September 25, 2001.
We flew into New York City on an American Airlines flight from Little Rock. I felt better about my flight when I noticed an iron bar secured the cockpit door from the inside. American Airlines had added that protection to all of their aircraft.
We landed at Newark International, a New Jersey airport, very convenient to metropolitan New York City. Our cab ride crossed into Manhattan at the lower end of the island, which gave us a clear view of Ground Zero. The gap in the skyline -- debris still smoldering -- sent a shiver down my spine.
We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel, and as we checked in, the manager told us if we would take a room above the 11th floor it would be greatly discounted. That was our first revelation as to how the attack on New York had affected things.
While we were in New York, we talked with several friends, and heard stories of a sea of people that, after the attack, when public transportation was halted, walked from the financial district on Wall Street -- some for over seven hours -- to leave Manhattan. One friend walked from 52nd Street to a bridge on 125th Street. When he reached the bridge, he found that bridge was closed to foot traffic. He then managed to talk a Security Officer into letting him and a group of about 30 other individuals who lived across the bridge to ride a city bus, driven by a policeman, across. When they reached the other side of the bridge they were just let out on the street to continue walking another two hours. Five and a half hours after leaving his office, he walked into his living room. Usually it was a 25-minute commute.
Early Sunday morning we went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, and had to stand in line for over an hour to attend, because the church was packed with emergency crews from all over the country. We sat with a crew from Mississippi. Sitting with emergency crews while the wonderful Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang patriotic hymns will always be a memory.
The Church was just a few hundred yards from the Brooklyn Bridge exit, and when the attack occurred two weeks earlier, the Church wanted to do something for the huge crowds of people who were walking across the bridge leaving Manhattan. Jim Cymbala, the pastor, started his sermon by telling how the Church responded:
"We set up several tables as close to the Brooklyn Bridge exit as the police would let us, and as those tired and dazed people stumbled off the Bridge from walking dozens of blocks, we handed out cups of cold water. We had to do something."
New York City is slowly recovering. The average New Yorker is still shaken from the events of September 11th, but they are doing everything they can to return to normal. When they realize you have come as a visitor or tourist they immediately welcome you and tell you how grateful they are that you are in town. Most restaurants are less than a third full, and you can get play tickets to almost any show in town. Our flights in and out of the city were non-eventful. In fact, the airlines told everyone to be at the airport two hours early, which we were. But since the airports were empty, we breezed through security and caught early flights both times.
We had a great time in New York, but the somber mood from the tragedy permeated everything we did. That was an exclamation point on Friday morning where I had something happen that really gave me an understanding of the September 11 tragedy. I told Vertis I wanted to take a long walk that morning, and I left the hotel and started up 52nd Street toward 5th Avenue. It was one of those clear, cold, typical New York days with a strong north wind blowing in my face. As I reached 5th Avenue, the sight of all the American flags waving in that strong north wind made me think New York had never looked better. I took a deep breath, and for the first time since I arrived in the city I smiled at the huge display of flags and banners. It was a breathtaking sight.
Then I noticed something very unusual: there was no traffic on 5th Avenue, and a New York policeman stood in the middle of every intersection. Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic. As I crossed the street I asked one of the policemen why the street was closed. In a soft voice he said,"Funeral." I understood immediately. I walked on up 5th Avenue until I came to Saint Patrick's Cathedral where I joined a crowd of several hundred firemen under two ladder trucks with their ladders extended. A huge American flag was tied between the tops of the ladders. Those firemen, who were from all over the country in their dress blues, were the overflow from a packed church. I stood by a fireman from Dallas. The front of the church was draped in black and a corps of bagpipes and drummers with their muffled drums stood waiting in front of the door.
After a short while, the massive front doors of the Cathedral opened and a sea of firemen from inside the church poured out into the street. They formed a corridor from the door to the center of the street. Then the Priests and Bishop came through the door, and as they walked down the church steps, the bagpipes and the drummers playing their muffled drums led them. There was a pause as they reached the middle of the street and a lone fireman walked out of the church holding out in front of him the fallen fireman's helmet. He was followed by the young widow of the fireman carrying a folded flag. As they reached the middle of the street every fireman saluted and the Honor Guard fired a salute to the fallen fireman as a bugle sounded "Taps." Then the fireman's casket was placed on the carriage.
There was dead silence in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the world. I stood there with tears in my eyes surrounded by firemen from all over the country. I thought, I don't know this fireman in the casket, he is not from El Dorado, or even from Arkansas. He's a New York City Fireman who gave his life trying to save another American. Standing there with those firemen with tears streaming down my face, I have never been more proud to be an American. It's a moment in time that is seared in my memory.
As I stood with those firemen under that giant American flag and as that cold north wind blew in my face, I realized that if the terrorists thought their act of destruction would inflict a mortal blow to this country, they failed miserably. They have not seen us running in disarray, but they have united us as never before. They will eventually realize by their actions of September 11th, they have signed their death warrant.
May 2, 2011. Navy Seals have killed Osama bin Laden.
Richard Mason is an author and speaker. He can be reached at [email protected]