What does September 11 mean to an American after 13 years?

What does September 11 mean to an American after 13 years?

Native New Yorker Leon was on day two of an internship in Manhattan when the planes hit the World Trade Center. Here, he remembers how he felt at the time

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The World Trade Center Tribute in Lights is seen from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. The lights represent the two fallen towers.
The World Trade Center Tribute in Lights is seen from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. The lights represent the two fallen towers.
Photo: AFP

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A rose is left in rememberance of Rose Mary Riso, a victim of the September 11th terrorist attacks, at the National September 11 Memorial at the site of the attack in New York City.
A rose is left in rememberance of Rose Mary Riso, a victim of the September 11th terrorist attacks, at the National September 11 Memorial at the site of the attack in New York City.
Photo: AFP

The first thought I had this morning was "Wow, has it been 13 years already?"

Thirteen years ago today was the second day of my internship at UBS Financial Services. Everything was still so new for me that I didn't realise something was wrong when I walked into the office and saw everyone watching the news on television. It wasn't until I looked at the screen myself that I realised this was not going to be an ordinary day. 

In the beginning, the mood was light. A co-worker even joked that whatever was happening was my fault because I was new. But then the plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, the second plane hit the South Tower. My most vivid memory, as the buildings came tumbling down, was the silence and shock that filled the room. I remember the uneasy feeling of helplessness. Once we were able to start functioning again, we got on the phones trying to reach our loved ones but to no avail.

I don't remember when the decision was made that we needed to leave the office. We weren't in immediate danger, as the office was in the middle of Manhattan while the attacks happened on the south end of the island. But at that moment nobody really knew what to expect so I just followed people. I had nowhere to go. I couldn't reach my family and the whole island of Manhattan was on lockdown. Remember, this was back when not everyone needed or could even afford a mobile phone.

I ended up following a group of people to the Park Avenue apartment of a manager I'd never met before. Any other day, I would have been so impressed to step foot into one of these million-dollar apartments. But not that day. As soon as we got in, we turned on the television and kept watching. We took turns using the phone to call our families. I don't remember what I said to my parents but I did reach them eventually. And after several hours, we left and I got home without too much trouble.

While I didn't lose anybody in the tragedy, no family members, no friends, my continuing reaction to 9/11 illustrates the immense impact of the event: you didn't have to have suffered immediate losses to still feel the gravity of the disaster.

Whenever I see images from the day, it still evokes very strong emotions from me. When I watched the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is about a nine-year-old boy's struggle to deal with the death of his father who was in WTC, I actually teared up - not something I do often in the cinema. Actually, I'm getting a bit teary-eyed as I write this blog.

I don't know what it is about the whole thing that gets to me. Is it because I initially chose to intern at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) which was in the building right next to South Tower, but changed to UBS? (Somebody else went in my place; to my great relief, I later found out that he got out of the building safely.) Or maybe it's because it still feels so shocking, to realise how vulnerable we really are.

Before 9/11, terrorism was something that happened on foreign soil. But now we realised that if it can happen to one of the greatest landmarks of New York, it can happen anywhere. 

Thirteen years later, the threat of terrorism is still very great. Osama Bin Laden is dead but al-Qaeda is still around, along with new terror groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. We read about suicide bombings almost every day in the news. Airport security is still ridiculously strict in US airports. And whenever there is some sort of big event or celebration, especially one involving Americans, there are always stories about the increasing chance of a terrorist attack. It seems to have become a part of our everyday lives now, but every September 11, I always feel like a little bit more cautious. 

Although I now live in Hong Kong, I'll always feel a connection to the city and the people that I grew up with - once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. And I will never forget.

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