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Sept 11 still a searing memory 17 years later

By William Hennelly | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-09-14 02:38

I was watching on TV on Tuesday some of the "reading of the names", an annual tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The ceremony took place near the fountain in the footprint of the Twin Towers, now part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

I am glad that this memorial is observed every year and hope it continues far into the future. In fact, it also was on a Tuesday in 2001 that 9/11 unfolded. It could not have been a more beautiful day, clear blue skies, sunny, in the 70s.

There were so many vibrant, successful, happy people whose lives were snuffed out that day.

I had not yet arrived at my office on Wall Street when TV screens showed pictures of the World Trade Center on fire, with somber announcers unrealistically and hopefully speculating that it was a small plane that had gone off its flight path.

Shortly after, we learned those were not small planes.

We lost one of the contributors to our website that day. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. The brother of one of our young writers also worked at Cantor and was killed.

Another colleague was the focus of a famous picture in a news magazine, fleeing a giant dust cloud that was rolling down Broadway.

Several of my co-workers who were in the office early that morning had fled, some walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and others hopping on a commuter ferry to New Jersey on the East River, anything to flee the shocking scene. It was the same ferry line I had planned to take in to the office that day.

Still, the website was published remotely that day. Writing the headline "World Trade Center Destroyed in Terrorist Airstrike" was horrifyingly surreal.

Surprisingly, the New York Stock Exchange reopened the following Monday, and police, firefighters, rescue workers and other volunteers heroically went to work on "the pile". A friend I would ride ferry with was a foreman at Con Edison. He worked down on the pile and asked me if I wanted to visit.

I never managed to go, but it is troubling how many of those who did work on the pile developed various cancers and lung ailments and died — and still are dying.

For at least a month after that day, the air in Lower Manhattan was filled with a sickening smell of burned office equipment and frankly, death.

Crowds would walk to the smoldering site and numbly stare at the twisted metal frame of a tower that remained.

While the stench eventually subsided, even a year or two later, depending on the wind, it would return, along with the memories of the worst day in American history.

It was a horror that affected not Americans, but people from around the world who may have been visiting or flying that day and ended up on one of the four planes that crashed into the WTC, the Pentagon in Virginia or in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Messages of condolence from around the world were festooned on the iron gate outside St. Paul's Church, the church where George Washington prayed on his inauguration day in 1789.

With a death toll of nearly 3,000, no group was left unscathed. Several Chinese-Americans perished that day, as did a retired couple from Beijing and a man from Shanghai.

In 2006, China Daily interviewed Zheng Rui, the daughter of Zheng Yuguang, 65, a former chemist, and his wife Yang Shuyin, 62, a retired pediatrician, on the fifth anniversary of Sept 11.

The couple had spent a year living with their daughter in Baltimore, Maryland before their planned return to Beijing. They were on board American Airlines Flight 77 to Los Angeles, which the hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.

"The accident had such a huge impact that it changed my life and my attitudes towards life forever," the younger Zheng, then a post-doctoral researcher at the cancer center of Johns Hopkins University, told China Daily. "Although they were over 60, they were still enthusiastic about learning English. When a word came up, they would immediately turn to the dictionary or ask me."

Before boarding the plane, the couple, who were married for 35 years, told their daughter how much they had enjoyed the year and promised to visit again.

"What if they hadn't come to visit me? Would they still be alive and living a happy retirement in China?" she asked.

Contact the writer at williamhennelly@chinadailyusa.com

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