Each of us has our own distinct memory of Sept. 11, 2001. Here is mine.
Early that historic morning, I was on a train from Baltimore heading to an early childhood policy conference in Newark, N.J. As we approached the station, a man a few seats behind me said loudly, "A plane just hit the World Trade Center in Manhattan, but no details yet."
Suddenly, a conductor passed through the car announcing we all must get off in Newark, even though the last stop was supposed to be New York's Grand Central Station. The station platforms were a tumult of confusion and once I exited to the street, the frightful scene just across the Hudson River was visible. Smoke was pouring from both of the World Trade Center towers into the bright blue sky.
Within minutes, we learned that all public transportation in and out of New York was suspended. A sense of panic began to take hold as so many people in earshot had family, friends and associates who lived or worked in lower Manhattan. Cell phone service was jammed and rumors were rampant.
Word came that a commuter train was operating in central New Jersey heading south. I took a cab in that direction.
At about 4:30 p.m., I boarded a crowded train and found an aisle seat. I noticed that many passengers were disheveled, their clothes dusty. I realized that this train had originated in Manhattan.
I noticed a man in his late 30s across the aisle who was silent and obviously despondent. His suit coat, pants and shoes were dirty. His hands and face were streaked with sweaty grime. I leaned toward him. "Hi, my name is Jack … I just boarded the train. Did you come from Manhattan?"
He didn't look my way or indicate he heard me. I leaned closer, asking his name. His eyes darted my way but instead of answering, he slowly shook his head. I immediately sensed emotional trauma. "Did you see the towers?" I asked.
With that, he looked at me wide-eyed and said softly, "I was in there and got out and walked and walked until I got to Penn Station to go home."
I reached to gently touch his coat sleeve and asked, "What's your name?"
"Keith," he whispered.
"Where do you live, Keith?" I asked.
"Wilmington," he replied.
"Do you remember calling anyone at home today?" I asked.
He slowly shook his head, "No."
I asked a woman behind us if her phone worked. She said yes and handed it to me. I asked Keith if he could tell me his home phone number. He said it slowly and I called.
The phone rang just once and a woman screamed, "Keith?"
I quickly said "No, but I'm sitting on a train with Keith and he's heading home to Wilmington."
I heard the woman shout out, "Hey everyone … Keith's alive … some guy is with him on a train."
"Put him on, please," the woman gasped.
I saw him carefully listening and heard him say with tearful emotion, "Yes. Yes. Yes." Then he looked at me and asked, "Are you taking me home?"
I nodded yes, reached for the phone and said to the woman, "I'm Jack. When we get to the Wilmington station in about 40 minutes, can you meet us? I'll make sure to get Keith up and out. We're in the first car."
"I'll be there with my son," she said. "Put Keith back on … and thank you."
Keith listened for just a moment and all he said was, "I love you, too" and then handed the phone to me.
I got back on and said, "Please remember, the first car. And your name, please?"
"Cindy … and thanks again," she said.
In very short, slow snippets of conversation, I learned that Keith did not work at the World Trade Center but was there for a meeting. He was up in the tower when the explosion happened and he was in the crowded stairway rushing to get out.
After running from the building, he heard the screaming and sirens and he saw a body fall. "She was a woman," he said, almost blankly, but with obvious sadness in his eyes.
He told me he just made his way, walking miles north, and finally got help to get to Penn Station, where he got on the train. "They didn't ask for any tickets," he said.
The stop in Wilmington was announced. I led Keith into the aisle. "I'll step out with you and help you look for Cindy," I said.
We made our way onto the platform and in a split second I heard the screaming voice I had heard on the phone. A woman and a boy of about 9 rushed forward and hugged Keith. "Thanks, Jack," Cindy said over Keith's shoulder, wiping tears. I quickly said, "Good luck … he'll need some help with this," and jumped back on the train.
I sat down and realized I didn't know Keith's last name and never told him or Cindy mine. The woman whose phone I borrowed had gotten off in Trenton, so I didn't have any way to retrieve the phone number I called. Even if I had wanted to check on Keith, I had no way of contacting them.
While it's true that I played a helpful role, my efforts on Keith's behalf gave me a partial respite from thinking about my needs in my rush to get home. As it turned out, it was five days before any planes left Baltimore, so I stayed on with friends. Over family meals, we gave thanks for our safety and followed the news as the aftermath of 9/11 unfolded.
Each story of terrible tragedy and heroic rescue evoked a compelling reminder of our need for togetherness — as family members, neighbors and a nation.
I know that so many lives were changed for the worse in the wake of those brutal terrorist acts. Among my most disquieting thoughts is how quickly the shock of 9/11 wore off. What served as a powerful force for unity as a nation seems to have dissolved. Our nation is divided by warring ideology and gross negativity now. Shared tragedy brought us together. Partisan animosity and mean-spirited distrust are cutting us apart.
I wonder why it took a terrorist attack to unite us, and how we can reconstruct our sense of community in new and creative ways for the betterment of all.
Jack Levine is the founder of the 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee.