You cannot blame people for allowing tragedies to become textbook events. When enough time elapses, even the most monumental occurrences fade into history. But with Monday marking the sixteenth anniversary, I would like to take the time to share one story of the September 11th terrorist attacks that reminds us why it is so important to remember.
On September 11, 2001, I was a second grade student at Franklin Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. The terrorist attacks shattered my sense of safety, comfort, and childlike rationality. An already somber child at age seven, the destruction of my beloved New York upturned my sense of security. But this is not my story. It belongs to many people, and one of them is my father.
Anthony Polini was born in Queens, New York. His blood flows with pride for the New York Yankees, Mets, Giants, and Jets—an almost cardinal offense to native New Yorkers, but he embraced all symbols of New York pride.
“Almost every day I’d be there for some reason,” said Polini, referring to the World Trade Center buildings. In September 2001, Polini held the title of Wall Street Equity Analyst. He worked in downtown Manhattan in One Financial Center, the building next door to the famous Twin Towers, which for many stood as a proud symbol of progress, industry and international advancement.
On September 11, 2001, Polini was scheduled to have lunch with a client at the Windows of the World, a venue complex located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, also known as Building One—the tower that would be struck at 8:45 A.M. that day, 18 minutes before the South Tower would be hit as thousands of commuters arrived at what at first seemed like a normal Tuesday at the office.
But Polini—who usually caught the 5:30 train and arrived to work by 7—never anticipated making that lunch. The morning before, his client had called and requested the lunch be held that day. Polini agreed without hesitation, entertaining his client in what was once known as New York City’s tallest building.
“I remember that Monday when I was going to lunch, thinking just how cool it was to be there,” said Polini, as he recalled the World Trade Centers with a mix of respect and awe. The Towers, Polini said, were alive with shops, people, professionals and tourists alike. “It was really a very cool place to be visiting on a regular basis,” he added.
Polini recalled stopping by a friend’s office in the South Tower that Monday after lunch. The office building was close to the top; less than twenty-four hours later, the majority of the people on that floor would have lost their lives.
When the first Tower was struck, Polini’s friend and his colleagues were instructed to remain where they were and not leave the building. Luckily him and a several of his fellow workers decided to ignore orders and flee the building—a decision that saved their lives. At 9:03 AM on September 11, the South Tower would be struck beneath where the people worked, making escape an impossibility.
Polini was one of the lucky ones.
“I got home that Monday evening, laid out my clothes for the next day, and my wife said that there was a special speaker at church the following morning and would I like to go, and I said actually my lunch meeting was moved to today so I’m free to go… It was a nice day that morning, the weather was nice, and I decided to stay home and go to church,” Polini said.
After dropping their three children off at school, Polini took his wife, Anne, to St. Helen’s Church. While in service, somebody announced that a plane had crashed into one of the Trade Centers and that everyone needed to pray.
“Everyone assumed it was a small private plane that occasionally hit things in Manhattan. No one assumed anything more than that,” Polini stated, initially unable to conceive of the magnitude of what was occurring. “When we went home, we watched the TV, and we actually saw the second plane go in, and we realized that the first plane was a commercial jet… and then we started to appreciate the severity of the event.”
Polini said the attacks were life-changing. “People in the US always felt safe and somehow isolated from the terrorism that was sweeping across Europe, and this was the first attack by foreign terrorists on our soil,” he said.
It was difficult to contact people at work. Shutdown cell reception and mass chaos made it a nightmare to determine who was living and who was among the fallen. Polini managed to connect to his partner, who did go into work that day, and was trying to get off the island amongst traffic and confusion.
“One of my best friends was in the Trade Center. I couldn’t get a hold of him. And it turned out he escaped,” said Polini, relaying that another friend miss the train to work that day and was also saved.
But in the days to follow, Polini learned that nearly 100 people he knew well had passed away, including two very close friends and over 60 colleagues from a single firm. In the following weeks, Polini experienced anxiety and tension when riding in the tunnels to get to work, a sentiment that he said all New Yorker commuters seemed to share.
“The destruction and chaos downtown was incredible. Nothing was open, there was still dust and debris everywhere, you couldn’t get close,” he said, adding that he watched the debris slowly get cleared out. “I watched the Trade Center basically get ripped down to nothing but a giant hole. And it was very eerie.
“The biggest loss that day was the loss of innocence as a country,” Polini stated. “The rebuilding process was long and hard, but New Yorkers united.”
Ten days after the terrorist attacks, major league baseball resumed play in New York. Polini took his son to the first Mets game at Shea Stadium (now Citi Field), where the field was flooded with the valiant first responders of New York City, including the police and firemen who had selflessly risked their lives in the aftermath and were lucky enough to have survived. Beloved catcher Mike Piazza hit a home run, bringing the Mets to a comeback victory, while Diana Ross sang “God Bless America.”
“New Yorkers were not going to give into terrorism and were going to live their lives with dignity and freedom,” Polini stated with conviction.
The September 11th terrorist attacks are now something that is written about in history books. It may not be your story; I remember the aftermath of the event as vividly as memory can be trusted. But it isn’t my story either. As Americans, it is our story to remember. We will not be defeated by terrorism. It is our duty to persevere, to honor the fallen, to remember the past in order to erect a brighter future.