“Mom, Is Dad alive?”

By Matt Strong

Daily Collegian – Sept. 9, 2011 | Daily Collegian – Sept. 12, 2001

Courtesy of MCT

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” were the patriotic last words I wearily uttered before my sixth grade homeroom teacher Mrs. Reid delivered an announcement that would change the lives of everyone in the class, some more dramatically than others.

Mrs. Reid left the classroom to speak with another teacher; the shrieks of teachers learning of the grave news echoed through the halls. Before smart phones and via the middle school gossip chain, rumors started to swirl after she came back to class. A somber Mrs. Reid addressed the class in the best way she knew how.

“I just received news of a tragic event that occurred in New York City. I don’t know many specifics, but keep friends and family in your prayers and we will take a moment of silence.”

Thoughts were rushing through my head like bulls through the streets of Pamplona. With a vague and distressing tragic announcement, my brain was full of doleful thoughts.

“My dad works in New York City,” I said to myself.

I scoured my short-term memory for the answer to whether or not my dad had left for work that morning. The answer wasn’t coming to me; my thoughts had become slave to the fear of what might be.

My heartbeat sped up as the hours in the school day dwindled. My friends and peers were being periodically pulled out of class, one by one by one. “The White House blew up,” I heard as I walked through the halls. “The Twin Towers fell,” I heard next. My heart dropped. If my dad was at work, he was there. A battalion chief in the New York City Fire Department at the time, I knew he would be a first responder. I selfishly contemplated all the effects this could have on my life before realizing exactly how many people would be affected; the magnitude of what I was hearing started to settle in.

As more information came to light, rumors flew and by the end of the school day I was convinced Armageddon had arrived. Classmates with parents working in the World Trade Center were removed from school by guidance counselors, accompanied by morbid rumors of deaths in the family. I was still in school by the end of the day. Personally, I knew that had to be a good sign.

With emotions running high, I took step by nervous step off the school bus and onto my block. The four-house long walk to my house felt like four miles. My neighbors stood outside their houses waiting to greet their kids as we all got off the bus. I walked to the back of my house and through the back door. My mom and two neighbors were sitting at the kitchen table. The makeup that had ran down her face was dry now. As I opened the door, tears began streaming down her face.

“Mom, is dad alive?” I asked as my voice quivered.

“Yes, but many of his friends have perished. He left to help with the recovery efforts,” she said.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 my parents sat at the kitchen table, my dad watching CNBC and my mom checking her email, when the first plane hit. The news coverage consumed every channel. The media was reporting that it could be an accident; my mother, at first, believed it.,

“Nothing this horrific could happen on American soil,” she recalled saying.

With years of experience, training and education in emergency response, my dad knew it couldn’t have been an accident. He sat in silence, watching the coverage in awe. Overcome by the same inspiration that led him to become a firefighter in the first place, he gathered his things and rushed to New York City to help. Safe to say I didn’t see or speak to my father for a week as he made ground zero his temporary home, assisting with rescue efforts, cleaning up debris and bodies and trying to come to terms with the scores of friends he had lost.

I’ll never forget the feeling of not knowing whether or not my dad was alive, or knowing that if he had been working that morning that he might not be alive today.

To say the days following 9/11 were tough would be an understatement.

I saw my dad struggle to cope with what had happened. I stood watching as a community dealt with the loss of 23 fathers, sons and community members. Due to my hometown of Garden City’s proximity to the 9/11 epicenter and the affluent, business-orientated nature of the town, I knew it was inevitable that many people had probably perished. I knew I would have to see friends of mine bury a parent.

I spent the days after 9/11 attending more funerals and wakes than most people my age and my 12th birthday, just four days later, was far from a celebration. I learned that day how valuable life is and how important it is to treasure all the time you have with your friends and family.

Every day I think how lucky I am to have my dad and what could have been if he had been at work when the Twin Towers were hit. I have come to appreciate the silent heroes who work every day to ensure our safety; for that, we should all be eternally grateful.

Matt Strong is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]