by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 9/2003 and the Boston City Paper 9/2007

I never met Shawn Nassaney. He was a good-looking guy, 25 years old, lived in Pawtucket, and was a sales manager for American Power Conversion. Likewise, I never met Attleboro’s Lynn Goodchild. She was absolutely beautiful, a 25 year old administrator for Putnam Investments.

There is a picture of the couple hanging outside the function rooms that bear their names at the Tavern Restaurant here in Plainville. They were regulars here, as are their families.

Whenever I have dinner at the Tavern, I often find myself staring at the image of these two kids. The picture was taken at some sort of formal dance; they both look very happy; they’re smiling, their faces full of youth, hope and promise.

Lynn and Shawn engaged and were on their way to Hawaii two years ago, but they would not make it to their destination.

Their plane was United Airlines flight 175. The date was September 11, 2001.

At 9:03 am, their hijacked airliner crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center and exploded. Only minutes earlier, another hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, tearing a huge hole in the building and setting it on fire. At 9:43 am, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. At 10:05 am, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. 10:10 am: A portion of the Pentagon collapsed.

10:10 am: United Airlines Flight 93, also hijacked, and apparently targeting the White House, crashed southeast of Pittsburgh in Shanksville. The passengers of that doomed flight successfully rallied against the hijackers, led by the heroic Todd Beamer, who told them, “Let’s roll!”

10:28 am: The World Trade Center’s north tower collapsed, releasing a tremendous cloud of debris and smoke.

Shawn. Lynn. Todd. Mike McGinity of Foxboro. And thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

Murdered.

Confirmed dead: 2948.

Reported dead: 25.

Reported missing: 25

Total: 2998.

Estimated number of children who lost at least one parent that morning: Over 10,000.

Across the country, Americans dealt with the attacks in many ways; we prayed, we talked, we watched the coverage on TV, we cried a lot, we lit candles, and we were numb with disbelief, feeling helpless and filled with rage.

For my wife and myself, we needed to go to New York. Ten days after the attacks, Sue and I were standing one block from where the World Trade Center had been destroyed. Ground Zero.

There was no New York bustle, no Manhattan arrogance or rudeness. Everyone seemed so vacant, all cried out. Everyone we passed by was quiet or speaking softly. There was no laughter, no animation, no yelling.

I remember the cops on every corner, their badges covered with black tape, the look of emptiness and disbelief in their eyes. The fire fighters moved like robots; exhausted. A crowd had gathered on each corner that offered a vantage point, but this was not people gawking at a car wreck or house fire. People had come to pay respects. It was a funeral.

We could clearly make out the twisted steel skeleton of one building. There was a massive pile of rubble, and a large steel girder hung obscenely from another steel mass. Both were shredded and twisted. There was another building damaged, and another structure, distorted and blasted apart.

I couldn’t believe the devastation – nothing left but a mountain of twisted steel and rock – and ironically, I knew that what we could see was nothing compared to what was beyond the barricades, beyond the still standing walls. A vision of hell and death.

All our senses were being overwhelmed — the blinding construction lights, shattering the night in a harsh blue-white glow. The sound of heavy machinery from trucks and bulldozers was everywhere, and overpowering. The air was harsh and heavy, tasted like gypsum and smelled like demolished concrete.

What I remember most is the ash. Like some vile aftermath of a gigantic volcanic eruption, the ash was everywhere. The ground, the storefront windows, the doorways, telephones, storefronts – everything was covered with the gray ash. In the ash, people had written. There were little hearts, profanity against Osama bin Laden, the names of loved ones, “God Bless America” and just the numbers 9-11-01.

I remember the moment I ran my hand respectfully through the ash and looked at it clinging to my skin. It reminded me of blood — something that you’re not supposed to saw if the body was healthy. It felt sacred, this gray dust that was inside the World Trade Center — like the ash of a cremated body.

Everything was so dirty. So violated. A water hose continuously fired into the air, trying to keep the dust down. Street cleaners passed by constantly.

Taped to the NYPD mobile command center were dozens of cards, most drawn by children, with drawings of the World Trade Center and crayon-written THANK YOUs. There were names printed on cards everywhere. There were flowers tied to lampposts, and pictures with the word, “MISSING” everywhere.

A sign posted on the wall read, “You are looking at hallowed ground. Respect those around you. Please give it the dignity it deserves.”

I remember the man who told me his brother was trapped in the WTC but got out. The cop Sue hugged, who told her, “We’re gonna get the bastard who did this.” The folks who asked me to take their picture, then told me they lost their sister in the WTC. The officer who told us, “There was nothing anybody could do. It was all steel. It was a mountain of steel. You couldn’t get at anything. Anyone.” The woman with her head buried in her hands. The couple hugging, crying softly. The guy who saw the flag I’d purchased minutes before who said to me, “Fly the colors proudly, man.”

I remember the constant line of trucks passing by, carrying debris and steel that once formed the World Trade Center. I remember feeling very hurt, very numb, and very angry. And I was so grateful to Sue for insisting that we make this journey to this most sacred of places – I needed to be here.

It was absolutely overwhelming.

I remember
the memorials. They were everywhere. The one I think of most was on a bridge in New Jersey, where there were hundreds of candles, prayer cards, pictures, crosses, sports team shirts, and a large cross with a torn American flag. One picture showed a man holding a baby; the caption read, “Steve we miss you.” So many people had written on the papers under the candles. One person had even welded two small World Trade Center towers out of metal and even attached a little communications tower on one. There were at least 200 candles.

It was overwhelming.

Two years later, it is still overwhelming. The images are still so visceral – the chaos. The continuous news coverage. The hope of survivors in the rubble – dashed as hours and days went by. The police and fire workers, all dazed and red-eyed. The mountain of twisted wreckage. The black smoke over Manhattan. The people jumping to their deaths.

I remember six months after the attacks, watching the documentary by the Naudet brothers, who just happened to be filming Firefighters in Manhattan. I remember the deafening sound of bodies landing on the World Trade Center’s glass-and-metal canopy as people jumped from the flaming tower. I remember starting to cry as I heard that horrible sound, again and again. And I remember that same thought that never leaves my mind: Just how bad was it inside the World Trade Center that the better alternative was jumping 90 stories to certain death?

I think about the images of death and terrorism and destruction. I think of the horrible loss of life and love. I think of Shaun, and Lynn, and Mike. A guy named Steve whose family misses him so much.

I think about how my mother, sister and nephew were scheduled to fly to Disney World the following week. I think of what might have been, and know I couldn’t survive such a loss. I honestly cannot fathom how the victim’s families go on.

And despite the creation of Homeland Security, the increased security measures everywhere and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I am still so very angry about what happened to us that sunny Tuesday morning two years ago.

But I think the anger is a good thing — as a Nation we have been healing and will continue to do so, but often we heal too fast. We Americans tend to be resilient to a fault and I honestly believe we should never be “completely” healed. I think we need to remain outraged, to remain vigilant, and most of all, grateful for all we still have. We cannot just put the events of that day and its horrible aftermath aside and move on.

So on September 11, remember. Have a minute of silence. Watch the retrospectives on TV. Yes, it is painful. But the events of that day were painful. The attacks were unprecedented, violent and evil. And they must not be forgotten. To forget what happened – to try to put it all aside – would dishonor the 3000 innocents who were murdered that morning. Get to know some of those innocents. If you have access to the Internet, spend some time at CNN’s beautiful memorial at http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2001/memorial/lists/by-name/index.html. Each of the victims is remembered by name, most with a photo, and a brief description. Take a few minutes and go to the web site. Learn something about some of the victims. As my Mom often says, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” It could have been any of us on those planes that morning.

Remember Shawn, Lynn, Mike, Steve, and the thousands of others. Pray. Go to Church. Don’t be afraid to say, “God Bless America,” even if the Ten Commandments monument was removed in Alabama. God is still with us. He’s always with us. As soon as they are able to understand, tell your children about September 11 and what happened. Light a candle. Fly the colors proudly, man. And never, ever forget.

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