“Wake up. The World Trade Center is gone.”
That is how my day on Sept. 11, 2001, began — jarred awake by my roommate Catharine who had been sent home early due to the tragedy. Still bleary-eyed from sleep, I thought she was talking about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and maybe there was a story about it on the news.
But Catharine kept talking, pausing only to turn on the TV. She woke up our third roommate, and the three of us sat side-by-side on the sofa watching the looped footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. Again and again and again, we watched the towers collapse until one of them asked if I had heard from my family yet.
My face paled. At the time, my brother worked for a financial institution with offices at the World Trade Center. He was based in New Jersey, but I knew he traveled to the city quite frequently for business. And my cousin lived and worked only a few blocks away from Ground Zero. Imagine my acute relief when I learned they were both all right.
Yet I have never felt more far away from home than I did during that time. While I live in Las Vegas, I was born in Manhattan and raised in New Jersey. I grew up traveling to the city often, whether it was on school trips, visits to Broadway or accompanying my mother to her office. The first time I went back and saw the New York City skyline without the Twin Towers, my heart twisted with pain. To this day, that sight still makes me incredibly sad.
There is nothing like desperately wanting to go home but not being able to do so. In the days after Sept. 11, I seriously considered quitting my job and driving across the country to New York to help with the cleanup. I didn’t care that I was in my mid-20s, newly promoted and nursing a fledgling career. I just wanted to do something. My family convinced me to stay where I was, and so I did little else but watch the news and pray. I donated to the relief efforts, but nothing has ever made me feel more useless or helpless than not being able to physically help the people who were suffering.
Nine years later, I still feel I could have done more, especially knowing that my family and friends escaped the attacks unscathed. My mother happened to be on the phone with my brother when the second plane hit, while he was preparing to attend an 11 a.m. meeting at the World Trade Center that day. Mom told me he called his co-workers in New York and heard their chaos, confusion and fear. And my cousin evacuated safely from Manhattan but not without witnessing debris flying and smoke filling the air. She was an elementary school teacher and one of her students had a parent who worked in one of the Twin Towers. He was not at work that morning and survived.
My faith in God, life and humanity shaken, I promised myself that I would never stand idly by in the face of human suffering again. Ever since high school, I’ve enjoyed volunteering and serving my community, but tragedy and its aftermath was never a priority. Sept. 11 changed that. Over the years, when disaster struck, I donated what I could and volunteered where I could, yet somehow it wasn’t enough. There had to be more to life than this.
It took several years, but I eventually found my way to the American Red Cross of Southern Nevada, where I started volunteering on the local Disaster Action Team, helping victims of both natural and man-made disasters. So far I’ve helped families who’ve lost everything due to a house fire, including someone who lives on my street. It’s small in scope compared to what happened on Sept. 11, but there is no other feeling in the world like being able to tell someone, “I’m here to help you.”
Today I also work part-time at my local chapter as a Health and Safety Instructor. It’s extremely gratifying to know that the money made from the classes I teach goes toward disaster relief. It’s not much, but I finally feel that the work I’m doing is making a difference in the world.
By chance, this year I will actually be in New York City on Sept. 11, and I will be one of many at Ground Zero paying my respects to those who perished… because I feel I owe them. Call it some sick sort of undeserved survivor’s guilt, but not a single anniversary goes by that I don’t think about what my family could have lost that day. I knew several people who worked in New York, people I went to school with, people I loved. I thought for sure I would know someone who was in one of those buildings. But my family and I were lucky. Thousands of others weren’t. It’s not exactly the type of lottery you want to win, but you’re relieved you did anyway.