Conversations with My Father Sixteen Years After 9/11

Reporter Sara McCloskey shares her family's story during the terror attacks

Our little Ford Escape pulled into the parking spot in front of the tennis courts at Cranberry Elementary on Knowalot Lane, catching the last bit of the newscast on the radio. My mom probably turned the dial to this every morning for the past four years while driving us to school. This Tuesday, though, wasn’t the crisp fall school day we had hoped it to be on Knowalot Lane.

“Mom, where is that?” I asked, still buckled into the front seat.

Barely in park, she was terrified that I asked this simple question.

“That’s where your Dad works,” she gasped.

Never, had I seen my Mom so scared, so horrified. The image of her face still seared in my mind sixteen years later.

It was just after 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001. The first plane had already hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Minutes later, the second would follow.

You see, at that point my parents had been split up for about six years. We visited my Dad on the weekends in Long Island. My little brother, Sean, and I spent every other weekend driving with one of them over the Throgs Neck Bridge. We’d smoosh our little faces up against the car windows, looking at the city skyline. Mesmerized by the Twin Towers. The biggest buildings in the world. We didn’t know what he did. But, that’s where Dad worked.

Six hours. That’s how long it took for us to find out he never even made it to work.

Sixteen years later, I finally sat down with him to find out what happened.

Going into the tunnel under the East River, the conductor came over the loudspeaker on the Long Island Railroad. My Dad, Tom, was sitting there. Waiting to get into Penn. Station before taking the subway down to the financial district. “There was a fire at the World Trade Center. There were going to be delays heading downtown,” he heard.

He was unfazed. He remembered 8 years earlier, subway service was shut down all the way downtown. That’s when there was a bombing in the parking garage of his building. For years, Tom worked in the pits. He was trading coffee, cocoa and sugar ‘futures’ on the commodities floor of the New York Board of Trade. Building four, floor seven of the of the World Trade Center.

“[Our subway] got down to about Chamber Street and that’s as far as we were going to go. We had to get out and walk the rest of the way,” he said.

Tom came out of the subway station onto the street. He looked up about a half a mile away from work. There was damage to both sides of the towers. Someone said a plane hit the building.

“How could one plane do that to two different buildings?”

“It wasn’t one plane, it was two.”

People started to leave the area when they realized there was no work that day. They started trying to figure out how to go home. “You had to get out of there, while you still could.”

At that point, he had a choice. Either walk back up to Penn. Station or go across the Brooklyn Bridge.

“It was a mass exodus. Tens of thousands of people. It was all just people going one way.”

Walking on the bridge, he didn’t stop. A quick glance and he knew what was happening.

"You could hear it. And you could see the plume of dust as smoke.” The vibrations of the bridge went up Tom’s spine. His body, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, felt the compression in the air - the shock waves - as the South Tower fell.

“You would think that the tower would tip over, but it didn’t. It just crumbled. You could hear the floors pounding on each other. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. In a rapid succession as it came down.”

Breaking from the crowd, Tom caught the train back to Long Beach on Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn Heights. Calls finally started coming in while he sat in the safety of the train car. It’s not clear who reached him first, but Tom told that person to call everyone.

The hours seemed endless, waiting for that call.

“It was hard to get word out that people were alright. At that point, not everyone had a cell phone.”

My Grandpa, a retired firefighter based in Flatbush, Brooklyn, talked to my Mom on the phone. The relief was unreal. We were the lucky ones.

“So initially, there had been huge lists of people who hadn’t been heard from. If it had happened just an hour later, tens of thousands of people would have died.”

When he got back home, Tom went to a bar and watched the news with a close friend - trying to find out how many lives were lost. In the days that followed, posters lined the streets of missing people. Everyone knew somebody who was gone, who was missing.

What’s still missing, though, is those towers. A skyline changed forever, still empty.

“Sickening. Sickening to me that the skyline has changed like that. To this day. Sixteen years later I look at that, and you know, it’s like irreparable damage.”

Smoke draped over the skyscrapers days later, as we drove on the bridge to visit Long Island. An ominous cloud lingering, holding down a damaged city. I can still smell the smoke.

He didn’t go back for years. He still hasn’t been back to the site since the memorial opened.

“I didn’t want to be down there. I didn’t want to the reminded of it. I didn’t want to see it. I was disappointed that this was able to happen here in our country.”

A disappointment, a pain Tom hopes is never forgotten for generations to come. “It’s kind of surprising, years later you’re still hearing all of these stories about it. It was a tragedy.”

There are pivotal moments in history where everyone remembers where they were, who they were with when something tragic happens. Pearl Harbor. The Boston Bombings. The Pulse Nightclub shooting.

9/11 isn’t just the day I believed for hours that my Dad was dead. Months later, my family sat in front of the television when the first troops went into Baghdad. The airstrikes over a foreign city almost looked like fireworks, as I prayed for soldiers who I didn’t know. The news anchor telling us what was happening, as a shining light in the dark nights that followed. This time, unknowingly, shaped me to be the reporter I am now.

So much of what we do in local news is give you information to keep you safe, to share stories of recovery and hope. I hope on this day, as we remember those 2,976 lives lost and the thousands of first responders, that you hold your loved ones close. Keep them safe in your heart. You never know when your life could change.

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