Recalling the trauma of 9/11
Witnessing 9-11 event sparks hope for humanity
On this 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York, one former Freistatt resident recalls his harrowing experiences as the saga unfolded across the street from where he was attending a conference.
David Pennington, cousin to Monett residents Mark Pennington and Firefighter Brandon Pennington, was attending a global leadership conference and staying at a hotel on Vesey Street near NY Hwy. 9A, catty-corner from the World Trade Center, when the attacks began.
“Our meetings started that morning promptly at 8:30 a.m.,” he said. “The president of our company was introduced and began speaking. Around 8:50, one of the human resources (HR) managers walked into the conference room. It was clear from the look on his face that something was wrong. Soon after, the hotel alarms started to sound and then the security personnel announced over the intercom, ‘There is an incident at the World Trade Center. Please remain inside the property.’ We knew something big was going on.”
Around 9:00 a.m., the head of HR announced to the group that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“We were asked by hotel security to leave the conference room, go back to our rooms and to not leave the hotel as debris was falling into the streets,” Pennington said. “My co-worker, Julie, on her first trip to New York was extremely anxious and asked if she could come with me to my room. Once we arrived, I went to my window and looked up to see smoke and fire pouring out of both towers. We turned on the TV and saw that both towers had been struck. We watched in horror as we saw debris and then people falling from the building. We each called home to let our families and co-workers know we were ok.”
As the co-workers continued to watch the events unfold from the window view as well as the television, Pennington remembers a reporter speaking from the front of one of the towers and looking up.
“At the same time, we could feel our building tremble and then shake violently,” he said. “The alarms of the hotel started sounding again and without knowing exactly what was happening, I told Julie we had to get out of the hotel. Without looking at the TV or out the window, we ran.”
Purposely avoiding the west sky bridges over the lobby, the two ran toward the east hallways and eventually made it around to the northwest stairwell.
“Down the stairs we continued to run as the alarms sounded all around us,” Pennington said. “The building continued to shake and the intense roar, from outside was interrupted only by the people screaming inside the stairwell.
“When we finally made it to the exit door at the bottom of the stairwell, we pushed it open to see the chaos of emergency workers and people running north. We ran toward the Hudson River to get away from our building. As we slowed down and turned to see the scene behind us, our breath was taken away. A giant gray cloud was engulfing lower Manhattan including our hotel. We stood there, frozen, and as we continued to look up, I remember asking Julie, ‘Where is the other tower? I can’t see it. Where is it?’ It was 10 a.m. and while we didn’t understand it yet, the south tower had just collapsed.”
Pennington then tried to contact distant family members.
“I tried to call home on my cell phone and could not get through,” he said. “Cell phone service was out all over Manhattan. Our families knew we were across the street from the World Trade Center and now they could not reach us.
“We stood there for some time when a police officer told us we needed to head north and directed us to the West Side Highway. We fortunately ran into other co-workers from our conference including our CFO Jim Treacy. We walked together along with thousands of others. As we crossed Chambers Street, we turned to look at the North Tower. Everything seemed to stop. We stood there frozen. We saw and felt the remaining tower collapse. The magnificent building that we had been in just two days before was falling before our eyes. And as the building collapsed, Mr. Treacy put his hand on my back and turned me north. He said, ‘You don’t want to look any more.’”
Their walk turned into a run until we reached Moore Street.
“Mr. Treacy went on to tell us as we walked along the highway that a friend of his – a priest named Father Michael Judge – was down at the Trade Center,” Pennington said. “He was hopeful that Father Judge was ok. We found out later that he perished after the south tower had collapsed.”
If it had not become clear that the world was changing right before their eyes, it soon would.
“During our walk, we suddenly realized how quiet the skies were,” Pennington said. “Typically commercial flights can be seen and heard overhead. Soon after realizing this, we met a man with a small radio. He let us know that the Pentagon had been hit by an airplane. We knew we were living a moment in history. We knew we were under attack.
“I remember crossing Houston Street when loud jets engines above us muffled the sounds of sirens on the street. The quiet skies were no longer silent. Above us we saw fighter jets circling Manhattan.”
It was not long after this, they heard about the fourth plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania.
“Each step north was a step towards safety,” Pennington said. “And as we continued to walk north, hundreds and hundreds of emergency workers were headed south to what had been the World Trade Center.
“Our group continued to walk until we reached Riverside Park at 72nd Street. It was 1 p.m. I tried my phone again and finally got through to our [New York] office. We asked them to please call our families and let them know we were ok. We met with one of the leaders from our company, Stuart McKelvey. He informed us that arrangements had been made for all 120 of us to go to our company headquarters at 41st Street and Lexington. So we walked.”
When they finally arrived at the office around 3 p.m., they were greeted by many of their colleagues.
“They had shopped and bought us anything we could use since all of our belongings were left behind,” Pennington said. “Soon after our arrival, we found out Mayor Guliani called for the shut down all f offices from 44th street down to lower Manhattan.
“A group of us decided to try to get a train to our office in White Plains, N.Y., where we knew there could be a better chance to get hotel rooms for our group. We walked toward Grand Central Terminal. As we walked I finally was able to get through to my mom back in St. Louis on my cell phone. I remember holding back tears as I described the day. After we hung up, I called one of my childhood friends who had heard I was in New York. We finally made it to Grand Central Station and boarded the last train headed to White Plains.”
As the hours turned into days, and the days have turned into years, the memories of that day are forever etched in Pennington’s brain.
“I’ll never forget the images from that beautiful September morning,” he said. “But the things I try to remember the most are how people pulled together to help one another. Strangers offering us help on our long walk that day. Co-workers making sure we were taken care of and safe. Emergency workers – police, firemen and emergency medical teams – all were part of the people who pointed us in the right direction away from the danger.”
It all happened 20 Septembers ago.
“At the time, there was less anger, because we did not know what was behind us,” he said. “I felt fear and complete confusion. It was so traumatic for our society, our land, our nation. We just didn’t know.
“But I do remember at each point along the way, so many complete strangers handing us water from their bodegas, and satellite phones to be able to call our families. Strangers helping strangers. That is the true core of who we are as a nation.”
Looking back at the swell of patriotism that engulfed the nation during those horrific days and months that followed, Pennington recalls the unity that brought so many different spectrums of the nation together as one.
“There were flags flying from nearly every porch, it was the unity of brothers and sisters all across America,” he said. “That unification is now at risk through our own internal divisions. We came together 20 years ago and we have since lost sight of that unity, and that is almost more painful. It’s trauma by a thousand cuts.”
Pennington has returned to New York, and to the Twin Towers memorial, once while it was under construction, and again to the museum once it was open to the public.
“I truly believe that unity is still there and we can get it back,” he said. “I just hope it does not take another tragedy to bring it out. I pray for continued healing, because at the core, we are all each other’s neighbor and friend. I remember strangers helping out other strangers on that horrible day — that’s who we really are. I will always carry the hope that we can get back to that again one day.”