Twenty years later, I wonder how a terrible Tuesday in September changed me

NEW YORK — 

Here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 2011:

“Hours later, I finally made it home to the Upper West Side, where my little night owl, Louisa, opened the door. ‘Mommy, Mommy, your hair is gray!’ she screeched. Ben was sound asleep, but as promised, I woke him. Fear welled up in his face. He grabbed me by the shoulders. ‘I’m scared, Mom,’ he said, and started crying.”

That was written by my mother, former Times correspondent Geraldine Baum. It’s her description of coming home to our New York City apartment late on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, after a full day spent at the site of the World Trade Center attack. I was 8 years old then; today, I’m 28 and a reporter for The Times.

The gray in my mom’s hair was ash and dust from the Twin Towers — material we now know to have been toxic.

The reality is I remember very little about that cloudless Tuesday 20 years ago. I’m not sure if I remember or if my mom later told me, but that night, when she got home, I thought she was a ghost because of the dust that coated her clothes and hair.

I felt fear. I know that. But what else? Was I confused? Distressed? Here’s where my parents’ recollections replace my own.

I am part of the tail end of the millennial generation, and belong to a select cohort who lived within a few miles of the two buildings that were once the tallest in the world. Twenty years on, I know the Sept. 11 attacks profoundly shaped me but I’m still sorting out how. And in this, I’m joined by many of my peers, who were children then and can see now, with the clarity of hindsight, that the attack by Al Qaeda changed the trajectory of their lives.

But, again: How?

::

Ample polling confirms that awful day left a lasting imprint on my generation. Recent Pew Research Center surveys reveal that about 80% of 28-year-olds “remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.” Polling from 2016 shows that 86% of millennials —defined as people born 1981-1998—say that the attack was the event that had the greatest impact on the country during their lifetime.

Polling in the immediate aftermath of the attacks showed that trust in government reached a peak not seen since Lyndon Johnson was president in the 1960s. That proved short-lived. With two wars, natural disasters, growing dread about climate change, an economic crisis and a pandemic, trust in government is near the lowest it has been since polling started on the subject in the late 1950s.

While there are slight deviations among the generations, trust is low across the board. Millennials, however, are far less likely to buy into the notion of American exceptionalism or that the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world.” Perhaps that‘s the clearest consequence of our country’s response to 9/11.

That single act of terror helped shape our conception of America’s role in the world and our sense of vulnerability. We barely remember an America that was not at war, or where airplanes were not viewed as potential weapons of mass destruction.

::

Zach Piaker has been my friend since we were in third grade. When we were 13, we had our Bar Mitzvahs together. He’s now a lawyer living in New York, and we reunited recently to talk about how the attacks ignited an interest in politics and current events that stays with us to this day.

Zach Piaker, who grew up in New York City.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

That desire to be informed and engaged likely would’ve occurred anyway — I was the son of two journalists, after all. I read newspapers obsessively. But we wondered how the constant state of war and political turmoil we’ve lived through made us cynical or distrusting of politicians and the political process. There was an immediate sense of vulnerability that eventually faded more for Zach than for me, but the lasting changes in society — security barriers, racial profiling and a more visibly militarized New York — stuck with him.

“It was just part of the fabric of society that that had happened, and attacks could happen,” he said.

The wars and accompanying lies frustrated him, but at no point did he disengage. He wants to work in government someday and make it better. Many others do as well. I was struck by a recent New York Post photo essay of some of the 65 on-duty members of the New York City Fire Department who lost first-responder fathers in the attacks or from health complications in its aftermath.

People view the Last Column at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum on Friday in New York.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Their loss led them to service.

Disenchantment led Abraham Rivera, 34, down a different path. The Queens native aspires to be a pilot and currently works as a flight attendant for American Airlines. In the months after the attacks, Rivera felt a sense of unity and a surge in pride in his country.

But then came the invasion of Iraq and the 9/11 commission report. As he got older, he watched more videos on YouTube and later Netflix that led him to question who really was responsible for these attacks. These events fueled a distrust in government and fomented a belief within him that a group of terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan could not have pulled these attacks off on their own.

“I feel like it was an inside job, and I feel like there was a lot of malarkey going on and a lot of people were not held accountable for their actions,” he told me.

We spoke for a while about these conspiracy theories. His inability to zero in on who else was involved frustrated me. Maybe, though, this was some other path to rationalizing a sense of wonder or uncertainty about how the world had been changed.

::

One World Trade Center is framed by trees as people visit the Sept. 11 memorial in New York.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A memorial arose on the World Trade Center site over the last decade — along with an even taller saber into the sky, the 104-story One World Trade tower. I’ve avoided that building. To me, it’s a haunting specter that creeps into my eye line when I round a street corner. A reminder that we’re still a target, inspiring a dread that we could be attacked again.

I have never been inside and have maintained that I’ve never visited the memorial or the museum. That was until I read an article my mom wrote in 2014 about a family visit to the twin reflecting pools with the nearly 3,000 names inscribed in bronze along its side.

I had forgotten — much as I’d forgotten something my dad reminded me of recently. It was an excerpt from a book for which he was interviewed. “A couple of weeks after the World Trade Center Attacks, [Oreskes’] son was speaking with a counselor in school, and he said that he had never before realized that his parents had jobs that required them to rush toward danger,” author Seth Mnookin had written.

Reading my parents’ articles about the event — my dad worked for the New York Times then —proves to me how little I can access about that day or the ensuing years. And yet, I always knew that something terrible had happened. I came of age in a New York always marching forward but also swept up in memorializing the loss.

::

Emilia Petrarca grew up in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, a short walk from the World Trade Center. She attended an elementary school close to the towers; it stayed closed for months because of damage.

On Sept. 11, she remembers, her mom pulled her from school. Sirens blared. People screamed.

“I remember looking back and seeing the gaping hole in the tower,” she said.

Her Tribeca townhouse had floor-to-ceiling windows, and she recalled seeing the tippy top of the towers and its antenna through the glass.

“I have a pretty distinct memory of watching that antenna shake and then disappear from sight,” she said. “That was my view and then after that, what I remember the most is this, like, massive cloud of dust.”

It looked like snow, she said, Her family left home, placed bandanas around their mouths and grabbed a bus uptown. They wouldn’t return for months. Decades later, she still takes part in a more than 70,000-person study of people who were affected by the attacks and their lingering physical and psychological toll.

It includes about 3,000 people who were 18 or younger at the time, and has produced research on effects that include higher rates of asthma and substance use among kids in proximity of the towers. One paper showed that, 10 years after the attacks, “adolescents who witnessed a disturbing event on 9/11 were twice as likely to report ever drinking and almost three times as likely to have ever used marijuana.”

Still, the lasting impact of that day is hard for her to sort out. She remembers a class discussion related to the event in the first weeks of college that brought her to tears. She couldn’t exactly understand why, except that it angered her that a class full of first-year students could be talking with academic coolness about the loss she felt so deeply.

As the anniversary drew closer this summer, Petrarca, a journalist like me, found herself looking into the results of the surveys she had filled out over the years. What had the study amounted to? How did this day of terror stick with her?

“I’m 29,” she said. “And I still don’t know, I’m looking, I’m googling the results of tests like a multiple choice quiz that I’ve been taking for 20 years, to find out if it has any answers, because I don’t have an answer.”

::

Like Petrarca, I strain for some cohesive answer. Nothing unifying or satisfying comes together when I think about how all those lost lives changed me. My mom could’ve died doing her job — the same work I do now.

Los Angeles Times correspondent Geraldine Baum, holding the diary her husband gave her, rushed to the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2001.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Her brown notebook — a gift she gave my dad that he thrust into her hands before she headed downtown — sits in a drawer in our apartment. Her eyes were her best tool that day. Descriptions of bodies falling from the sky melt with sentences she still is trying to understand today.

“Two people jumping together. I don’t know if they were office mates. They drifted down so slowly.”

In considering how 9/11 changed the course of our lives or defined us, I distinguished those who lost someone that day from others, like me or Petrarca or Rivera. We were marked by it but without the grief of losing a friend or loved one.

That, though, might have led me down the wrong track, because the losses radiating out from that day looked so different for so many people.

Lucy Kane, originally from Jackson Heights, Queens, recalls how her mom, Holly Anderson, stopped picking her up from school in the weeks and months after the attacks. Her mother, a poet and artist, had always volunteered at the local hospital, but after the 9/11 attacks, she began showing up at Ground Zero.

She helped run a hospitality tent for cleanup workers for months after the attacks.

“I remember one of the things that my mom would always say is they would come in and be covered in debris and dust everywhere, and she would wash their boots,” Kane said.

People walk through Lower Manhattan after the collapse of the World Trade Center.

(Suzanne Plunkett / Associated Press)

“She cooked meals and offered them hot showers and just talked to them. It seems kind of simple, but she just offered a respite for them.”

Like Petrarca, she remembers the 10th anniversary, when she was away from New York City for the first time and feeling overwhelmed with emotion. Some of it was homesickness, she said. She was frustrated by how little the day meant to others who had not been in New York

Because of her volunteer work, Kane’s mom had thorough physicals through the World Trade Center Health Program. Every year she’d spend a full day being poked and prodded — knowing that many who sorted through the wreckage were left with lasting, unseen scars that metastasized into something worse.

In the fall of 2017, scans showed cancer in her liver, which quickly spread to other organs. On Dec. 22, 2017, she died.

A cancer diagnosis can come out of nowhere and without explanation. Kane is comforted knowing that her mom may have contracted the disease because she was out in the world being her courageous, generous self. It’s those qualities that stay with her, along with a tattoo of the holly plant on her right bicep.

“Her volunteer work at Ground Zero was the ultimate expression of her [turning] empathy into action,” Kane said. “Being raised by her and being her daughter has informed my choices more than 9/11.”

::

The intergenerational link looks different for 80-year-old Anne Rossinow and her 18-year-old granddaughter Natalie. Anne’s son Norman worked on the 105th floor of the building for the Aon Corporation.

“Norman never had kids, and I don’t want the next generation to forget him,” she said.

Ann Rossinow, who lost her son on 9/11, poses at her Manhattan apartment.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

It is this generation that I’m curious about.

Despite never meeting him, Natalie still has a vivid image of Norman — his love of baking and his energetic disposition. They even share the same initials — NSR — which is not a coincidence. The bond is so strong that she spoke at a 2018 memorial for an uncle she never met.

“After hearing continuous stories told by my family, I’ve grown up knowing what a kind, compassionate and caring person he was,” she said in 2018.

Natalie started at Tufts this week and is part of the generation that follows me. She described how her grandmother and her father regularly spoke of Norman and how much they wished he’d been at her high school graduation or around the dinner table for Rosh Hashanah this year.

We spoke as she organized herself for the beginning of a new chapter in her life. School had been on Zoom for much of the last year and we dwelled on the idea that the pandemic might mark her in the same way 9/11 marked me.

The shape of the trauma might look different, but that notion of a generation-defining event struck us both. “If it’s not COVID, it’s school shootings,” she said.

“I think COVID would be the closest parallel. It’s honestly hard for me to even think of Sept. 11 as a defining moment of a generation. … It’s weird for me to think about that event as something bigger than just the day my uncle died.”

An etching featuring the name of Norman Rossinow, who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, is displayed in the New York apartment of his mother, Anne Rossinow.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Norman’s body was never found, but his memory lives on in her tiny East Side apartment. Anne so wishes she could bury him. Pictures are everywhere and an etching of his name that’s inscribed into the memorial hangs on the wall. Natalie and her sisters and cousins each have one of these etchings in their rooms.

Now at college, she left the etching at home, but the lanyard she wore while memorializing Norman in 2018 sits on the desk of her new dorm. It’s something to hang onto.

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