My wife called soon after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, her voice measured but tense. I was half-awake, preparing myself for the day, while our then 1½-year-old daughter slept in the next room of our Long Beach apartment.
“Turn on the TV,” Katerina said.
There were the twin towers ablaze in fireballs, black smoke pouring from the structures. Like so many of us, I could only stare, mouth agape, in stunned disbelief.
My wife was at Lawrence Middle School, where she teaches to this day. The teachers didn’t have a TV to know precisely what was happening, so she called me to find out. She was sitting with a colleague whose husband worked at the World Trade Center. I stuttered as I relayed what I was seeing.
I can’t recall which station I was watching, but I remember the frantic, frightened voice of a telecaster in a helicopter that whirred from a distance above the twin towers.
Then, suddenly, the unexpected happened at 9:59 a.m.: The south tower collapsed. The image of its shiny metal exterior cascading down, and then a massive gray ash plume spiraling back up hundreds of feet into the air, was seared into my mind. It haunts my thoughts to this day.
I gasped. Then I had to explain to my wife what had just happened, and she had to tell her colleague, who was overcome by fear and sorrow. As I write this 20 years later, a chill radiates up my spine into my brain.
At 10:28 a.m., the north tower fell. We, as a nation, had just witnessed the mass murder of 2,606 people in the twin towers live on TV.
I’ve been covering the aftermath of the attacks since that day. Last Saturday I photographed the Town of Hempstead’s moving 9/11 ceremony, held, as it always is, at Lido Beach Park, where people gathered by the Atlantic Ocean on the day of the attacks to catch a glimpse of the smoke plumes from the towers.
NYPD Detective Vincent DeMarino, whose father, also Vincent, of Valley Stream, an NYPD officer who died in 2019 of brain cancer because of his time spent at ground zero, encouraged attendees to tell their stories of that terrible day. In doing so, we keep the collective memory of the attacks alive so we “never forget.” And so, I tell my story here.
After collecting myself, I readied my daughter and headed to my wife. As I drove on West Park Avenue through Long Beach on the way to Lawrence, I spotted the smoke plumes through a break in the houses, just as I was entering the city’s West End. The plumes were like giant ribbons stretching to the heavens. “My God!” I said to myself, realizing that nothing would ever be the same.
My wife was released from her duties after the children were sent home, and we met up on a side street in Lawrence. I could see the fear and horror in her eyes. We realized we had no cell service, but I told her that everything would be OK. I wondered whether that was true.
My wife drove our daughter back to our apartment, and I went to work just down the street at the Heralds’ office at the time, in Lawrence. From there I took dictation from reporters who had been dispatched to train stations along the Babylon and Far Rockaway branches of the Long Island Rail Road. They were interviewing survivors who had hurried out of Manhattan, white ash and sweat coating their dark business suits. They poured out of the trains like frightened war victims.
I worked until 3 a.m. the next day to produce a paper. I remember stepping out of the office onto the empty sidewalk on Central Avenue around midnight and staring into the black sky. I heard F-16 fighter jets streaking overhead. They flew low, but I couldn’t see them.
I felt drained and hollow. I was unprepared for the sense of sorrow that I — and the nation — would feel in the coming years. I reported on 13 funerals and memorial services in the months after Sept. 11, training my camera’s zoom lens on the grieving family members and friends of the victims. I hated shooting photos of those in such deep mourning.
Now, though, my sense is that those pictures are an important part of history. They are documents that tell us about the price of terrorism. They show us, in no uncertain terms, why we must, as a nation, work toward world peace. I have reported on those annual ceremonies ever since.
At last Saturday’s, I could hear the anger and sorrow of the family members and friends of 9/11 victims as they spoke. There is no peace that can come from such an attack, only acceptance.
Never, ever forget.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.