Personal Recollections of 9/11 and the days thereafter
By Rabbi Leonard (Yehuda) Blank MS, BCC
Director of Chaplaincy Commission and External Affairs, Rabbinical Alliance of America. Igud HaRabbonim
The 23rd day of Elul 5762 is the yartzeit of those who perished on 9/11/2001. There are many recollections, many experiences, many memories of 9/11 and the days thereafter. These are some of mine.
I was attending a department head meeting at the Bialystoker Center SNF when I received a call from my wife telling me what was happening at the World Trade Center buildings. I went outside and looked down East Broadway towards the WTC and saw smoke coming from the top of the building. I found out what was happening and was transported by emergency vehicle to the site. I met up with a core group of police officials near the WTC and we noticed things falling down from near the top of the buildings, Those things were people who were jumping out of the broken windows to escape the intense heat from the fires. We were told to move as there was another plane enroute. However, those planes were headed to Washington DC.
I was called to active duty, as I was a former NYC Housing Police Chaplain, an honoree NYPD Chaplain and also a FOP Chaplain for the NYC Housing Police chapter, whichI still am. The scene was surreal: the fires lasted for days at ground zero, the ground was almost knee high with dust and the thousands of papers that came flying down from the buildings, the destroyed fire trucks and other vehicles, the hundreds of emergency vehicles from surrounding states with their personnel who came assist parked from near Ground Zero all the way up towards the Chelsea Piers, everyone covered in dust.
My family did not know where I was but while watching the news on someone’s TV, they saw me as I was assisting an elderly lady to safety with the infamous dust cloud from the imploded WTC coming towards us from behind and the multitudes of people running away from it. I, as others, had to wear a mask and hard hat when at or near Ground Zero.
There were makeshift morgues and emergency tents all around. I went to 1 Police Plaza NYPD and joined other chaplains giving support to Members Of the Service and family members. I also met with MOS of other police departments and other emergency first responders at different locations. I was assigned an officer and vehicle and went to different locations meeting with MOS and others offering my support. One of the heartbreaking sites was the street alongside the NY Medical Examiner where police and others were going through hundreds of boxes, many containing parts of human remains and other personal affects. Nearby were students of Stern College and others who were reciting tefilos.
On one occasion, I went to an armory where thousands came to fill out documents about relatives, friends and others who were missing. They had to tell everything they knew about that person including what they were wearing. I met two men who I recognized. They were there to report about someone I knew, a friend of the family. He was on one of the top floors and had called his wife and also spoke to his friend before he perished. Eventually, a part of his body was found and a levaya held at a bais medrash, which was given his name.
I vividly remember the tremendous outpour of patriotism, with USA flags attached to almost every car. Many synagogues were filled with congregants saying extra tefilos. Who could forget the thousands of pictures of missing people, with information about them and who to call with information, that were posted all over the city.
Though 9/11 is not the yartzeit, it is a day so many of us remember, in one way or another, how others can bring destruction and harm. It is so important for us to pray for peace, but we must not reflect on the ills of society or the harm others wish to bring on the world. We must try our best to be proud ambassadors of the Holy One, the Aibershta, be proud Americans, remember Eretz Yisrael, be erlicha, sincere, do gemilus chasadim/good deeds, be kind to others no matter what their background might be and not to forget to wish each other in this month of Elul a Ksiva VChasima Tova, a shana tova umesuka.