We flew to New York City from Little Rock on American Airlines on Sept. 25, 2001. I felt better about my flight when I noticed an iron bar secured the cockpit door from the inside. American had added that protection to all of its aircraft. After landing at Newark International, our cab crossed into Manhattan at the lower end of the island, which gave us a clear view of Ground Zero. The gap in the skyline with the debris still smoldering caused me to shiver.
We stayed at the downtown Four Seasons. As we checked in, the manager said that if we would take a room above the 11th floor it would be greatly discounted. That was our first revelation as to how the attack on New York had affected things.
While in New York, we talked with several friends, and heard stories of a sea of people that, after the attack when public transportation was halted, walked from the financial district on Wall Street, some of them for over seven hours, to leave Manhattan.
One friend walked from 52nd Street to a bridge on 125th Street, which he found was closed to foot traffic. He then managed to talk a security officer into letting him and about 30 others ride a city bus across, driven by a police officer. When they reached the other side, they were let out to continue walking another two hours. Five and a half hours after leaving his office, he walked into his living room. Usually it was a 25-minute commute.
On Sunday morning we went to Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, standing in line for over an hour because the church was packed with emergency crews from all over the country. Sitting with a crew from Mississippi while the wonderful Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang patriotic hymns will always be a memory.
The church was a few hundred yards from the Brooklyn Bridge, and wanted to do something for the huge crowds of people who were walking across the bridge from Manhattan on the day of the attack. Jim Cymbala, the pastor, started his sermon by telling how the church responded:
"We set up several tables as close to the Brooklyn Bridge exit as the police would let us, and as those tired and dazed people stumbled off the bridge from walking dozens of blocks, we handed out cups of cold water. We had to do something."
The average New Yorker was still shaken from the events of Sept. 11, but they did everything they could to return to normal. They immediately welcomed us and expressed how grateful they were that we were in town. Most restaurants were less than one-third full, and it was easy to get theater tickets to almost any show in town.
Our flights in and out of the city were non-eventful. In fact, the airlines told everyone to be at the airport two hours early, which we did. But since the airports were empty, we breezed through security and caught early flights both times.
We had a great time in New York, but the somber mood from the tragedy permeated everything we did. That was an exclamation point on Friday morning where I had something happen that really gave me an understanding of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
I told Vertis I wanted to take a long walk that morning, and left the hotel and started up 52th Street. It was one of those clear, cool New York days with a strong north wind blowing in my face. As I reached Fifth Avenue the sight of all the American flags waving in that wind made me think New York had never looked better. I took a deep breath, and for the first time since I arrived I smiled at the huge display. It was a breathtaking sight.
Then I noticed there was no traffic on Fifth Avenue, and a New York police officer stood in the middle of every intersection. As I crossed the street I asked one of them why the street was closed. In a soft voice he said "funeral."
I came to Saint Patrick's Cathedral where I joined a crowd of several hundred firefighters under two ladder trucks with their ladders extended. A huge American flag was tied between the tops of the ladders. Those firefighters, from all over the country in their dress blues, were the overflow from a packed church. The front of the church was draped in black, and a corps of bagpipers and drummers stood waiting in front of the door.
After a short wait, the massive front doors of the cathedral opened and a sea of firefighters poured out into the street, forming a corridor. The priests and the bishop came out. There was a pause as they reached the middle of the street and a lone firefighter walked out of the church, holding a fallen firefighter's helmet.
He was followed by the firefighter's young widow carrying a folded flag. As they reached the middle of the street everyone saluted and the honor guard fired a salute as a bugle sounded Taps. The casket was placed on a carriage. There was dead silence in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the world.
I stood there with tears in my eyes. I didn't know this man in the casket; he was not from Arkansas. He gave his life trying to save others. I have never been more proud to be an American. It's a moment in time that is seared in my memory.
If the terrorists thought their acts of destruction would inflict a mortal blow to this country, they failed miserably. They united us as never before. They would eventually realize by their actions of Sept. 11, they had signed their death warrant.
Email Richard Mason at email@example.com.