Where were you on September 11, 2001? That’s a question I often see and hear on this day, and often in the same breath I’m told to “Never Forget.” Honestly, that day is one I’ll always remember. Forgetting is not an option. Not for me, anyway.
I remember the thousands of citizens who died that day, along with the hundreds of firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical personnel who perished while running into the danger, hoping to save the lives of strangers.
I remember the first responders and private citizens who are ill today, both physically and mentally, as a result of cancers and other illnesses contracted as a result of search and rescue efforts at the World Trace Centers.
I remember the first responders who’ve died since that day as a result of disease contracted while pawing through rubble, smoke, fire, and mangled concrete and steel. All without a single thought for their own personal safety.
Sure, I Remember
But my experience is far different than that of most people.
Most likely, many of you recollect watching the horrible scenario unfold on the television sets in your homes or offices. Some of you, of course, were in New York City and experienced the horrors there in real time.
But me, I was inside a federal holding facility in Northern Va., chatting with a group of deputy sheriffs and U.S. Marshals. On my right was a row of holding cells occupied by local and federal prisoners.
A group of twenty or so federal prisoners stood in the open room, a booking area, and were waiting for Marshals to apply restraints to their wrists and ankles—handcuffs, waist chains, and leg irons—in preparation for transport to other facilities. This particular jail was merely a stopover during a federal inmate’s journey between courts and prisons across the country.
The majority of the inmates in this particular section of the lockup were federal prisoners. This was evident because of the khaki-colored shirts and matching elastic-waist pants, and blue slip-on canvas deck shoes they each wore, a standard attire for inmates in the federal system who are in transit. Others were local prisoners who were waiting to be assigned to cells or dorms in general population. Most of those prisoners were still dressed in the clothing worn at the time of their arrests, minus belts and shoelaces, of course.
In this section of the facility, a small portable television sat on a wall-mounted shelf facing the cells. It was also positioned in a manner that allowed deputies in the control booth to see the screen. The television’s purpose was to relieve the boredom of sitting in a tiny concrete room designed for two people but currently housed anywhere from four to six grown and restless men who hadn’t had the opportunity to shower in a few days and who’d been fed a steady diet of beans, cheap white bread, and imitation fruit juice.
The TV program airing at the time suddenly cut away to a breaking news report. Jailhouse chatter slowly diminished to an unusual silence while everyone stared at the onscreen images of the World Trade Centers.
Roiling and boiling black and gray smoke poured from a gaping hole high up on one of the towers. Everyone watched in total disbelief. Had a plane veered off course? Then, when yet another plane struck the second tower and it was immediately obvious that these acts were planned attacks, well …
I was very near a group of prisoners who began to wildly and bizarrely cheer at the deadly assault on our nation and its innocent citizens. They clapped and laughed and playfully punched their fellow cellmates on the arms, and they patted one another on the back as if watching a sporting event where their favorite player had just scored a game-winning point.
Then it dawned on me. This was indeed a game-winner for them. They’d just scored a beat-the-buzzer three-pointer. Scored a touchdown. Hit a home run. A hole-in-one.
This particular group of men despised the U.S. with a passion and they were overjoyed—giddy—at the death and destruction that unfolded before us.
I’ll never forget that moment. Not ever. And I’ll never forget their words. Hate practically oozed from their pores.
“That’s what you get, mother******s!”
“I hope they all die!”
“Kill some more!”
“Death to America!”
Then the entire facility went on lockdown status. All commercial flights were cancelled and planes were ordered to land. Even JPAT flights (Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System) flights were cancelled and grounded. In fact, all inmate transports, including ground transports, were cancelled. The entire system came to an immediate halt.
Heavily armed law enforcement officers quickly leapt into action, streaming from the buildings around us like ants pouring from the tops of their dirt mounds. They surrounded the federal courthouse and other properties, including the jail.
Massive barriers (pop up bollards) rose up from the pavement at the entrances and exits of the Sally Ports and parking decks and garages, preventing vehicles from coming or going, and to prevent anyone from ramming a car or truck into the locked, steel garage doors. It was organized chaos. Armed officers and agents stopped traffic at each nearby intersection. Law enforcement officers clutched rifles and shotguns. They had no idea whether or not this facility was to be the next target.
Black smoke soon began to rise from the horizon in direction of the Pentagon. No one knew what or where the next target could’ve been. All anyone knew was that the attacks were planned and they were deadly.
For me, today is a day of remembrance and reverence for those who lost their lives on that day—innocent people inside the towers and other targets of terrorism, and the brave men and women who perished while attempting to save people they’d never met—strangers of all races and religions.
Many of the surviving first-responders and others involved in search and rescue efforts still suffer both physical and mental effects. Their lives and the lives of their families are forever changed.
Nineteen years later, the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center still claim the lives of first responders.
On January 1, 2020, 42-year-old New York State Police Investigator Ryan Fortini died as the result of cancer that he developed following his participation in the search and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site.
Investigator Fortini, a military veteran, served sixteen years with the New York State Police before medically retiring in 2015. He leaves behind his fiancee, parents, and a brother and sister.
NYPD Officer Matthew von Seydewitz died on January 27, 2020 as the result of cancer that he, too, developed following his participation to the search and recovery mission at the World Trade Center site. He was 50 at the time of his death
On May, 25, 2020, Connecticut Trooper First Class Eugene Baron died at the age of 56 as the result of cancer contracted while assisting with rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site. Trooper Baron was an 18-year veteran of the Connecticut State Police prior to medically retiring. He leaves behind three children, parents, two sisters, his girlfriend and her two children.
I Often Wonder
I don’t believe it’s possible to forget those loud cheers and laughter and the pleasure those prisoners felt when they knew thousands of Americans had been killed.
I remember their faces, yes. But what stands out the most are the eyes of those men, the men who celebrated the deaths of so many Americans. Though they shouted with glee, their eyes were very dark and almost lifeless in appearance—cold, bitter, ruthless, and uncaring. It was like looking into deep hollow pits or caves, spaces without end. They truly hated us with all their might. This was obvious.
I’ve seen eyes like those many times over the years, and they belong to people who plan and carry out murder and, in the end, show no remorse for what they’ve done.
I often wonder where those men, the prisoners, are today. Who knows, but I’d bet my last dollar that they still hate the U.S. and want its citizens dead. The kind of hatred I witnessed that day back in 2001 is not one that easily disappears.
Today, on September 11, 2020, I’m grateful for the men and women who place their lives on the line for us each and every day to keep us safe and to protect our rights and our lives. I also choose to remember the lives lost and those who still suffer.
Due to the actions of the heroes who responded so quickly to the unfolding danger at the World Trade Center, the lives of over 25,000 people were saved. However, seventy-one law enforcement officers, 343 New York City firefighters, and over 2,800 civilians were killed.
A Spot Between Good and Evil
So where was I on 9/11?
I stood in a spot between good and evil, and close enough to the Pentagon to see the plumes of black smoke rising on the horizon.
So yes, I remember.
And I always will.