By: Lacy Hilliard
On September 11, 2001 the lives of Americans and many citizens of the world were forever altered when members of Al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and unleashed the most detrimental terrorist attack that American soil had ever seen before or since. The 19 hijackers, under the direction of Osama Bin Laden, set out to incite a holy war against the United States; Bin Laden stating, Im fighting so I can die a martyr and go to heaven to meet God. Our fight now is against the Americans. The lives of nearly 3,000 people were stolen on that otherwise pleasant late summer day in New York, Washington D.C. and rural Pennsylvania. The tragedy of 9/11 and the losses suffered will forever strike a chord in the hearts of millions, but the spirit of the American people in the face of unthinkable tragedy continues to prevail over the hatred that manifested its ugly reality on that fateful day.
My father, Noel Palladino and his brother, my Uncle Angelo, have worked in New York City for most of their adult lives. Both Angelo and Noel are members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 14 a trade my grandfather mastered and passed down to his sons who in turn, passed it down to their sons. Because of their profession, Noel and Angelo have come to know the city with an intimacy that most will never experience. Having worked at famous New York City landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the George Washington and Brooklyn Bridges, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library and even the World Trade Centers Twin Towers before their untimely demise; my father and uncle have been privy to an insider view of Manhattan that few will ever be fortunate enough to witness. However, even the diverse nature of the New York City construction business could never have prepared them for the job that the events of September 11, 2001 would create.
If you ask just about any American where they were on September 11, 2001, the vast majority will be able to recount their exact whereabouts with intricate detail. Whether the attack was witnessed via live news coverage or in person; the images of that day will be forever ingrained in the minds of many. Millions of people watched as the North and South Tower of the World Trade Center fell into a pile of ash. Though the jetliners, filled to the brim with fuel, managed to leave gaping holes in six floors of the North Tower and ten floors in the South Tower, few could ever imagine that the two giants, comprised of 200,000 tons of steel, 43,600 windows, 97 elevators, and weighing in at 500,000 tons, could ever collapse into a pile of rubble. But on September 11, 2001, the impossible became a somber reality.
My Uncle Angelo was at home on September 11 and my father was operating a crane at the AOL Time Warner building, which is somewhat eerily comprised of two identical towers. The AOL Time Warner building is located in Columbus Circle, several blocks away from the World Trade Center; so my father was unaware of the first plane hitting the North Tower until my Uncle Angelo called him. Angelo called and said a small plane, probably a Cessna, hit the World Trade Center. Soon after that, he called and said it was a 747, and then shortly after that, he called again and said a second plane had hit the South Tower, at this point everyone knew it was terrorism. The normal 45-minute to an hour commute from Manhattan to my fathers home in Westchester took him three hours that day. People fled the city by the thousands and a haze of confusion and turmoil rose over the country as details of each attack poured in.
Angelo made his way to what was now being dubbed as Ground Zero on September 12. It was his intention to aid in the relief efforts in any way he could. When I got to Ground Zero on September 12, it was like a war zone. Everything was total chaos; there were bodies everywhere. Fear was potent. With rescue crews still attempting to locate survivors, little could be done to aid in the relief effort on that day. However, five weeks later, Angelo would return to Ground Zero to aid, not in a rescue mission, but rather in a desperate attempt to locate the remains of the thousands of men, women, and children still missing. A few months later, my father would join him.
When Angelo arrived at Ground Zero five weeks after September 11, the fires underneath the rubble still burned hot and the load had just begun to stabilize to the point that excavators and cranes could be put to use. The site was dangerous and somewhat unstable. The use of extreme caution was necessary not only to keep the firefighters, police officers, and relief workers on the ground safe, but also because the site was hallowed ground, buried beneath its rubble, hundreds of victims yet to be found.
Even after my father arrived at Ground Zero four months later, hundreds of bodies still lay within the ruins of the World Trade Center. Firefighters, police officers, volunteers, construction workers, and relief workers from the American Red Cross, all worked together, in an attempt to bring a bit of peace to the thousands of family members still missing their loved ones. I saw wives, mothers, and fathers there everyday waiting for any news of their family member, said Noel, One of the things that stuck with me the most is that whenever we uncovered remains, the feeling of relief that spread throughout waiting family members was almost as if we had found them alive. There were so many people that buried empty caskets. Angelo lost count after finding the remains of over 300 bodies. It changes your entire outlook on life. Here today and gone tomorrow. Thank God for what you have, said Angelo. Though the casualties were plentiful, my father spoke of the care in which each body found was handled, I found the body of a firefighter lodged within a building column. Watching the way a Red Cross worker handled the blackened remains as though he were a newborn baby was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.
Stories of the generosity of humanity poured in post 9/11. Businesses surrounding Ground Zero did all they could to provide relief to all those working at Ground Zero. Cab drivers waived their fares, gourmet restaurants provided meals free of charge, and hotels opened their doors to all those in need of a room. St. Pauls Chapel, an 18th century Episcopal church near Ground Zero, went above and beyond keeping their doors open around the clock providing meals, coffee, and a sanctuary to the weary workers. It seemed that in the days following 9/11, a union formed across the country, stronger than ever before. A mockery to the terrorists desperate attempt to divide the world, support came from across vast oceans. The world mourned.
Since September 11, 2001, words like Al-Qaeda, weapons of mass destruction, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become central to the American vocabulary. The war on terror rages on and new threats come to light seemingly every day. Most recently, the Syrian government was charged with the alleged use of chemical weapons against more than 1,300 men, women, and children, leaving hundreds dead and hundreds others wounded. It seems that the world is becoming a continually dangerous place. However, one day each year, a country pauses to remember. As citizens of the United States stop to reflect on the events of 9/11, a sense of sadness, loss, and anger is renewed. But also rekindled is the beauty of the American spirit and the desire to persevere, regardless of circumstance. A world filled with empathy, respect, and love for fellow members of the human race is a world void of terrorism and another battle won.
It took nine months to remove the 1.8 million tons of debris from Ground Zero but the memory of that day will live on in the minds of millions of Americans. The 3,000 lost souls, never forgotten.