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Years later, echoes of Sept. 11 — Recalling how we coped

Trying to come to terms with tragedy, people often seek to process the pain and sorrow within the context of their life. Such was the case with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For an artist like Roz Dimon emotions are expressed through visual images. For many, no words were adequate; for others, sharing stories with others brought some solace. For writers, it was a challenge to capture the wrenching experience that pierced the veil of a seemingly safe world.

Marking this date, 20 years on, means repeating the words we said then, or reliving the frantic moments of searching for missing loved ones. Library Director Terry Lucas said she was running a bookstore then, in Westhampton Beach.

“I had worked as a lawyer for a firm in World Trade 2 for four years,” she said, “and could not believe that it was just gone.” It took a few days, she said, to find out all her previous colleagues were safe. Afterward, many people came out to Westhampton Beach and other East End places to get away from the city.

“The bookstore became a place for people to gather and tell their stories,” Ms. Lucas recalled, in a foreshadowing of the space she would create for the Shelter Island community at the library. 

For a journalist, processing a life-changing experience means formulating some way to put it into words. Tom Junod is a writer who is known for digging deeply into a subject, and then going even further. He recalled being on Shelter Island that day, lying on the deck after a run, enjoying that unforgettably clear blue sky, when his wife, Janet, called to him from the house.

NPR news had just reported on the plane crashing into the first tower. “She wondered if that was a real news report or a ‘War of the Worlds’ situation,” he said, recalling the 1938 science fiction radio play that sent listeners into a panic over what they believed was a news account of an alien invasion. 

It was sadly, all too true, and they began reaching out to find out if friends were safe. He spoke to the mother of a friend he knew was downtown. He was safe, she said, but through tears told him the two towers had collapsed.

The Junods had no TV at their Island home, so didn’t watch as millions did when the towers fell, but saw the tapes later that day when they gathered with others watching the coverage at The Dory.

The next morning they bought the papers — which they still have — at the pharmacy, including the NY Times with “America Attacked” across the front page. Among the indelible images was the picture of a man who had jumped or fallen from the World Trade Center. For many people, the instinct would be to turn away from the terrifying reality that picture captured, and to wish it could be unseen.

Mr. Junod, however, found it had an inescapable pull on him. He decided then that he would write about the man in that picture at some point. It took two years, but ”Falling Man” was published in the September 2003 issue of Esquire. It has become an iconic piece of literature emerging from the attack, delineating efforts to identify the specific man seen in the photo, while acknowledging the countless victims he represented.

In trying to frame September 11 in the context of our lifetimes, Mr. Junod referred back to the assassination of President Kennedy. “That touched off the ‘60s, and Sept. 11 touched off the 21st Century,” he said. Both were eras that had been eagerly welcomed as ushering in an exciting future. Instead, both events would take hold of a place in the soul that could not escape the darkest moments of human experience.

For my family and myself, being in Manhattan that day meant tracking down everyone to be sure they were safe. My husband, whose morning commute typically ended at the World Trade Center, had instead left for a business trip that day, making his way home when it was abruptly canceled.

Walking north from my midtown office, I fell into step with hundreds of New Yorkers silently, instinctively heading in the same direction. I spotted my brother, who worked in the Wall Street area, blocks from my father’s apartment, where several of us converged. I remember looking out the apartment window at the unbelievable sight of fighter planes banking over New York City, in a futile response to what had already happened.

Several of us had lost friends and colleagues in the towers, including many who had worked at Windows on the World and Cantor Fitzgerald with two other brothers who were working elsewhere by that day. Another brother worked closely with the mayor and was near Ground Zero, but safe.

In quiet moments, I began to think of yet another brother, whom we had lost just months before after he struggled for years with the pain of cancer and difficult treatments. A beloved young man in his 30’s, he was known for his enormous heart and what some called his “shining spirit.” I said a silent prayer of thanks that he had been spared the pain of living through this barrage of hate and violence against innocent men, women and children.

Eventually, we all made our way to Shelter Island, our place of healing and safety. We would not stay long. We had been spared, but there was work to be done to heal the suffering of our neighbors and our city. The work continues.