Twenty years ago today, September 11, 2001, the deadliest alien attack on American soil killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000 others.
Nineteen men hijacked four commercial planes and shot them down in the towers of the New York City World Trade Center, the Pentagon building in Washington, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Bay Area News Group photojournalist Jane Tyska spent 10 days in New York, flying the first commercial flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport on September 15th. Here is her first story from 2001.
When I was little, my dad Frank took me to the bottom of Manhattan Island and told about many men working down the largest pit I had ever seen.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he replied, “This will be the tallest building in the world.” I looked with fear and amazement, knowing that I was witnessing something special.
My mind lit up at that memory as I parted from the panic and disbelief on the TV screen on the morning of September 11th, kneeling on the floor as I watched the collapse of the Twin Towers. I soon realized that I had to be with my friends and family who were affected by this horrible act. Almost everyone I know in the East knew someone who died.
I jumped on the first flight that departed from Oakland to New York four days after the attack, and upon arrival I immediately saw the black smoke pouring from JFK Airport. But only after stepping into the piles of wet stock portfolios and feeling the stench of death rising from the subway holes did I begin to realize the magnitude of the tragedy.
Even then, I kept searching for the Twin Towers.
I went to some of my favorite spots to see the Manhattan skyline, secretly hoping the glowing towers would magically reappear. But they could not be seen. Neither from Brooklyn, nor from Staten Island Ferry, nor from above. There was only one void that seemed to have a physical presence, as if the void itself was an unbearable weight.
The first-hand accounts of the tragedy were endless and compelling. Everyone I spoke to, the police, firefighters, rescue workers and civilians, needed to talk about their experience.
“I kept crawling deeper and deeper into the rubble, but there was nothing. I just wanted to find a person,” said a firefighter as his eyes filled with tears. I asked him if there was anything I could do. Can I buy her a drink? “I just need a hug,” he replied. I hugged her and we both cried.
My cousin, Lt. Col. Ray Callinan of Level 17 in the Bronx, initially worked on ground zero two days after the attack. Rescue workers found the bodies of 20 firefighters that day, and he was part of a 100-person line that pulled them out of the rubble in the firefighting tradition.
“I was on the line going from the perimeter,” my cousin said. “They put them (dead firefighters) in body bags and were leaving them out. It was very emotional to see these guys online, some looking for boys and brothers. A helmet was with the body and it was a brand new helmet. Nor “It was not damaged. It was very sad.”
Callinan Station lost two men, whose bodies have not been found; station near six of his lost. He has constantly gone to memorials and funerals.
“The hardest part was getting past these people and knowing they were regular firefighters like me,” he said. “If the circumstances were different, I could have been there. You worry about the future of your children, this unknown fear we now have to live with every day.”
Looking down at the ruins of the World Trade Center as I took pictures from the 40th floor of a nearby building, I thought again of that mysterious giant hole in the ground that I saw so many years ago. Once again, it was filled with workers.
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