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Ground Zero Firefighters at the collapsed Twin Towers in New York City Ground Zero Firefighters at the collapsed Twin Towers in New York City (Neville Elder/CORBIS)

Empty Sky

Junior Scholastic's editor recalls how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed her family—and the nation

By Suzanne McCabe | May 9, 2011

On the evening of September 11, 2001, six dads from my hometown of Rumson, New Jersey, didn’t come home from work. Their cars sat empty in the parking lot of the commuter ferry they’d taken into Manhattan that morning. Their seats at the dinner table have been empty ever since.

My brother Mike was one of those dads. He and more than 2,700 other people were killed at the World Trade Center in New York City when 10 members of Al Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist group, crashed two hijacked planes into the Twin Towers.

The 9/11 attacks were the deadliest on U.S. soil since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and they would change the nation profoundly.

I was on a commuter ferry headed to downtown Manhattan when the first plane struck the North Tower. It was 8:46 a.m. I knew that my brother, who had started a job as an equities trader at Cantor Fitzgerald a week earlier, would already be at his desk. I would soon learn that he was on the 104th floor of that 110-story building.

“As you can see,” the ferry captain said over his bullhorn, “a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

We could see the Trade Center and the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan—still 40 minutes away—with aching clarity. As Mike, an avid bodysurfer, surely would have noted, it was a perfect beach day, crisp and cloudless.

I tried him on his cell phone several times but couldn’t get through. Service had already become sporadic so I couldn’t reach his wife, Lynn, or any other family members either.

As the ferry continued across the Hudson River to New York, we watched smoke spewing from the upper floors of the North Tower.

At first, it seemed as if the crash had been some terrible accident. Then, just 17 minutes later, a second plane sliced through the top of the South Tower.

Everyone gasped. America, we realized, was under attack.

Still, we sailed on. We passed the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, all eyes glued to the two towers. While smoke billowed from one, orange fireballs ringed the other.

Paper and shards of glass began to rain down on the streets, and thick black soot coated much of the sky. I tried to picture Mike and his best friend, Michael Tucker, or “Tuck,” who also worked at Cantor, racing down the stairs to safety.

When our ferry docked in Lower Manhattan, we were instructed not to get off. Instead, we would take on people who had fled the Trade Center and nearby office buildings, and head back to New Jersey.

Other Attacks

I looked for my brother and Tuck in the crowd on the pier. If anyone could escape that building, I thought, it was those two guys. Mike had lifted weights since high school and was a great basketball player. And Tuck was as big and strong as the guys on the Syracuse University football team he once roomed with. As we sailed back to New Jersey, the smell of death and burning plastic began to fill the air. But nothing prepared us for what happened next. We watched in stunned silence as the South Tower collapsed in a massive swirl of ash. It was 10:05. Less than a half-hour later, the North Tower fell, leaving us, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, with nothing but an empty sky.

We soon learned that there had been other attacks. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., hijackers had crashed a plane into the Pentagon, the U.S. military headquarters outside Washington, D.C., killing 189 people. And in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, passengers on a fourth plane, known as Flight 93, brought down their hijacked jet in a field when they realized it was headed for either the White House or the Capitol. All 44 people onboard died.

That morning, my brother’s three children and thousands of others were called from their classrooms. My niece Regan, then 8, remembers an unfamiliar teacher arriving at the door during art class.

“Come with me, please,” he said, “and bring your belongings.” When Regan and her brother and sister got home, their mom was in the driveway, her face ashen.

They went inside and turned on the TV. “I’d never seen those two buildings before,” Regan says. “Flames and chunks were tumbling down. ‘Your father is in there,’ my mom managed to say. Then she burst into tears.”

A decade later, those memories are still raw for everyone who lived through that day. “Any time I hear ‘9/11,’ it just brings everything back,” says John Pollinger, who was the police chief of Middletown, New Jersey, in 2001. His town of 68,000 lost 37 people that day.

Pollinger was at the ferry landing when my boat got back. “People were shell-shocked, stunned, covered with dust,” he says. “I told my detectives, ‘Get on the ferry. Go over there. See what you can do.’

In the end, there was little anyone could do besides tend to grieving families and try to recover the bodies of those who had died.

Life Without Dad

My brother’s children have had to grow up without their dad. He has missed their field hockey games, skateboarding competitions, proms, and graduations. He didn’t live to see their funny texts or Facebook posts.

Most important, he’s missed seeing the extraordinary young adults they’ve become. Thousands of other families have faced the same heartbreaking loss.

More than 400 firefighters and other rescue workers who went into the burning buildings to try to save people like Mike and Tuck also died on 9/11. Countless others spent months at the site, which came to be known as Ground Zero, searching through the rubble for bodies, trying to give families some measure of peace. Often, all they found were bone fragments.

Many Ground Zero­workers have since developed severe lung ailments from the pollutants they inhaled. Some have died. Those remaining live with the trauma of what they saw.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that our friends and people we didn’t even know were there to look out for us. They stuck by us when we needed them most. My family and so many others lost a lot on 9/11. We also incurred a debt that we can never repay.

This article originally appeared in the September 5, 2011, issue of Junior Scholastic.

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