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How Do You Remember 9-11?


I remember 9/11…

Early that brilliant sunny morning, I was on a train from Baltimore heading to an early childhood policy conference in Newark. As we approached the station, a man just a few seats behind me said loudly “A plane just hit the World Trade Center in Manhattan, but no details yet.” He was reading from his laptop. What a terrible accident I thought as the train slowed to a near halt.

Suddenly, a conductor passed through the car announcing we all must get off in Newark, even though to last stop was supposed to be New York’s Grand Central Station. The station platforms were a tumult of confusion and once I exited to the street, the frightful scene just across the Hudson River was visible…smoke was pouring from both of the World Trade Center towers into the bright blue sky and the news circulated through crowd that this was not an accident.

Within minutes we learned that that all public transportation in and out of New York was suspended.  A sense of panic began to take hold as so many people in earshot had family, friends, and associates who either lived or worked in lower Manhattan.  All cell phone service was jammed and rumors were rampant as news of the plane crashes at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania came to light. None of us knew what to think.  What would happen next?

“I had already called my wife on a borrowed phone to say I was OK and promised to call back later.”

After locating a few colleagues who were also scheduled to be at the conference, we gathered in the hotel lobby and tried in vain to make travel plans to get home.  After a few confusing hours, word came that a commuter train was operating in central New Jersey heading south, so I found a cab ride in that direction. I had already called my wife on a borrowed phone to say I was OK and promised to call back later.

At about 4:30 I boarded a crowded train and found an aisle seat way up front. I instantly noticed that many of the passengers were disheveled, their clothes grimy and dusty.  I realized that this train had originated in Manhattan, and almost all the passengers had likely either witnessed the shocking events of the morning or were already planning to travel south and make it out.

I noticed a man in his late 30s across the aisle who was completely silent and obviously despondent.  He hardly moved, staring straight forward. His suit coat, pants, and shoes were dirty. His hands and face were streaked with sweaty grime. I leaned toward him saying, “Hi, my name is Jack……I just boarded the train. Did you come from Manhattan?”

He didn’t look my way or make any movement indicating he had heard me.  I rose up and leaned closer, asking his name.  His eyes darted my way but instead of answering, he slowly shook his head.  I immediately sensed emotional trauma. The only thing I could think of saying was “Did you see the towers?”

With that, he looked at me wide-eyed and said softly “I was in there and got out and walked and walked until I got to Penn Station to go home.”

I reached to gently touch his coat sleeve and asked again, “What’s your name?” “Keith,” he whispered. “Where do you live, Keith?” I asked.  “ Wilmington,” he replied.  “Do you remember calling anyone at home today,” I asked.  He slowly shook his head “No.”

“I heard the woman shout out “Hey everyone…Keith’s alive….some guy is with him on a train.”

I checked to see if my cell phone signal had popped on and it had not. I asked a woman behind us if her phone worked. She said yes and handed it to me. I asked Keith if he could tell me his home phone number. He said it slowly and I called.

The phone rang just once and a woman’s voice screamed “Keith???” I quickly said “No, but I’m sitting on a train with Keith and he’s heading home to Wilmington.”  I heard the woman shout out “Hey everyone…Keith’s alive….some guy is with him on a train.”

“Put him on, please” the woman gasped. I saw him carefully listening and heard him say with tearful emotion “Yes” “Yes” “Yes” and then he looked at me and asked,” Are you taking me home?”

I nodded Yes, reached for the phone, and said to the woman “I’m Jack. When we get to the Wilmington station in about 40 minutes, can you meet us?   I’ll make sure to get Keith up and out.  We’re in the first car.”

“I’ll be there with my son,” she said. “Put Keith back on….and thank you.”

Keith listened for just a moment and all he said was “I love you, too” and then handed the phone to me. I got back on and said, “Please remember, the first car…and your name, please?” “Cindy….and thanks again,” she said. “You’re welcome and I’ll take care of Keith,” I replied and hung up.

In very short, slow snippets of conversation, I learned that Keith did not work at the World Trade Center but was there for a meeting.  He was already up in the tower when the explosion happened and he was in the crowded stairway rushing to get out.

After running from the building he heard the screaming and sirens and he saw a body fall, “She was a woman,” he said, almost blankly but with obvious sadness in his eyes.  He told me he just made his way, walking miles north, and finally got help to get to Penn Station where he got on the train. “They didn’t ask for any tickets,” he said.

My mind raced. I did not ask Keith too many more questions, sensing his discomfort. I realized that my call to Cindy was the first she heard that Keith was alive…some nine hours after the news of the attack came to light. It was clear to me that being there for this quiet stranger and getting him back to his family was my only task at hand.

After a stop in Trenton, the next stop was announced…Wilmington”.  I led Keith into the aisle and we approached the doorway. He was ahead of me as I guided him forward.  “I’ll step out with you and help you look for Cindy,” I said. He glanced back with a slight nod.

We made our way onto the platform and in a split second I heard the same screaming voice I heard on the phone. A woman and a boy of about 12 rushed forward and hugged Keith.  “Thanks, Jack” Cindy said over Keith’s shoulder, wiping tears. I quickly said “Good luck…he’ll need some help with this” and I jumped back on the train.

I sat down and realized I didn’t know Keith’s last name and never told him or Cindy mine. The woman whose phone I borrowed had gotten off in Trenton, so I didn’t have any way to retrieve the phone number I called. Even if I wanted to check on Keith, I had no way of ever contacting them back.

In full measure, this was a nearly anonymous happenstance relationship. I hoped that Keith would be OK and that my being at the right place at the right time was a stroke of good luck…for both of us.

While it’s true that I played a helpful role, my efforts on Keith’s behalf gave me a partial respite from thinking about my needs in my rush to get home.

“In the 22 years since 9/11, I think of all the ways our lives have changed.”

As it turned out, it was five days before any planes left Baltimore, so I stayed on with friends. Over family meals, we gave thanks for our safety and followed the news as the aftermath of 9/11 unfolded. Each story of terrible tragedy and heroic rescue evoked a compelling reminder of our need for togetherness…as family members, neighbors, and as a nation in total.

In the 22 years since 9/11, I think of all the ways our lives have changed.  While I reflect on my chance encounter with Keith and his family with satisfaction, I know that so many lives were changed for the worse in the wake of those brutal terrorist acts.

And among my most disquieting thoughts is how quickly the shock of 9/11 wore off and what served as a powerful force for unity as a nation then, seems to have dissolved into a nation divided by warring ideology and gross negativity now.  A shared tragedy brought us together…partisan animosity and mean-spirited distrust are cutting us apart.

Of course, there are many notable great deeds and inspiring acts of kindness every day, but I wonder why it took a terrorist attack to unite us, and how can we reconstruct our sense of community in new and creative ways for the betterment of all. My advocacy work to unite the generations is motivating me in that direction.


Read more from Jack Levine here


jack levine

About the author

Jack Levine is a child and family advocate; founder, 4Generations Institute; former president, Voices For Florida’s Children, Tallahassee.

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