Colin Capece | Friday, September 10, 2021
As a New Yorker, September 11, 2001 is a day that’s impossible to avoid. If you ask anyone who’s lived through it, no one forgets where they were or who they were with on that Tuesday morning. Twenty years later, it’s a day that continues to draw out a wide array of visceral emotions for people connected with it. I was just about to turn one when the attacks occurred, and I admittedly haven’t had to confront the entirety of what 9/11 conveys in the way others have. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to let the totality of that day take hold of me, and I’ve come to realize that there is no right or wrong way to feel about everything it recalls. I am never going to be able to do that day justice for people who have lived through it, but I believe it’s a story that needs to be retold with each passing generation. I’m going to share what that day means to me to the best of my ability.
From a young age, I felt the sorrow that the day brought for so many. I remember sitting on the carpet with my friends in kindergarten, watching my teacher sob uncontrollably as she courageously tried to explain that bad people had attacked our city and our country. I later learned that her brother was a firefighter who was killed saving lives. When I was 13, I hugged my teammate at his dad’s funeral after he passed away following a long battle with cancer. He’d been a police officer who worked at Ground Zero. My parents describe it as months of familiar faces in the newspapers. Friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow commuters who lost their lives on that day. Months upon months of NYPD and FDNY funerals, makeshift memorials on every street, candles lit in the windows of so many homes for loved ones who didn’t make it home that day.
In many ways, 9/11 represents the worst of humanity. In an instant, a group of hijackers turned the lives of thousands upside down, causing death and destruction on American soil the likes of which we haven’t seen since. Even as I write this now, I somehow connect with people’s confusion as a plane hit the north tower, the realization of what was happening as another plane hit the south tower seventeen minutes later and the despair of watching both towers collapse. I also feel the anger that people still hold towards the perpetrators.
When I was growing up, the immediate response to 9/11 was always described as a time when patriotism was at its peak. The image of President George W. Bush standing on top the rubble of the collapsed towers exclaiming that the people who knocked them down would feel the full force of the United States soon was something that resonated with me. I also now realize the xenophobia and bigotry those sentiments fostered towards other innocent people. I’m aware of the death and destruction they caused in other parts of the world, including the service men and women who gave their lives to protect us from further harm. All these emotions are simply inescapable.
Yet in humanity’s darkest hour, something else deep inside of us surfaced, something that fought to push down the evil that was attempting to take hold of us. As I got older, I discovered more stories of humanity responding with love when crisis reared its ugly head. The image of a firetruck crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with smoke and flames streaming out of both towers, everyone on that vehicle knowing they wouldn’t make it back, is something that also always resonates with me. In high school, I learned about Welles Crowther, a former Boston College lacrosse player and volunteer firefighter who led a dozen people to safety in the South tower before it collapsed. Stories of parents trapped above the flames calling their children at school to say goodbye, medical professionals rushing to nearby hospitals knowing instantly an emergency was developing and people aboard the planes aware of their fate comforting each other in their final moments are all things that bring solace.
There are countless accounts of bravery and benevolence that emanate from that day, neighbors helping neighbors survive when it seemed like it would be impossible to do so. Where I’m from, everyone knows someone who was impacted by that day, and in its aftermath, communities came together to collectively support one another. For a long period of time, we were able to put aside the things that make us different and be drawn to our common human experiences. As my parents describe, it was a time where you could look someone in the eye and feel their every emotion: the sadness for those who were lost, the relief for those who survived, the uncertainty about what was going to happen next. We were there for one another through it all.
While I didn’t live through 9/11 the way others did, I can draw parallels to the way the COVID-19 pandemic, an event that Notre Dame undergrads also lived through in person, impacted our campus last year. The memories of an exciting return to school followed by a two-week shutdown that limited activity and social interaction are still vivid in my mind. Seeing the faces of my friends masked and sitting six feet away when we returned to class was difficult to comprehend. Being isolated for two weeks and having to look out a window at my home across the street was one of the lowest moments of my college career. Yet throughout the global pandemic, the Notre Dame community responded with love and care. Friends stood outside of quarantine hotel rooms to sing happy birthday to people locked inside. Professors learned how to teach virtually on the fly so that students could continue their educations. Dorm communities came together to console their brothers and sisters who lost loved ones to the disease. The COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside down, but it also brought out the absolute best of the Notre Dame family.
There’s a reason we should remember these events in their entirety, focusing on both the good and the bad they bring. Without the entire story, there would be no reason to pick up the pieces and rebuild. We draw tenacity and pride from our grief, allowing us to honor the memory of those we lost while moving forward to make this life meaningful once again. Where the towers once stood in Lower Manhattan, One World Trade Center rose to be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, serving as a beacon for the unbreakable nature of the human spirit. More than 90% of the Notre Dame student body received vaccinations to combat the virus and bring us back to campus safely this fall. We remember the tragedy because it propels us to triumph.
Without the entire story, there would be no capacity for happiness. We draw faith and stability from the compassion we displayed and received, helping us find joy in all the good things this life has to offer. We cared for one another throughout the tumultuous fall 2020 semester, bringing a release of pure elation when the Fighting Irish knocked off No.1 Clemson. Our neighbors across the street lost their son in the north tower, and our neighborhood responded by bringing them trays of food and flowers to help ease their anguish. Our neighbors then brought everything to our house and insisted we celebrate my first birthday five days later. They found peace and exuberance in my life even after losing someone they loved, and I will be forever grateful for the strength that must have taken. We remember love because it provides us with hope.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.