Remembering the Sept. 11 attacks is painful — even 20 years later. It’s a wound that never heals.
There’s an expression I heard the other day — “We should never ever forget. But we really don’t want to remember.” It’s so true.
I remember what happened like it was yesterday. I got a call that a small plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It turned out to be a commercial jet.
I went into the North Tower lobby past windows that had already been blown out. All hell broke loose. The water lines had been severed.
Ten minutes later, we felt a vibration. We thought there was an explosion in the elevator shaft.
I was told the South Tower had been hit. We had half the leadership from the Fire Department go from the North Tower to the South Tower.
I left the North Tower building and was looking for the mayor when I went around the corner and saw people from OEM (Office of Emergency Management).
That’s when the South Tower fell. Of course we knew then we were in bad shape with the North Tower and the day got progressively worse.
I was in the New York City Fire Department for 32 years. We lost 343 firefighters. I knew many of them personally. I lost friends. I went to so many funerals. The grief — it was almost unbearable.
There was a tremendous loss of leadership. The senior leaders in the FDNY had been there during the war years — the tough times in the city in the 1970s and 1980s.
That type of leadership was very difficult to replace.
But the anniversary is a lot worse for the families who lost loved ones than for me and all of us who survived.
What is remarkable is the patriotism and honor of family, city and country we have seen over the past 20 years.
We have children of heroes who died that day who joined the military, who joined the Fire Department and Police Department carrying on the traditions of their parents.
It makes me very proud to see that their parents paid the ultimate sacrifice and their children are willing to do the same. That’s so beautiful.
The city and country pulled together after 9/11. We never saw another time where politicians put aside petty differences and came together in New York City. Americans from all walks of life banded together.
It’s sad to see that politicians have divided into different groups and the spirit that brought us together after Sept. 11 is missing today.
There are positive developments, however.
There’s no question that the city is better prepared because of all the work the NYPD has put into terrorism prevention. The NYPD has done a tremendous job with the federal authorities and the international community in making the city safer.
But the federal government has also made things more complicated with its lax immigration policies by failing to protect our borders and allowing illegal immigrants into the country.
How can you have a country if you don’t know who is here?
Follow our 9/11 20th Anniversary coverage here:
What has happened in Afghanistan is a gut punch. As was the case 20 years ago, the Taliban terrorists are in charge of Afghanistan after our long-term military presence there.
We have to be disappointed about how much of our troops’ blood has been spilled and how many tears have been shed during a two-decade war. It doesn’t seem that we’re leaving Afghanistan any better off than it was when we invaded it to root out the terrorist camps.
It’s sad that people are still dying from Sept. 11. Thousands of people have fallen ill and died from breathing the contaminated air from the smoldering pile of rubble left from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
The federal government has gone out of its way to provide medical help and compensation to civilians and first responders who suffered the lingering effects from breathing in carcinogens.
Members of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration get together every year on Sept. 11 to reflect on the anniversary and salute the tremendous people we lost 20 years ago.
This year will be especially difficult because of the many issues we have going on. On top of this tragedy, we’re still coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
(Tom Von Essen was the commissioner of the FDNY from 1996 through 2001 and recently served as NY-NJ regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency)