in the North Tower soon after Flight 11 struck the building’s upper floors. With the firefighters from his company, Kross began ascending Stairway B. At the 23rd floor they felt a tremendous rumbling and were ordered to evacuate. Suddenly, he heard a deafening roar as the building collapsed. Miraculously, Kross and 13 others survived the disintegration of the North Tower above them, an outcome that Kross credits to fate and his protective leather helmet.
A few computers were positioned around the perimeter of the room on which visitors could search a database for victims of 9/11. Justin and his parents looked through the names in hopes of finding stories about those they had personally lost. Moments later, a large screen toward the back of the room began to play memorial interviews with family members who had lost parents, spouses, and children in the World Trade Center attacks.
The recounts and memories were painful, hopeful, and abundantly emotional. I stood watching as the room fell silent and everyone turned to watch and listen. I didn’t personally know anyone who was lost that day, but I can only fathom the strength and faith possessed by those who survived and lost loved ones. They, too, are heroes. They are the mothers and fathers who lost children and the children who lost parents. They are the ones who lost cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, coworkers, grandparents, and neighbors. With sadness swelling in my throat, I maneuvered through the labyrinth of misty-eyed onlookers and headed toward the exit.
In a glass display unit, a seven-foot-tall Statue of Liberty stood decorated with miniature flags, photos, buttons, ribbons, and notes from loved ones. It was ornate, sentimental, and beautiful. As I continued toward the exit, I found Justin’s mother perusing postcards and memorial books. I flipped through a few with her, but as each image emerged it ate away at the little strength and composure I had maintained.
“Carol. I have to go outside. I’m afraid I’ll break down in public,” I said softly and turned to leave. I grabbed a few brochures by the door, shoved them into my bag, and stepped past the man with the clicking counter for the last time.