September 11, 2001, I arrived at school at the usual time. I was teaching a group of happy, noisy, full of life 4th graders at St. Joseph’s School in West Orange, New Jersey. The morning proceeded in the usual way, until I started receiving call after call from the office for a student to go home. Thinking it was odd when four students left early, and it was still before 10 a.m., I had no choice but to continue with my classes.
At 11:45 a.m., fifteen minutes before the class was to break for lunch, the principal showed up at the door and asked me to step into the hallway. I will never forget her words.
“You need to know why so many students have gone home, but you are not allowed to tell any of the children what I am about to say. We are under attack. The Twin Towers are gone. The Sears Tower was hit. The Pentagon was bombed. Washington is under attack.”
I stared at her for a moment, and then asked, “The Twin Towers are gone? Where did they go?”
“They are just gone! Now go back to class,” she yelled at me.
Obviously, she had some of her information incorrect, but I did not know this at the time. I walked back into class in a fog, and the children knew by looking at me that something was wrong. I smiled and told them I was fine.
Since I was working at a Catholic School, we were allowed to pray, so that is what we did. I told the children that we were going to take a little break and say a decade of the rosary. We had a prayer chain around the room with links of construction paper on which the children wrote their daily intentions, so I took one and not really understanding what was happening, I wrote something to the effect, “For everyone who is involved with this today and might be in trouble, hurt, dying, or in danger.” I stapled it onto the chain, inside out so that the children could not reach it, picked up my rosary, and joined the children in a circle on the floor. When they asked me for what we were going to pray, I told them, “For everyone who needs prayer.” We prayed the rosary until the lunch bell rang.
At lunch, several of the teachers gathered around a small radio in the 6th grade teacher’s room. What we heard floored us. The principal may have been wrong about the Sears Tower, but the Twin Towers were definitely gone. I felt empty, confused.
When I was about 10, my mother took us to the 107th floor of the South Tower, the observation deck. When the elevator doors opened, my heart stopped. It was then that I found out I was completely and totally terrified of heights. Bad place to discover it. I hugged the wall and cried all the way around. I was never so happy to see the elevator!
When I started law school, downtown New York City at New York Law School, I rode the PATH into the WTC station every morning. The summer prior, in an attempt to “break” me of my fear, a friend of mine convinced me to go to the rooftop, the 110th floor of the South Tower. Heart pounding and afraid to look, I walked around the roof with my friends, praying I wouldn’t get sucked off the top. Over the next several months, I spent a lot of time on the 107th floor, when friends from law school would go up there for lunch. I did not learn to love it, but I did it. I convinced myself that the buildings were secure and were never going anywhere, so I was fine. When I met a teacher for a conference on the 50-somethingth floor and saw the other tower swaying in and out of the corner of the window, I again convinced myself I was safe, and the buildings would be there long after I was. But I couldn’t look. Those buildings helped me conquer my fear of heights. Until that fateful day - September 11, 2001.
Sitting listening to the stunned voices of the radio personalities, I felt as if I was in a nightmare and none of it was real. I had to see for myself.
When school finally let out, the conversations of the parents waiting for their children were of shock, and fear. Fear about what had happened, and fear of not knowing if it would happen again. One of my students ran up to me after greeting his parents and told me what had happened. The look on his face is burned in my memory.
After the last child in my care had left for home, I drove through Eagle Rock Reservation. From the Reservation there was a view of the New York City skyline. I sat in my car, horrified at the smoke rising from where the two proud towers once stood. I hurried home, where I saw over and over the tragedy that had occurred being replayed on the television.
That night, as I sat on the computer preparing lessons, my mother walked into the room and stood leaning against the wall. I remember seeing my mother cry only a handful of times in my entire life. She looked at me and tears slid down her face. She spoke two words, “Eileen’s husband,” and then she sobbed.
I met Eileen and her brother, Patrick McGinley, somewhere around 1977 or 1978 at the Jimmy Friel School of Irish Dance. Over the years, Eileen was not only a good friend to both me and to my sister, Yvette, but Pat was a tease and a pest and we loved him, and their mother, Mary, became best friends with both my mother and grandmother. I could only hug my mother in shock. A national tragedy had hit home.
The next few weeks were a blur. One of my students ran to me in tears after our prayer service in school, because her mother, a nurse and EMT, was returning to Ground Zero to help.
Eileen, pregnant with her second child, visited my grandmother. Her son Patrick, age two, told us the bad men had taken his daddy. A few months later, in January 2002, Kevin James Hannaford, Jr. was born.
Eileen turned the tragedy into something positive by creating the Kevin J. Hannaford, Sr. Foundation. The Foundation is a not for profit organization that assists children who have lost a parent to death. She is one of the strongest women I know.
She is not the only wife, husband, mother, father, grandparent, sister, brother, friend, who has had to pick up the pieces from the fallen towers and downed planes and go on with life.
Unfortunately, Americans have a short memory. When the attacks first occurred, everyone bonded together and patriotism was alive and well. When the call for war was heard, Americans pumped their fists and cheered. We were told it would be a long, hard battle, and as a Nation, we were prepared to fight. When the National Anthem played, the entire Nation stood tall, placed their hands over their hearts and sang along.
Eleven years later, we are still at war, but most Americans go about their daily lives not knowing or remembering that half way around the world, our military is in mortal danger every minute of every day. Our young men and women are shot at, blown up, killed, and many Americans have forgotten that we are there. They are tired of a war so far away, lasting way too long, and many of them think it is over. Some even asked me how my son could have been injured when the war is over. They don’t walk the halls at Walter Reed Bethesda and see the aftermath of war. They are so wrapped up in their own lives, that now when the National Anthem plays, they talk, text and barely acknowledge the Star Spangled Banner waiving so close, yet so far. At a football game the other day, I wanted to scream when I saw a group of women continue to gossip, and a teenage girl texting. Where has the respect and patriotism gone?
As a Nation, we pause to remember the events of 9/11 once a year. The specials on television, the events in remembrance, the speeches of various politicians bring back some of feelings from that fateful day, but once September 12th dawns, most Americans are back to their own lives. The lives of the families who still mourn the loss of loved ones are forever, irreparably changed. And most Americans no longer even think about it.
So on this September 11th, pause a moment to think back to where you were on September 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane hit. Remember how you felt, what you thought, the promises that you made. Remember our soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors who are still fighting in a country far away as a result of that fateful day. Remember our fallen men and women of the military who heard the call to arms and answered, and are now deployed to Heaven. Remember our wounded warriors who fight every day to piece back their lives, some from wounds easily seen when they strap on their prosthetics, and some from the invisible scars of war. Remember the almost 3,000 families whose lives were changed that day. Remember the thousands of families who have lost loved ones or cared for a wounded warrior from the war that followed. And when September 11 comes to a close, please don’t forget. A Nation that forgets is doomed.