This Happened Here: Sept. 11, 2001
The terror that unfolded at the World Trade Center on September, 2001 arrived in the two river area on a blue sky morning suddenly broken by an eerie cloud that spewed up above lower Manhattan.
Like the rest of the world, we have all seen the images on television; a disaster contained on the unblinking screen.
But for thousands of two river residents, the disaster was personal. It happened here.
For those who were here then, for those who remain, it was an event not only survived, but lived through.
And as the anniversary of the event approaches, it is that living through that many recognize, and celebrate.
The shock has worn off. Some peak of moving on, as if tragedy was a traffic light that has turned from red to green.
The losses many families in the two river area sustained on that day will last a lifetime.
But many have again learned that age-old human lesson: life is stronger than death, for life goes on.
The stories of what each individual in the two river area experienced on that day and in the days that followed will be told for a lifetime, for what happened on September 11, 2001 didn’t happen on television.
It happened here, altering virtually every aspect of how we live in the two river area.
This happened here:
Smoke pouring from the twin towers gave the iconic skyscrapers the appearance of two enormous candles flaming above the harbor.
High up in that building, the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald had taken a direct hit.
One hundred and forty-three people – including Mark Hemschoot of Red Bank, David Bauer, Mike McCabe, Don Robertson, Mike Tucker of Rumson, Tim Betterly and Karl Smith of Little Silver, Ted Luckett and Kaleen Pezzutti of Fair Haven, Stephen Cangialosi, Roseanne Lang, Swede Chevalier and Nick Pietrunti of Middletown, James Straine of Oceanport, Paul Furmato and John Casazza of Colts Neck,
They and many others who lived here with us would not come home.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the clouds of smoke traveled swiftly across the water, carrying to shore dwellers in the two river area the odor of what evil smells like.
Thousands of two river residents were in Manhattan that day, commuters who would later bear witness to what had occurred. They escaped any way they could, traversing Manhattan on foot, many covered in glass and ash, cutting a swath around city landmarks that could be the next target.
Others escaped over the Brooklyn Bridge, runners in a surreal marathon, costumed in suits and ties, skirts and heels.
At the tip of Sandy Hook, at Twin Lights in Highlands, at Mt. Mitchill above the bay, at the harbor in Atlantic Highlands, people stood in stunned silence, watching the plume of smoke come toward us.
In Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, the refugees began to arrive by ferry, each of them carrying a personal fragment of the story. Some had been walking to work, enjoying the warm September morning, when the growl of a place approaching too low, too fast, forced their eyes to the sky.
Others were in the midst of their commute, on the ferry, on the PATH train, on the subway. Many were already at their desks, checking their emails, having their morning coffee, unknowingly in the crosshairs of history.
Mark Eulnew of Shrewsbury had arrived at work that day at 8:20 a.m. Sixteen minutes later, the first plane hit. Minutes after arriving in Highlands, he told The Two River Times what happened next:
“I ran out of the building. You don’t know what it’s like to look up and see a building shaking and think it’s going to fall on you, to have flaming pieces of paper and asphalt hitting you in the head four blocks away.
People were lying in the street. It was total, total chaos. The whole downtown was wrecked. It was like something out of a Spielberg movie, except it was worse than a movie.
I ran out of the building and ran for the pier. I hopped on the first ferry. People were trying to jump on the side of the ferry.”
“People were jumping out of windows,” said another survivor who worked on the 58th floor of building one. “I’m sick to my stomach,” shaking his head when asked to give his name. “I can’t talk.”
Andrea Hurst of Sea Bright came off the ferry that morning holding a gauze pad to her eye and limping. Hurst worked at 40 Wall St., across from the World Trade Center. She was getting off the subway underneath the WTC when the first plane hit. “I was stampeded out of the subway. I was on a side street, two blocks from the WTC, when I heard an explosion and debris started falling.”
She fell to her knees by the side of a parked car for haven. “The debris hit the car and shattered the windows.” She had bruised and scraped knees “probably from when I hit the ground,” and her eyes were irritated.
Some who came ashore in Highlands and Atlantic Highlands had never been here before; on that morning, in that place, they would have boarded a ferry to anywhere.
The rest were local: from Middletown, Locust, Belford, Leonardo, Rumson, Red Bank, Fair Haven, Little Silver, Highlands, Atlantic Highlands.
“It was horrible, horrible, horrible,” one man summed up. By nightfall, fear had begun to give way to grief as dozens of two river families began to understand that husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, had left the world forever.
What followed was a time of funerals; two a day, three a day; more. Candlelight vigils, prayer services, tears and talk of war.
Military bases went on alert. Oceanport Avenue, which sliced uneventfully between two sections of Fort Monmouth, was closed to civilian traffic. Armed guards patrolled Sandy Hook.
American flags sold out everywhere, appearing on cars and storefronts, front yards and fences.
In the two river area, armies of emergency workers volunteered for duty at Ground Zero, returning day after day to work “the pile.”
Benefit concerts sold out. Businesses and individuals launched donation drives to supply rescue workers with flashlights and gloves, water and dry socks, accumulating a mountain of material that was ferried over the site of the tragedy gratis by the ferry companies.
Garage sales, bake sales, penny drives and cocktail parties raised money to sustain the families hardest hit, faced not only with the loss of a loved one but with the loss of the family breadwinner.
The clearing smoke revealed a new reality: a nation at peace had become a nation at war, on the hunt for an elusive enemy.
Like grammar school pupils presented with a new list of spelling words, the national conversation expanded to include a new vocabulary: Homeland security; Al Qaeda; Anthrax; bioterrorism; weapons of mass destruction; the American Taliban; Bin Laden.
What had been abstract became concrete: the interconnectedness of our fates; our identity as Americans; and the fierce and stubborn will not only to survive, but live through the unforgettable challenges of our time.
Originally published in The Two River Times, Red Bank, New Jersey, September 2001 and September 2011.