9/11: 'A gray cloud of debris rolled violently toward us...'

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 9/11/2018, 9:28 a.m.
Three-hundred and forty-one New York City firefighters. Twenty-three New York City police officers. Thirty-seven Port Authority police officers. Three court ...

By John Avlon

(CNN) -- Three-hundred and forty-one New York City firefighters. Twenty-three New York City police officers. Thirty-seven Port Authority police officers. Three court officers. Two EMS workers. Thousands of innocent civilians. Numbers alone, of course, cannot do them justice.

A whole portrait of America was taken from us in an instant: individuals of every race, religion, and ethnicity; fathers and mothers, children and newlyweds, brothers, sisters, and best friends. Amid our grief we now see that New York had been distracted by flash and wit and cash for too long.

The heroic actions of those we lost reawakened us to the essential importance of personal courage. Overnight, and somewhat to our surprise, New York has been embraced as the nation's symbol of resilience, the indomitable heart of America.

On my desk is a list of every firefighter, police officer, and uniformed service member who died in the line of duty on that day. Their names fill 47 pages. As Mayor Giuliani's speechwriter, it has been my responsibility to write or edit each of their eulogies.

The New York City Fire Department had lost 778 men from its founding in 1865 until September 10, 2001. In the course of one morning, it lost nearly half that historic total. Nothing had prepared the city or the department for this volume of loss. And so it fell to four of us in our small office to do the best we could to do them justice, to say thank you, to provide some measure of comfort to their families on behalf of their city.

It should not be forgotten that September 11 began as a beautiful blue-sky day. Primary elections were being held throughout the city, and as people were lining up to vote at polling places or dropping their children off at school, suddenly they stopped and turned their heads toward a rumble in the sky. It was 8:46 a.m.

The pilot of the first hijacked airplane, Mohammed Atta, was flying American Airlines Flight 11 low and loud down the length of Manhattan with the lives of 92 passengers in his hands, above stores, churches, and finally past the Washington Square Arch as he aimed for the heart of the Twin Towers.

The first plane flew by my window. I was sleeping late after a long weekend of work, when my girlfriend heard the roar of its engines approaching. She shook me and we both saw its silver underbelly pass by the window of my fifth-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. We assumed it was going to crash, but the plane seemed strangely in control to be flying so low.

We waited for impact, heard a faint sound, and then saw the beginning of the black smoke curl above the trees, beyond the church steeple of Our Lady of Pompeii. Then the first sirens of that long day sounded in the distance. I recalled that a plane had once crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. Despite the cloudless sky, I tried to convince myself that this also could have been an accident.