By Gina Rubel
On September 11, 2021, I was sitting at my desk a little after 8:00 am. I was a public relations account supervisor at an agency just north of Philadelphia. We were preparing for the opening of a major pharmaceutical mail-order distribution center in New Jersey, about 75 miles outside of Manhattan. In fact, I was drafting a response to a New York Times reporter to whom we had offered an exclusive. The phone rang. It was my father.
“Gina, turn on the news. A plane hit the World Trade Center.”
I ran into the conference room and saw several of my colleagues staring at the monitor. We witnessed the second plane hit. Then the panic set it.
“I have to pick up the baby from daycare. I have to get home. Oh God, oh God, I have friends in those buildings.”
Some moments later, we witnessed the collapse. Then more news started coming in. A plane went down in Pennsylvania. There are planes attacking Washington, D.C. A plane crashed into the Pentagon. The U.S. is under attack.
“Where are J and M [names excluded for privacy]? Are they okay? I must leave. I need to be with my family. This is terrorism. We’re blocks from an Air Force Base – we’re not safe here. Oh God, oh God. We’re going to war.”
After a few words with my boss (who didn’t want us to leave because we had “work to do”) and with the president of the agency, who was commuting to our office from Manhattan and shellshocked – as were we all, I got in the car and drove to daycare. I realized in that single moment that I would never put career above family and that the only place I needed to be that day was home.
By the time I arrived at our farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (a 90-minute drive to NYC), my husband had driven his hour-plus commute home. The next thing I remember was watching the TV in our living room and trying to call our friends J and M to no avail. We were scared.
Then we remembered that Scott’s father was in Ireland scheduled to fly home the next day. Planes were grounded everywhere. It was nearly a week before he was able to return.
When we went outside, the roads and skies were silent. It was a deafening kind of silence like nothing we had ever witnessed. The U.S. had been “invaded.” There were only questions and speculation. No answers. No one was safe. The U.S. no longer was safe. The news was reporting that there could be upwards of 6,000 people dead in NYC.
It’s 20 years later and I ask myself what has changed. What do our kids “really know” of 9/11? Do they understand it from their own perspective or is it like my perception of the Vietnam War?
I was just six years old when that war officially ended and I don’t recall much discussion about the 20th Anniversary of that date, April 30, 1995. In fact, the news that day reported the closing of “Blood Brothers” at the Music Box Theater in New York and I was disappointed because I wanted to see the U.S. production. What I know personally of the Vietnam War is that my mother lost two classmates– the only two boys she ever went on dates with besides my father. When the war came up in discussion, she would become visibly shaken. I also remember watching The Deer Hunter with my father.
Recently, a college freshman asked me if I had seen Ground Zero. Scott and I went to Manhattan on December 16, 2001. We were meeting friends and had planned to pay our respects (two of the friends were J & M who both witnessed 9/11 firsthand and fortunately survived). We needed to witness it for ourselves. While we only live 90 miles from the city, we hadn’t seen the smoke or dust clouds with our own eyes. We just knew that a young man and decorated athlete, Noell Maerz, who my husband had trained when Scott owned a fitness center, was presumed dead and that he, along with nearly 3,000 others lost their lives. In fact, I worked with Noell’s father at a previous job.
When we got within a few blocks of Ground Zero, it was relatively quiet. People were walking around weeping. There were barricades everywhere. Posters everywhere. The closer we got, the more nervous I became. Then we arrived at the fences that had poster after poster asking, “Have you seen ….” Then we saw one for Noell. We wept. The rubble and carnage were still smoldering. It was a war zone – like images we had seen in history books.
Today, the memorials remind us of that fateful day, 20 years ago, but I have trouble bringing myself to visit them. It brings up a level of PTSD, a panic from a day that I wish had never happened. I have yet to visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. I once visited the Garden of Reflection in Bucks County, Pa., where all those from our community are remembered. I did see the 9/11 memorial at the former Newseum in Washington, D.C. I cried uncontrollably.
Here we are, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Our daughter was a toddler, and our son was not yet born. Their memories of 9/11 are much like mine were of the Vietnam War – second hand. However, they are now at an age where international affairs and politics are part of the dialogue among their generation (which includes many of today’s young professionals). Understanding why the U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan is just as important as knowing what started it in the first place.
I founded Furia Rubel Communications nine months after the 9/11 attacks. I realized that I wanted and needed change. I wanted to spend more time at home with family and less time in an office. I wanted to prioritize my days and not have to ask for permission to take our daughter (who was our only child at that time) to the doctor if she was sick. I wanted to rid my office drama and focus on positive, proactive solutions for clients. Bottom line, I wanted to create something different than the revolving-door agencies for which I had worked. I believe I have succeeded and continue to remember 9/11.
Today, 20 years later, members of our team and an industry colleague also share their memories and perspectives.
Caitlan McCafferty, Public Relations Account Director, Furia Rubel
I was 10 on September 11, 2001. It is hard to answer the question, “How did 9/11 change your life,” because the events of 9/11 and its aftermath have defined my experience of moving through the world.
Obviously, I have memories from before 9/11, but most of my life has been in a post-9/11 America and world.
That day and the aftermath are seared into my memory like any other person who was alive and old enough to remember. Of course, we must honor and remember the victims and first responders that sacrificed everything that day. But, as we reflect on that time 20 years later, it seems appropriate to continue questioning how our society responded to 9/11.
Sometimes people harken back to the patriotism of the months following 9/11 to talk about the perceived unity of that time and wish that our culture still felt that way. But patriotism at what cost?
Threats against our civil liberties, two wars, human rights violations, hatred against Muslims, an increasingly polarized culture. To me, the best thing about America is our freedom to question her, and I hope, now, 20 years later, we can start having a more nuanced conversation about what happened before and after 9/11, and what the United States of America means to Americans and people around the world today.
Karen Preston-Loeb, Project Manager, Furia Rubel
I was working at an ad agency in downtown Manhattan on 9/11. After the planes hit, I rushed to the C and E subway on 50th Street towards World Trade Center to get to work, thinking that trains might get affected. At 14th Street, the subway stopped for good as passengers heard that WTC 2 collapsed. As I walked downtown with a coworker who was panicking that his brother was in the tower, I comforted him by saying I was certain they evacuated everyone.
As we arrived in Soho, 7 World Trade Center collapsed. People covered in ash and dust headed towards us, some collapsing and sobbing in the street.
Rumors of chemical warfare and bombs coming to Manhattan spread as we learned of the other plane hijackings. Fear seeped through me as I realized that such horrors could actually happen in the United States, not just in foreign lands. The innocent bubble that I had lived in had been popped.
The veil of sadness the next morning upon discovery of neighbors and friends missing affected every single person. But something amazing happened in the days to come. Political divides dissipated. First responders were praised. Stories of true heroics emerged of passengers fighting terrorists to save our nation’s capital. And those who died were honored.
America united in patriotism.
9/11 is a reminder that what we think can’t happen actually can, and we are one country… the United States of America.
Rose Strong, Office Manager, Furia Rubel
9/11 changed my life and my perspective by letting me know that the United States is not immune to attack. We only ever had one attack on U.S. soil when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. This was a wake-up call that we too can suffer the consequences of attack as we see and hear about in the media of other countries. The feeling of safety here in our own country was erased forever that day.
I was working as customer service professional answering telephones at a national insurance company in Allentown, Pa. Our phones typically rang continuously. There were always calls in the queue waiting to be answered.
Our offices were closed to outside influences. No radios. No TVs. No internet or cell phone use was permitted. So, when I first heard that something hit the World Trade Center, I thought it was a news helicopter that had crashed into one of the towers.
Then our phones stopped ringing.
When they did start ringing again, it was St. Vincent’s Hospital. The one closest to the towers. One woman on the phone said it was mayhem. All my colleagues were getting calls from St. Vincent’s.
One of the clients our unit served was the United Nations. Our team leader came around and told us that the U.N. was surrounded by tanks, and no one was allowed to enter or leave.
I recall driving home on Route 78 through the Lehigh Valley and everyone was driving the speed limit instead of speeding 15-20 miles faster as usual. People were nicer, kinder on that drive and subsequent drives for the first week or so after 9/11.
Nights were sleepless until the wee hours of the morning as I’d leave the television on in the dark. Not sure why, but it was like security to know what was going on.
For days when I’d go out for a break, there was silence in the sky. No planes coming in or out of the local airport. It was very strange.
I’ve never seen our country rally together like that. I likely never will again.
My nephew Jason, my sister’s son, was in England at the time and my fear was for him. I worried he’d be sent to war. Nobody could convince me that he was in the ‘safest’ branch of the military. This was some serious business.
Tears and fears flowed the weeks following the attacks on NYC, the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania. Emotions were raw for months. I still say a prayer, 20 years later, when I see a plane fly overhead.
Kevin Dinino, President, KCD PR
I lived and worked in New York City during 9/11. Sadly, I was supposed to attend a financial conference put on by Waters Group at the Windows on the World at 9:00 a.m. that morning.
I was running late and by the time I was in the subway from Brooklyn to the World Trade Center. Then I saw the hole in the first tower from the first plane hitting.
It was an awful day. I still feel scarred from it.
No one from that conference made it out alive. It means so much to me still as I remember how it brought us closer as New Yorkers and Americans.
You could hear a pin drop in the city the following days after. I had an angel on my shoulder that day.
Author’s parting thoughts
To all the victims, their families and friends, first responders, volunteers, health care workers, journalists, communities, and to all fellow Americans, let’s never forget September 11, 2001.
Think back to the hours, days and weeks that followed the attacks. We raised the flag over the smoking ruins. We wore pins, baseball hats, and shirts in the colors of our flag. We sang the national anthem in unison. We had a common purpose – to protect our nation, freedoms, economic power and sovereignty, and to lift one another up.
In 2021, we are a nation divided. I believe unity without discrimination and racism is possible among American people. We need to unite, and I pray that it doesn’t take another tragedy like 9/11 for us to get there.