Repost: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor


American Flag

So much has changed since a September morning in 2001 — and now we have a generation for whom September 11 is ancient history.  To keep the emotions and meanings of that day alive, we need to talk about it, to reflect, to learn — and to remember.  

In honor of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I’d like to revisit a post from a few years ago when One World Trade Center and the Memorial were still under construction — a post about a birthday, a parent and child, a friend, and a tree that reminds us we are all survivors.

9/11 Memorial

September 8th was Joe’s birthday, and we headed into NYC to celebrate. We did the same thing eleven years ago, and on that particular day, the air had the first hints of autumn crispness. We commented all day how especially blue the sky appeared, and how clearly we could see all of the buildings.

Three days later, the world changed – and now, September 11 is a day that still haunts me. Like so many other people, I have clear memories of where I was and what I was doing — as clear as the sky that day. I remember conversations that I had and every single emotion of every single second.

Eleven years ago, I was working in a middle school – and while I do not want to go into all of my details that day, there is one moment that I cannot forget.

As the tragedy unfolded, parents arrived in a steady stream. I was helping in the Main Office, signing their children out of school. Many of adults had spouses working in downtown Manhattan. One mother arrived and asked for her son.

“I’m not taking him home,” she said as I looked up her son’s schedule. “I just want to hug him.” I caught my breath, my eyes blinking away tears as I focused on the computer screen. When I returned with her son, they stood in the hallway and just were. It was an intimate moment between a parent and child, consoling and comforting – and it is a moment that still moves me to tears whenever I think or speak about that day.

Freedom Tower

One World Trade Center as it appeared several years ago.

Eleven years later, Joe and I are at the site. Each time we have made this visit, at different stages of redevelopment, I feel I have to brace myself. I think of that mother and her son, of so many victims and their families and friends, and I think of Kevin Donnelly, a man who hired the middle school me to mow lawns one summer.

Kevin Donnelly

Today, the 9/11 Memorial occupies Ground Zero. Two pools now sit in the Twin Towers’ imprint. The pools, surrounded by thirty-foot walls of cascading water, eventually descend into a center void. The bronze rims of the pools are engraved with the names of the victims.

9/11 Memorial

Although the area is surrounded by the sights and sounds of rebuilding, it is amazingly quiet and somber and moving. It is not uncommon to see people placing flowers on the rim, carbon rubbing a specific name, praying and consoling each other – just like a mother and a son from eleven years ago.

That’s where my mind was when I noticed the tree. Adjacent to the pools is a garden where all of the trees are Swamp White Oaks – all, except for this one tree; a Callery Pear Tree that is protected by a railing, where visitors line up and pose for pictures, as if this particular tree is a celebrity.

The Survivor Tree.

The tree was originally planted on the World Trade Center plaza, on the eastern edge near Church Street, in the ‘70s. After 9/11, workers found the damaged tree – reduced to an eight-foot-tall stump in the wreckage at Ground Zero.

The tree was removed to a NYC park, where it was nursed back to health. New branches sprouted, blossoms opened in spring, and the tree eventually reached 30 feet. In March 2010, however, the tree was uprooted by severe storms – but it still survived with the help of its caretakers and its will, if we could think that a tree has a will.

In December 2010, the tree was returned to the WTC site, where it sits just west of the south pool – a symbol of strength and resilience. It’s no wonder that so many people wait in line to be photographed next to the tree. Sometimes we all need a tree – or a parent, a partner, a friend, a stranger – on which to lean, much like we all did on 9/12 and the weeks, months, and years following.

The rebuilt Palm Court.

The rebuilt Palm Court.

The more I think about that tree, the more impressed I am. It fought to live so that we – regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, and political views – could enjoy its shade, appreciate its blooms, and find comfort in its hug and wisdom in its story. It’s unconditional – just being, like that mother and son embracing each other in a school hallway eleven years ago.

Yes, September 8th was Joe’s birthday and we headed into NYC to celebrate. We did the same thing eleven years ago, and three days later, the world changed — but have people changed?  (NGDM note: Just take a look at where we are today, with the vile rhetoric in our election year and this idea of “us” and “them.” How quickly we forget. )

Perhaps we should let that Survivor Tree be our teacher. There’s so much we could learn from it – we just have to be willing to listen.

8 thoughts on “Repost: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor

  1. Thank you for such a beautiful post. It brought back a rush of memories for me. I was in the Pentagon when the third plane hit. Because the building is so massive, I heard nothing when the plane hit and had no idea anything was wrong until I walked into the hallway and saw the panicked crowds crying and yelling as they headed out of the building in an earily orderly fashion appropriate for a building of military personnel. I remember the feeling of panic when I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone to tell him I was alright; the relief I felt when a friend spotted me in the crowd and grabbed my hand; the horror I felt when I saw images of the World Trde Center that looked like a war zone. But the memory that is strongest is the look of confusion on my three-year-old daughter’s face when she and my husband were finally able to pick me up, and the realization that had I been less lucky, she would have grown up without a mother.

    • Mel, thank you for sharing you personal story here. Part of what makes me sad about 9/11 is that children will have never known what life was like. The world we have today — and the fallout from 9/11 — is their normal. I think that’s why it’s important for those of us who experienced it firsthand or watched it unfold on television to talk about it, to put it some sort of context so that future generations will understand. Again, thank you for commenting. Peace.

  2. I am touched once again by the way you are in a position to relate the memory of that day from such a personal perspective Kevin. I’ve watched some of the special programming today and I was thinking that although this was a national tragedy regardless of where we were on 9-11-01, for those living in close proximity to the Towers this anniversary must stir vivid memories that remain troubling. The story of the tree is very affirming. I also have been thinking about the palpable unity that touched all communities and made us one in the aftermath of the horror, and how fifteen years later we are divided and quite comfortable with the divisiveness. I’m so glad you posted today, my friend. Very special.

    • Hi Debra. On this recent 9/11 anniversary, I played bagpipes at a memorial concert in Hollywood, FL. As we were waiting to perform, we all started talking about where we were — and I choked up. Just typing this response to you and reading some of the comments here . . . I’m tearing up. But I think that’s good. And I think we have to talk about it, especially to the younger generation so they can understand what happened that day. Were we perfect on 9/12? No. But we were a hell of a lot better then than we are today, in my opinion. This might sound strange, but the terrorists hated everyone that day, blindly. Labels didn’t matter to them — and yet, we are always bogged down with labels and debates about us and them, no matter if its domestic or global politics. So sad.

  3. I have been watching the 911 specials for two days now. I taped some. I agree with all the hustle bustle and activity in NYC the memorial site is very somber. One can just tune out all the city noise and retreat into a solemn cocoon of remembrance. Seeing your images makes me think how resilient New Yorkers are in rebuilding to that great height once again without fear. This world is quite a mess with all that is happening due to the ideology of some. I cannot see how we escape from this extremism. Traveling in Europe this past three years, opened my eyes to what is happening. Seeing how Europe has changed is frightening.

    • Hi Donna. Thank you for your perspective. I haven’t been to Europe in some time, so I’m not sure how things are today — and I’m certainly not sure what the solution is. All of it makes me worry. All of it makes me linger in the garden.

  4. Visited the Memorial site in March with two dear friends. One had worked in the Deutsche bank building until a month before 9/11; she lost several colleagues/friends. My other friend is a flight attendant and so many of his colleagues were also lost on that day. His job has never been the same again, but he continues to fly and to train new attendants. I was there to pay respects and especially to honor our friend Nick Chiofalo whose remains were never found. It is a very moving memorial. the museum is overwhelming emotionally…we didn’t last more than one hour before returning to the pools outside. The huge security force reinforces the truth that life will never return to pre-9/11 innocence.
    But, New York keeps moving,,,,

    • Hello, my friend. I have yet to visit the museum that’s now at Ground Zero. I know I must. I’m glad it’s there, so that all generation can better understand what happened that day — and how the world has changed. It saddens me that this new world is the normal for our younger generation. I guess, as you said, life goes on . . . Be well.

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