Alex Torpey: Remembering 9/11


Yeah they closed all the airports or something, no planes are even allowed to fly.

Those would be the first words I would hear about the terrorist attacks of September 11th, though I didn’t know it at the time. I wasn’t even aware of what happened, but was standing in the hallways of Columbia High School in Maplewood, waiting for 4th period study hall to begin. After a few more minutes of chatter it became clear that something major had happened in New York City, and as the teacher arrived we rushed in to turn on the TV. Instantly a live picture of smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center filled the classroom, and like a vacuum had been created all other details in that classroom vanished except for that image, which is burned into my, and probably everyone’s, memory of that day.

For a few deafeningly silent minutes everyone in the classroom watched in awe of what was happening. Still trying to make sense of what they saw… could this really be happening? In New York City, not much more than a dozen miles from where we live? And not just A City but The City – the quintessential icon of the modern and western world. New York City is more than a place. It is an identity. And we were watching the most visually recognizable and arguably one of the most important physical spaces of that identity fall to its knees on live television. And there was nothing we could do to understand it, much less stop it.

Even though everyone spent that day differentIy, there was a common thread no matter what people were doing. For me, although I knew both my parents were safe in South Orange, that wasn’t the case for everyone. I spent the entire day with a personal and family friend whose parents both worked in WTC. We waited out the entire day without any word, until the evening when they were finally able to get in touch and confirm that both of them were OK, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief that seemed like it had been held in the entire day.

But there were many families who were not as lucky. September 11th is probably the most widely used case-study for emergency management classes, and the stories from the various police officers and fire fighters in my emergency management classes at John Jay were moving, to say the least, as we examined personal experiences alongside our academic literature.

Probably the most emotional was one of the stories from a current FDNY firefighter, who came down from a line of FDNY – his father, his father’s father and so on. And the way he put it was that September 11th happened for him on September 12th when his mother and him returned home from where they were staying to see two FDNY officers in formal uniform waiting on their front porch. No words needed to even be said but at that moment he knew his father was not coming home. This is a scene replayed in movies and TV shows so many times it is sometimes hard to remember that for some, this isn’t a movie but a tragic reminder of what it means to be part of a family with emergency responders.

Even with the construction of One World Trade Center getting into high gear. Even with the hundreds of pages of reports and case-studies read and analyzed. Even with the constant news stories about global military conflicts that we have been perpetually engaged in since September 11th I still have trouble fully grappling with what happened. I think part of the reason I began to get involved in public safety and emergency management was a need to understand what had happened so that I could maybe one day be part of the thousands and thousands of people who already help understand, prepare against and respond to those kinds of disasters.

Now, I spent a long time trying to figure out a way to end this written recollection of September 11th, 2001. Some way to tie things up, to provide a conclusion, to provide a direction or a purpose. But, I’m not sure I know what that would be. I’m not sure anyone does.

But, at the very least, in a way this memorial on September 11th 2011 is an important reminder that some of these things that we see on TV, and in movies, and on the news are real, and that what happened ten years ago really did actually happen. It is a reminder of both the delicacy and of the value of life. And a reminder that while there are many who thankfully keep us safe overseas, there are many who keep us safe right here at home.

Alex Torpey, the Village President of South Orange, is also an EMT. You can read more about him on his blog, where this post originally appeared. It is posted here with his permission.

Photo: U.S. Navy, via Wikicommons.


  1. There’s something, well, callow and even a bit-self-serving about this one. I know, he in fact was basically just a kid back then. I also realize he seems a favorite of the Baristas given the coverage he’s gotten on this site. (Also, a better photo might have been chosen. Maybe even not one of him half-smiling.)

    But still…

    I sometimes think the best way to honor the dead is simply in honored silence. Recollections of where one who remains alive was on that day don’t ever quite do it for me. The Arizona at Pearl Harbor doesn’t have to “speak,” its wreckage and still-leaking oil are quite eloquent enough.

  2. I only agree with you, Cathar slightly more than 100-percent.
    I have no recall as to where the heck I was on 9/11 ~ but I do recall that at first, it was very hard to believe what I was hearing – but in short order – I realized it was indeed true…. and horrible!
    I think it does not matter where one was, nor what they were doing, or not doing…..but moreso, what they felt inside their heart and mind.
    I recall going to Synagogue that Friday, and how jammed packed it was; as it was also the Jewish High Holy Days. Many were sobbing, many were stading all around the perimeter of the interior. At least half were crying. Just……………………………………..Sad to the bone !
    …………….. and it STILL is !!

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