NEW YORK —
Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 2011:
“Hours later, I finally made it home to the Upper West Side, where my little night owl, Louisa, opened the door. She screamed, “Mommy, Mommy! Your hair is gray!” Ben was sound asleep but I woke him up as promised. His face was filled with fear. He grasped my shoulders and grabbed me. ‘I’m scared, Mom,’ he said, and started crying.”
That was written by my mother, former Times correspondent Geraldine Baum. It’s her description of coming home to our New York City apartment late on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, after a full day spent at the site of the World Trade Center attack. I was 8 years old then; today, I’m 28 and a reporter for The Times.
The gray in my mom’s hair was ash and dust from the Twin Towers — material we now know to have been toxic.
The reality is I remember very little about that cloudless Tuesday 20 years ago. It’s not clear if I recall or if my mother later told me. But that night, I thought she was dead because of the dust on her hair and clothes.
I felt fear. That is all I know. But, what about the rest? Am I lost? Distressed? My parents’ memories will replace mine. I am part of the millennial generation and live within a few miles from the buildings once considered the tallest buildings in the world. Twenty years on, I know the Sept. 11 attacks profoundly shaped me but I’m still sorting out how. This is where I am joined by my peers who were children at the time and can now see how the Al Qaeda attack changed their lives.
But, again: How?
Ample polling confirms that awful day left a lasting imprint on my generation. Recent Pew Research Center surveys reveal that about 80% of 28-year-olds “remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.” Polling from 2016 shows that 86% of millennials –defined as people born 1981-1998–say that the attack was the event that had the greatest impact on the country during their lifetime.
Polling in the immediate aftermath of the attacks showed that trust in government reached a peak not seen since Lyndon Johnson was president in the 1960s. That proved short-lived. With two wars, natural disasters, growing dread about climate change, an economic crisis and a pandemic, trust in government is near the lowest it has been since polling started on the subject in the late 1950s.
While there are slight deviations among the generations, trust is low across the board. Millennials, however, are far less likely to buy into the notion of American exceptionalism or that the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world.” Perhaps that’s the clearest consequence of our country’s response to 9/11.
That single act of terror helped shape our conception of America’s role in the world and our sense of vulnerability. We can’t remember a time when America wasn’t at war or where planes weren’t considered weapons of mass destruction.
Zach Piaker has been my friend since we were in third grade. When we were 13, we had our Bar Mitzvahs together. We reunited to discuss how the attacks ignited our interest in politics and current affairs. He is now a New York-based lawyer.
This desire to be informed, engaged and involved would have likely occurred regardless — I was the child of two journalists. I was a voracious reader of newspapers. We wondered how our constant state of war, political turmoil and distrust of politicians had made us more cynical and distrusting of the political process. Zach felt more vulnerable than me at first, but the long-lasting changes to society — security barriers and racial profiling, as well as a militarized New York City — stayed with him.
“It was just part of the fabric of society that that had happened, and attacks could happen,” he said.
The wars and accompanying lies frustrated him, but at no point did he disengage. He hopes to one day work for the government and make it more efficient. Many others share his desire. I was struck by a recent New York Post photo essay of some of the 65 on-duty members of the New York City Fire Department who lost first-responder fathers in the attacks or from health complications in its aftermath.
Their loss led them to the service.
Disenchantment led Abraham Rivera, 34, down a different path. Rivera, a Queens native, aspires as a pilot and is currently a flight attendant at American Airlines. Rivera felt pride and unity in his country in the months following the attacks.
But then came the invasion of Iraq and the 9/11 commission report. He began to watch more videos on YouTube, and later Netflix. This led him to wonder who was behind these attacks. These events fueled a distrust in government and fomented a belief within him that a group of terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan could not have pulled these attacks off on their own.
“I feel like it was an inside job, and I feel like there was a lot of malarkey going on and a lot of people were not held accountable for their actions,” he told me.
We spoke for a while about these conspiracy theories. I was frustrated by his inability to pinpoint the other conspirators. Perhaps this was a way to understand a feeling of wonder and uncertainty about the world’s transformation.
A memorial arose on the World Trade Center site over the last decade — along with an even taller saber into the sky, the 104-story One World Trade tower. That building has been avoided by me. It’s a ghostly specter that haunts me every time I cross a street corner. It’s a reminder that we are still a target and inspires fear that we might be attacked again. I have not been inside the memorial and the museum, and maintain that I have not. That was until I read an article my mom wrote in 2014 about a family visit to the twin reflecting pools with the nearly 3,000 names inscribed in bronze along its side.
I had forgotten, much like my dad reminded of me recently. He was reading a passage from a book. “A few weeks after the World Trade Center Attacks [Oreskes’], my son was talking with a counselor at school and he stated that he hadn’t realized that his parents were working in dangerous jobs,” Seth Mnookin, author, had written.
Reading my parents’ articles about the event — my dad worked for the New York Times then –proves to me how little I can access about that day or the ensuing years. Yet, I knew something was wrong. I grew up in New York, always moving forward, but also being swept up in the grief.
Emilia Petrarca grew up in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, a short walk from the World Trade Center. She attended an elementary school close to the towers; it stayed closed for months because of damage.
On Sept. 11, she remembers, her mom pulled her from school. Sirens blared. People shouted.
“I remember looking back and seeing the gaping hole in the tower,” she said.
Her Tribeca townhouse had floor-to-ceiling windows, and she recalled seeing the tippy top of the towers and its antenna through the glass.
“I have a pretty distinct memory of watching that antenna shake and then disappear from sight,” she said. “That was my view and then after that, what I remember the most is this, like, massive cloud of dust.”
It looked like snow, she said, Her family left home, placed bandanas around their mouths and grabbed a bus uptown. They didn’t return for several months. Decades later, she still takes part in a more than 70,000-person study of people who were affected by the attacks and their lingering physical and psychological toll.
It includes about 3,000 people who were 18 or younger at the time, and has produced research on effects that include higher rates of asthma and substance use among kids in proximity of the towers. One paper showed that, 10 years after the attacks, “adolescents who witnessed a disturbing event on 9/11 were twice as likely to report ever drinking and almost three times as likely to have ever used marijuana.”
Still, the lasting impact of that day is hard for her to sort out. In her first week of college, she recalls crying during a class discussion about the incident. It was a strange thing that first-year students could talk with academic coolness about the pain she was feeling. She didn’t understand it.
As the anniversary drew closer this summer, Petrarca, a journalist like me, found herself looking into the results of the surveys she had filled out over the years. What was the result of this study? What did the study amount to?
“I’m 29,” she said. “And I still don’t know, I’m looking, I’m googling the results of tests like a multiple choice quiz that I’ve been taking for 20 years, to find out if it has any answers, because I don’t have an answer.”
Like Petrarca, I strain for some cohesive answer. When I reflect on the lives that have been lost, nothing unifying or satisfying happens to me. My mom could have died while doing the same job I do now.
Her brown notebook, which she gave to my dad as a gift before heading downtown, is now stored in a drawer in the apartment. Her eyes were her greatest tool that day. She still struggles to comprehend sentences that describe bodies falling from the skies.
“Two people jumping together. They drifted down so slowly.” “Two people jumping together. They drifted down so slowly.”
In considering how 9/11 changed the course of our lives or defined us, I distinguished those who lost someone that day from others, like me or Petrarca or Rivera. It was a mark that we were made, but not the loss of a loved one or friend.
That, though, might have led me down the wrong track, because the losses radiating out from that day looked so different for so many people.
Lucy Kane, originally from Jackson Heights, Queens, recalls how her mom, Holly Anderson, stopped picking her up from school in the weeks and months after the attacks. Her mother, a poet and artist, had always volunteered at the local hospital, but after the 9/11 attacks, she began showing up at Ground Zero.
She helped run a hospitality tent for cleanup workers for months after the attacks.
“I remember one of the things that my mom would always say is they would come in and be covered in debris and dust everywhere, and she would wash their boots,” Kane said.
“She made meals, gave them hot showers, and talked to them. It seems kind of simple, but she just offered a respite for them.”
Like Petrarca, she remembers the 10th anniversary, when she was away from New York City for the first time and feeling overwhelmed with emotion. She said that some of it was homesickness. She was frustrated by how little the day meant to others who had not been in New York
Because of her volunteer work, Kane’s mom had thorough physicals through the World Trade Center Health Program. She spent a whole day being prodded and poked, knowing that many of those who had to sort through the wreckage left behind unseen scars which would eventually become worse.
In the fall of 2017, scans showed cancer in her liver, which quickly spread to other organs. On Dec. 22, 2017, she died. A cancer diagnosis can be sudden and unexpected. Kane feels comforted that her mom might have been diagnosed with cancer because she was brave and generous out there. These qualities are what will stay with Kane, as well as a tattoo of the Holly plant on her right bicep.
“Her volunteer work at Ground Zero was the ultimate expression of her [turning] empathy into action,” Kane said. “Being raised by her and being her daughter has informed my choices more than 9/11.”
The intergenerational link looks different for 80-year-old Anne Rossinow and her 18-year-old granddaughter Natalie. Anne’s son Norman worked on the 105th floor of the building for the Aon Corporation.
“Norman never had kids, and I don’t want the next generation to forget him,” she said.
This generation is what I am most curious about.
Despite never meeting him, Natalie still has a vivid image of Norman — his love of baking and his energetic disposition. It is no coincidence that they share the same initials, NSR. The bond is so strong that she spoke at a 2018 memorial for an uncle she never met.
“After hearing continuous stories told by my family, I’ve grown up knowing what a kind, compassionate and caring person he was,” she said in 2018.
Natalie started at Tufts this week and is part of the generation that follows me. She spoke about how Norman was a constant presence in her family, and how they missed him at her high school graduation and Rosh Hashanah dinner.
We spoke as she organized herself for the beginning of a new chapter in her life. School had been on Zoom for much of the last year and we dwelled on the idea that the pandemic might mark her in the same way 9/11 marked me.
The shape of the trauma might look different, but that notion of a generation-defining event struck us both. She said, “If it isn’t COVID it’s school shooters.”
“I think COVID would be the closest parallel. It’s honestly hard for me to even think of Sept. 11 as a defining moment of a generation. … It’s weird for me to think about that event as something bigger than just the day my uncle died.”
Norman was never found. However, his memory lives on in her East Side apartment. Anne longed to bury him. There are many pictures of him, and a memorial with an inscribed name hangs on the wall. Natalie, her sisters, and cousins all have one of these etchings.
Now at college, she left the etching at home, but the lanyard she wore while memorializing Norman in 2018 sits on the desk of her new dorm. It is something you should keep.