My father recalls watching the North Tower burning from the 100th floor up and thinking to himself, “How would they put this out?”
I grew up in Rockland County, New York, and Dad used to work in the city, styling himself as an “architectural carpenter.” What that means is that he worked with his hands — and on his knees — installing cabinetry, wood flooring, and the heavy, polished oak doors that decorate the high-end offices of Manhattan with his union brothers in NYC District Council of Carpenters Union Local 157. It was hard work, and it took its toll on my father, who is now retired and living comfortably in Pennsylvania.
Fifteen years ago today, on September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m, American Airlines Flight 11 flew south over Manhattan and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
On that particular day, my dad, Peter Pandolfo, was working on the 20th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, staring in shock at the World Trade Center three blocks away.
“We had a clear view of the debris and smoke coming out the North Tower. Then a terrifying vibration with a loud screaming engine noise was directly over our building and startled us.”
It was the second plane. United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.
“Terrorism was my immediate thought.” As my father tells the story, he immediately went into “survival mode” and began to rifle through his tool belt, emptying some tools to lighten his load and keeping others on his person in case he needed them. He and his coworkers then evacuated the building.
“The whole crew ran 20 floors down the stairs to the street. It was mayhem. All the people who had evacuated the towers — the tourists and their babies, the workers, and everybody else — were on the street in shock, crying and afraid.”
Dad remembers that they couldn’t call for help or tell their loved ones what was happening.
“All cell phone activity seemed to be dead. We couldn’t call home, and I thought, at least we were out of the building.”
On that day, I was sitting at my desk in Mrs. Brown’s third-grade classroom at George W. Miller Elementary School in Nanuet, N.Y. I remember our teacher calling us over to gather on the rug where we would have story time. Crestfallen, with tears in her eyes and a voice on the verge of breaking, Mrs. Brown told our class that “something terrible has happened.”
We children were sent home early that day. My father didn’t come home that night.
On the street in Manhattan, people were talking in hushed and anxious voices. Why did two planes just crash into the World Trade Center buildings? Did the air traffic controllers make a mistake? Were the planes hijacked? Were more planes going to descend on New York City? Were more people — my father and those bystanders — in danger?
As my dad and the other bystanders watched the towers burn, to their horror, they began to notice “large objects” falling from the buildings. There were people leaping from the towers, falling to their deaths, to escape the incinerating heat of the flames. You can find videos on YouTube, if you have the stomach for it.
“I saw two people hold hands and jump together. That made me sick,” my dad remembered.
As the crowd watched in horror, my father remembers, they moaned each time another person jumped. Each time, someone screamed. USA Today estimated that at least 200 people jumped that day.
Powerless. That is how my father describes feeling back then. Unable to do anything to help those people. The crowd unsure of what they should do, standing there, on the street.
Stunned disbelief turned to desperate panic.
“The South Tower began to fall straight down on itself, pancaking and exploding from the compression of each floor slamming on the next. A cloud of concrete ash, and who knows what else, billowed around the buildings and was headed straight for us. There was no way of escaping it. This cloud surrounded us and blocked out the sun.”
Providentially, perhaps, my father’s carpenter crew had dust masks with them, necessary for breathing through sawdust and chemical fumes on the job. They gave those masks to the people with babies and young children.
To have a chance at breathing, my dad ripped off his T-shirt and dipped it in a building’s outdoor koi pond he found on that street, wrapping it around his face. New Yorkers made an attempt to flee as the debris, smoke, and ash descended, enveloping them in darkness and fire.
“I felt the hot, smoky dust through my wet shirt, and it began to burn my lungs.” There was a moment when Dad thought he could duck into some bushes; maybe they would help filter some of the dust. He had other thoughts, too.
“I thought at that moment, I was going to die. I began to pray.”
It was two coworkers — union brothers — who came to my dad’s rescue. They grabbed hold of my father, pulling him away. One of them lived on Long Island, and they had decided to make for the Brooklyn Bridge, hoping to get out of the city and rest there. They zig-zagged northerly through the streets of Manhattan, smoke and dust clouds obstructing their view such that they could only see about 50 feet in front of them. Eventually, the sun broke through and they could see again.
Thousands of people made for the Brooklyn Bridge that day, carrying the same hope that they could cross on foot and leave the dust, and death and destruction, behind them. Noise filled the air as much as smoke. Noise of people running, of sirens wailing. Shouts. Mourning. There were those who were eerily silent, too.
First responders ran in the opposite direction of the crowds, toward the death and destruction. Four hundred eleven emergency workers in New York City died responding to the terrorist attacks on September 11: 343 New York firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, 23 NYPD officers, and eight emergency medical technicians. They died heroes, saving many lives through their sacrifice.
My father and his coworkers could not get to the bridge without heading to the ramp, which was behind them, toward the towers. They kept going on foot, passing more bridges and eventually the United Nations building. They hurried past, thinking “a plane was definitely going to crash into it.”
Tired and scared, the carpenters decided to cross over at the next bridge, unsure if that too would become a target for the terrorists. They climbed a construction scaffold on the side of the Williamsburg Bridge. As it turned out, my dad’s tool belt came in handy after all.
“It was abandoned, and workers left everything, dropped it where they were to get out of there, thinking the bridge would be a target. We thought that as well and hurried across. At the end of the bridge, there were hoses spraying water over wet concrete to cure it, and [they] blocked us. So I had my tool belt still on with tools I thought would be useful, like my utility knife. I used the knife to cut through the netting that kept the occupied side separate from the construction side, and we got off the bridge onto Metropolitan Ave. in Brooklyn.”
Hours and miles later, Dad spent an anxious night at his coworker’s house in Long Island. The Twin Towers were gone. And 2,996 people died and more than 6,000 people were injured in the attacks that knocked them down.
I share this story with you because my father made it home to my mother and their three boys (and, later, a girl) the next day. Other kids weren’t so fortunate as I. Too many fathers’ and mothers’ lives were claimed by evil men doing evil deeds in service of an evil ideology. An ideology that, as President George W. Bush rightly said on that day, targeted America and her people “because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”
Today, September 11, “is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”
None of us have forgotten the terrible things that happened on that terrible day 15 years ago. But at times, in the midst of this heated and divisive election season, I wonder if some of us Americans have forgotten the things that came under attack from evil that day.
I shared my father’s story with you because regardless of who wins the presidency, who controls the Senate or the House or the judiciary — whatever political party or individual is put in control of the government — it is imperative, it is essential, it is good, and it is right that we as Americans never cease to fight for and defend freedom and justice for all.
There is a specter of fear, of distrust and outrage, that is dividing us today. Discourse over ideas has devolved into bickering, name-calling, trolling, and contests of insult and ego. Each side of every argument seems less interested in showing how their ideas defend freedom and justice and more invested in forcing those who disagree into submission.
I am guilty of this as much as anyone. And when I engage in that behavior, I am wrong.
What is good and decent in America is under assault today from forces that hate us and seek to destroy us every bit as much as the people who hijacked those planes did. We do a disservice to the people who died on September 11, 2001, whether as victims or as heroes, and to our living countrymen and ourselves when we forget that defending the freedom of every American and ensuring that justice prevails for every American — even those who disagree with us — make this country good and decent.
The purpose of American conservatism is to conserve freedom and justice for the good and happiness of all of us. Its purpose is to defend liberty from hatred and evil that seek to destroy. That is what we must remember on September 11, and on every day. We must never forget that.
My father won’t. (For more from the author of “200 People Jumped From the Twin Towers on 9/11. This Is What It Felt Like to Watch From the Street Below.” please click HERE)