Volume 81, Number 15 | September 8 - 14, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Looking back at 9/11 • A special Villager supplement

Out of the Ashes

In photo at left, from left to right, Noah Sutter, Villager Publisher John W. Sutter and Cici Sutter in 2000. At right, Noah and Cici Sutter in 2011.

What my kids said to me is what I’ll remember most

By John W. Sutter

At the end of the day, what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, is a personal experience for everyone. Sure, our newspapers covered the events relating to the tragedy and rebuilding for the last decade, more than 1,700 stories. Sure, we were intimately involved with all of the rebuilding “timelines” and covered the churning politics, the accomplishments and the many delays. But at the end of the day, when I think about 9/11, I think most about what my kids said to me.

On Sept. 12, 2001, my daughter Cici (five years old at the time and attending her first week of kindergarten at P.S. 234) asked me if Borders at the World Trade Center site had survived the big fire. She loved Borders and had attended dozens of morning “story times” there. I told her that I didn’t think it did, and that’s when she finally broke.

“It did survive,” she cried, “I know it did. I saw it through the flames!”

In fact, I didn’t know at the time if it had survived or not, but I was intent to find out. The next evening I worked the W.T.C. midnight to 4 a.m. shift with a group of ambulance workers at a feeding station. On my way home, I had to see if Cici’s vision of Borders was right, and I schlepped all the way over there through the ankle-deep ash and smoke with eyes burning and lungs aching. When I rounded the corner at Church and Vesey, my spirits soared: there it was, Borders, still standing! But as I looked closer, it was completely charred and gutted, and clearly had to be razed.

My son, Noah, who was four at the time and headed for his first day at preschool, was with us at Duane Park and saw the first plane fly overhead bound for the North Tower. He asked me a week later if a lot of people had died in the “great fire.” I told him that I thought that a lot had, and that’s when he dropped a line that still rips into me. “I know there was a lot of death Daddy because I can hear people screaming beneath the flames.”

Of course the little soul had absorbed the despair and death all around us. Our Tribeca neighborhood was plastered with heart-wrenching posters of missing family members and crawling with police and emergency service personnel. The smoke and stench of the pile hung over our neighborhood like a dark shroud. 

Every morning we would get up, and walk over to Greenwich and Jay Sts. and look at the pile, and ask each other if the fire was out yet. And every day, when we would see the smoke, we’d say, “Not yet!” And we said those same words, every day from September through the end of December 2001, when we looked hard, and even harder, and finally saw no smoke. The fires went out on Christmas Day, or at least that’s the day they went out for us. And that’s the day we brought home Rosie, a baby black pug.

We had never explicitly told the kids about what really happened on 9/11. They knew about the planes, but not the intent. It’s hard to explain that level of evil to a four- and five-year-old. It was just known to them as the big fire that the heroic firefighters finally put out.

When Cici reached the age of seven, in 2003, she let me in on a real Downtown coming-of-age gem. She asked, “Daddy, do you remember those people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center?” “Yes,” I replied. “What about them?” She looked me in the eyes, voice raised and pulsating, and said, “THEY DID IT ON PURPOSE!”

I didn’t know whether to burst out crying or laughing.

On Sat., Sept. 10, 2011, Kathleen, Cici, Noah and I will attend the “Hand in Hand” event sponsored by Community Board 1. We all have a post-9/11 decade under our belts, but it’s still deeply personal. And we’ll hold our hands tight, and our neighbors’, too, as we still try to come to terms with the most significant event of our lifetimes.

Sutter is publisher and editor in chief of The Villager, East Villager and Downtown Express

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