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Still learning lessons from 9/11

by Tammy Keith | September 15, 2019 at 12:00 a.m.

I know this column is running after our observances and outpouring of emotion for 9/11.

But, really, it was after that horrible day that it all changed — our world, our innocence, our perspective on life.

My first thought that day was for my brother, who was living in New York City and undergoing his surgery residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center. He wasn’t supposed to be in the Twin Towers, but what if? My family was relieved when we got an email from him saying he was OK.

I distinctly remember on that day driving through town, the sun shining, and seeing American flags everywhere. I would just start crying as I drove.

We were stunned, devastated and mourning — even though we didn’t have a loved one who died there.

Through the years, I’ve interviewed several people who were there that day, even a couple of young men who were in the buildings when the planes hit. Hearing their stories was chilling. I still think about them.

University of Central Arkansas graduate and former Conway resident Nathan Harness was so descriptive that my heart raced when he was telling me his story, how he escaped from the 61st floor where he was training for a financial-institution job.

As he made it to the third floor, firefighters were coming up.

“One of their faces I remember,” he said. “He had a mustache. He looked and me, and I looked at him, and I thought, ‘He looks scared. If a New York firefighter is scared, it must be bad, because I don’t know how you could get one of those guys scared.”

All those firefighters going past him died.

I also interviewed my brother and another Arkansas man who was there. My brother watched the towers burn and he went to the still-smoldering Ground Zero with other doctors to see if they could help. There were no survivors underneath the rubble, but they took water and breathing masks to the firefighters.

Now first responders are dying because of their exposure to all the chemicals at the site. I also read that 13 children — 12 men and one woman — of fallen firefighters are in this year’s graduating class of NYC firefighters. Bless them.

The story that stays with me the most, though, is the one I wrote about Sara Low of Batesville, a flight attendant whose plane hit the first tower and she was killed — murdered, as her dad correctly said.

She was beautiful, adventuresome and so full of life. I will never forget the image of him coming home from New York City, sitting on the airplane holding a small patriotic foil packet that contained a bone fragment of his precious daughter.

Our mantra since that day has been “Never forget,” but it’s hard sometimes. The day sneaks up on us living ordinary hectic and hurried lives.

I remembered the night before when people started posting on social media. Early the next morning I texted my younger son, who is in Spain. It was his afternoon, and he hadn’t forgotten what day it was.

It was a beautiful day with a clear-blue sky in my city, just like it was 18 years ago before the day turned black.

Our 2-year-old granddaughter had spent the night, and I took her to preschool. She cried, saying she wanted to stay home and play. I finally got her dressed and out the door. I kissed her and left her in that classroom, trusting that she’d be safe and that we’d see her again.

The flag was half-staff outside the building, as it was all over town.

As I drove to work, I felt annoyed for an instant when I got stopped by a train. Then I remembered and felt ashamed of myself. I should be thankful that I could wait for a train; that I could breathe and look at the sky and make a phone call to my husband, if I wanted to.

Thousands of people who were in New York City that day 18 years ago aren’t getting that chance to enjoy ordinary days, or kiss their family or wait for a train.

Life is too short not to enjoy every minute, and I don’t know why that’s such a hard lesson to learn.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-5671 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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