What my kids said…

Community Media publisher John Sutter and his son Noah and daughter CiCi in a photo from 2000.

At the end of the day, what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 is a personal experience for everyone. Sure, our newspapers covered the events relating to the tragedy and rebuilding for the last decade, over 1700 stories. Sure, we were intimately involved with all of the rebuilding “timelines” and covered the churning politics, the accomplishments and the many delays. But at the end of the day, when I think about 9/11, I think most about what my kids said to me.

On September 12, 2001, my daughter Cici (five-years old at the time and attending her first week of kindergarten at P.S. 234) asked me if Borders at the World Trade Center site had survived the big fire. She loved Borders and had attended dozens of morning “story times” there. I told her that I didn’t think it did, and that’s when she finally broke. “It did survive,” she cried, “I know it did. I saw it through the flames!”

In fact I didn’t know at the time if it had survived or not, but I was intent to find out. The next evening I worked the W.T.C. midnight to four a.m. shift with a group of ambulance workers at a feeding station. On my way home, I had to see if Cici’s vision of Borders was right, and I schlepped all the way over there through the ankle-deep ash and smoke with eyes burning and lungs aching. When I rounded the corner at Church and Vesey, my spirits soared: there it was, Border’s, still standing! But as I looked closer, it was completely charred and gutted, and clearly had to be razed.

My son Noah, who was four at the time and headed for his first day at pre-school, was with us at Duane Park and saw the first plane fly overhead bound for the North Tower. He asked me a week later if a lot of people had died in the “great fire.” I told him that I thought that a lot had, and that’s when he dropped a line that still rips into me. “I know there was a lot of death Daddy because I can hear people screaming beneath the flames.” Of course the little soul had absorbed the despair and death all around us. Our Tribeca neighborhood was plastered with heart-wrenching posters of missing family members and crawling with police and emergency service personnel. The smoke and stench of the pile hung over our neighborhood like a dark shroud.

Every morning we would get up, walk over to Greenwich and Jay Sts., look at the pile, and ask each other if the fire was out yet. And every day, when we would see the smoke, we’d say, “Not yet!” And we said those same words, every day from September through the end of December 2001, when we looked hard, and even harder, and finally saw no smoke. The fires went out on Christmas day, or at least that’s the day they went out for us. And that’s the day we brought home Rosie, a baby black pug.

We had never explicitly told the kids about what really happened on 9/11. They knew about the planes, but not the intent. It’s hard to explain that level of evil to a four and five-year-old. It was just known to them as the big fire that the heroic fire fighters finally put out.

When Cici reached the age of seven, in 2003, she let me in on a real Downtown coming-of-age gem. She asked, “Daddy, do you remember those people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center?” “Yes,” I replied. “What about them?” She looked me in the eyes, voice raised and pulsating, and said, “THEY DID IT ON PURPOSE!”

I didn’t know whether to burst out crying or laughing.

On Saturday, September 10, 2011, Kathleen, Cici, Noah and I will attend the “Hand in Hand” event sponsored by Community Board 1. We all have a post-9/11 decade under our belts, but it’s still deeply personal. And we’ll hold our hands tight, and our neighbors’ too, as we still try to come to terms with the most significant event of our lifetimes.

—  John W. Sutter

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4 Responses to What my kids said…

  1. Wonderful reminisce John. xox Merry

  2. What an insightful and lovely piece.u00a0 Having shared that day with you, it brings back memories of the children we had to protect.u00a0 Thank you, and I hope the commemorative events are uplifting.u00a0 xKristen

  3. John,nThis is a heart-wrenching, and heart-warming, editorial.u00a0 You are so right in saying we are still trying to come to terms with 9/11.nnMy experiences with Emily and John have been similar to yours with Cici and Noah.u00a0 Emily returned from Kindergarten that day, knowing something awful had happened.u00a0 She could see it in the faces of the adults and older children in the neighborhood.u00a0 I said that some planes had left from Boston that morning and crashed into some buildings in New York City.u00a0 First, she asked if her friend Cici in New York was okay, and I assured her that Cici was safe.u00a0 Then she asked me, "Mommy why would some Bad Guys crash those planes?"u00a0 I told her I could not imagine why.u00a0 Then she asked me, "Mommy, why did those Bad Guys leave from Boston?u00a0 Are there any still left?u00a0 Are we safe here?"u00a0 I nearly started to cry because I did not have the answers to those very astute questions from my five year old.nnJohn was not quite three years old yet.u00a0 He understood there had been a plane crash and a Big Fire.u00a0 He began drawing firetrucks and ladders.u00a0 One of the regular flight paths into Logan Airport was directly over our house in Winchester, Massachusetts.u00a0 For weeks after 9/11, each time a plane flew overhead, John would look up and say, "I hope that one is safe."nnBoth Emily and John were experienced airline travelers, having visited grandparents in Texas, Maryland, and Washington, DC.u00a0 However, in the first year after 9/11 we traveled by car.u00a0 I remember the first flight we took after 9/11.u00a0 We were headed to Renny's mother's in Maryland for Thanksgiving 2002 and Emily was bringing one of her American Girl Dolls.u00a0 Both kids were full of questions and comments as we waited in the long, long security lines.u00a0 " It never used to take this long."u00a0 "Do we have to take our shoes off, too?"u00a0 "Have we done something wrong?"u00a0 Then we placed all our carry-ons on the conveyor belt and prepared to walk through the metal detector.u00a0 Emily was carrying her doll, and a Security Agent asked that she put the doll onto the conveyor.u00a0 Emily began to cry.u00a0 She said, "But Kit isn't going to hurt anyone!u00a0 I hate those Bad Guys for making us have to do this!" nnOur world has never been the same.u00a0 This week, as I've listened to stories on NPR, and read pieces in the newspapers, I have been struggling with my feelings.u00a0 All the remembrances, commemorations, and stories shared have made me long for the simplicity of our lives ten years earlier.u00a0 September 11, 2001 remains a pivotal date for each of us.n

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