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"10 years, still hurts," but National September 11 Memorial helps heal the pain of terrorist attacks

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News_Katie_9-11_rainbow_corner_of North Pool
In the northeast corner of the North Pool, I saw a rainbow. I think it lives there.  Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_Cathedral of Saint Patrick_Firemen in single file
Firemen walk in single file into St. Patrick's Cathedral for a special service on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_Fireman outside Cathedral_after special service
Firemen gathered on the sidewalk, mingling and hugging one another.  Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_A picnic in Central Park
That afternoon, I took a stroll through Central Park. I saw folks doing all sorts of stuff, including a small group sharing a picnic. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_Couple in Central Park
Each vignette shared a single theme, the continuum of life. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_Bobbi Quilot_age 3_Central Park
Exiting the park, I paused to admire a dog or two. One was a 3-year-old golden retriever named Bobbi Quilot. “It’s Mandarin for ‘Happy,’” the owner explained.   Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_book
There are many things telling about Tom Von Essen but here’s one taken right out of his book, Strong of Heart. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_Firemen outside Cathedral_after special service
If brotherhood had filled the Cathedral, it was palpable outside. Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_Fire truck outside Cathedra
Sparkling clean fire trucks in the background Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_police cars
In memory of 9-11 first responders Photo by Katie Oxford
News_Katie_9-11_rainbow_corner_of North Pool
News_Katie_9-11_Cathedral of Saint Patrick_Firemen in single file
News_Katie_9-11_Fireman outside Cathedral_after special service
News_Katie_9-11_A picnic in Central Park
News_Katie_9-11_Couple in Central Park
News_Katie_9-11_Bobbi Quilot_age 3_Central Park
News_Katie_9-11_book
News_Katie_9-11_Firemen outside Cathedral_after special service
News_Katie_9-11_Fire truck outside Cathedra
News_Katie_9-11_police cars
News_Katie Oxford_hair cut_column mug_head shot

March 31, 2005 was an extraordinary day. I was in NYC traveling to Ground Zero with Tom Von Essen, the man who saw it all that awful day in September.

Tom served as the New York City’s fire commissioner from April 1996 to December 31, 2001. As for so many others on September 11, his loss was beyond measure. But I wondered if Tom’s sorrow ran the deepest.  He’d lost many close friends and colleagues, all “brothers,” but imagine this and then imagine not being able to work alongside your brothers searching for those lost.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Mayor Giuliani, understandably, had needed the fire commissioner working along his side. Now, Tom had been directed to answer the call in a different way. 

Remarkably, he did.

There are many things telling about Von Essen but here’s one taken right out of his book, Strong of Heart. "I always called it 'the site' or 'the Trade Center.' I never liked the expression 'Ground Zero.' It sounded too much like a catchy media phrase."

 “I didn’t look to see what he had written until finally, everyone had taken a seat at their dinner table.  When I did, it confirmed more than Tom’s sorrow.  His simple honesty hit you in the opening sentence, “10 years, still hurts.”  Underneath, was his name and “FDNY.” 

Another telling thing occurred right after we had arrived at the site that day. We’d parked the car and were walking toward the entrance gate when a woman walked up.  “Is that YOU?” she leaned in asking Tom.

Tom, looking embarrassed, kept silent and glanced down.  “God bless you,” she said. 

Other passerby paid similar respects.  By the time we reached the gate, Tom looked relieved. Still gazing down, he said something more to himself than to me.  “This is why I don’t like to come down here,” he said quietly.

Fast forward to September 11, 2011. This day would be especially extraordinary. My husband and I were in NYC to attend a memorial dinner with many of the first responders.

That morning, we had walked to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a special service.  The recessional hymn was “America the Beautiful.” Applause broke out as members of the Fire Department came down the aisle in single file and walked straight out the door. If brotherhood had filled the Cathedral, it was palpable outside. Firemen gathered on the sidewalk, mingling and hugging one another. Behind them were sparkling clean fire trucks parked all in a row. 

That afternoon, I took a stroll through Central Park. I saw folks doing all sorts of stuff. From a small group sharing a picnic to a couple having boxing practice. Each vignette shared a single theme, the continuum of life. All going on while in another part of the park, people were gathering for a Cantor Fitzgerald Memorial Service. 

Exiting the park, I paused to admire a dog or two. One was a 3-year-old golden retriever named Bobbi Quilot. “It’s Mandarin for ‘Happy,’” the owner explained. 

Another dog, named Jack, who, I was told, came as a gift from Elton John. His owner could not have been nicer. We talked about Jack and a football game, still in play. Inevitably, our conversation moved to the anniversary.  “It’s been an emotional day for everyone,” he said. 

 Two days later, I visited the National September 11 Memorial.  I lingered for hours.  I’m still looking for the right words but a photograph describes the experience much better than I could.  In the NE corner of the North Pool, I saw a rainbow. I think it lives there.  

 At the memorial dinner that evening, I carried Tom’s book, hoping to see him there. He had signed the book and given it to me that day in March 2005 but for some reason, I wanted to ask if he would sign it again this day. 

Thankful, I spied Tom across the room and made my way over. He was as kind and soft spoken as I’d remembered him. When I presented the book with my request, Tom looked exactly like he did years before when the woman on the sidewalk had walked up. Embarrassed. 

Then, graciously, he signed the book. 

I didn’t look to see what he had written until finally, everyone had taken a seat at their dinner table. When I did, it confirmed more than Tom’s sorrow. His simple honesty hit you in the opening sentence, “10 years, still hurts.” Underneath, was his name and “FDNY.”

Two days later, I visited the National September 11 Memorial.  I lingered for hours. I’m still looking for the right words but a photograph describes the experience much better than I could.  In the NE corner of the North Pool, I saw a rainbow. I think it lives there. 

I’d like to think everyone who goes there, will see it too but most especially, Tom Von Essen and all his brothers.  

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Admission to the National September 11 Memorial is free, but advance reservations must be made online.

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