On September 11th, 2001, I remember waking up in my house in Connecticut and preparing to go to my elementary school with my two older brothers. In the car, we listened to “Imus in the Morning or “Mike and Mike in the Morning,” on the 10 minute car ride from my Stratford home to Bridgeport, where I went to school.
That was around a quarter to 8 AM, if my memory is good enough. In school for the next two hours, I barely remember my teacher in the room. My only memory of the school day, was all the adults outside in the hall, then the announcement that everyone’s parents are picking them up.
No explanation, at least not one that I remember; and just like that, I was in the backseat of the family’s old green minivan driving to the grocery store. The whole family was in the van: three boys in elementary school, my older sister wearing her black and light yellow high school uniform and both of my parents.
My mom went inside to pick up groceries at the store while my dad listened to the radio. It is still the only time I can think of that the radio was on when the car wasn’t moving.
And that is it. My entire memory of Sept 11th, 2001, is a jumbled mess of incoherent scenes and the occasional recollection. I know that the four of us returned to school. My mom would eventually return to work in the mall. And a few days later, my dad returned back to Station 1, engine 21 in New Rochelle, NY.
It didn’t hit me for years, when I realized that my dad, Michael Johnson — a NY firefighter less than an hour drive to New York City — had the day off on the biggest and most destructive day in the history of the city. It wasn’t until that Friday that he returned to his job.
“When I went back, everyone was still trying to go down to New York City. It was real hectic because it was hard to try to control all the fire departments from the surrounding areas, from New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and Upper Westchester, everyone was trying to get down to the city” my father said.
Where we lived in Connecticut, it was more than an hour drive to get to New Rochelle and where he was stationed, so my dad would leave, say on a Monday afternoon, and I wouldn’t see him until he was picking myself and my siblings up from school that Wednesday.
And thinking of that, I asked my father what the drive to New York that Friday was like; what’s the first thing he did when he finally reached the station, what the conversation with other firemen was like, and what he was thinking about, watching it all happen live, knowing he had friends less than an hour away engulfed in the tragedy.
“I was watching the news, and they said a plane hit one of the towers, and I didn’t think much about it because I heard about a plane hitting the Empire State Building so I thought it was an accident. I took you guys to school and when I came home, I turned back on the TV and was still watching it.
At that time I was a lieutenant and I was thinking as a lieutenant, how would I handle that situation. What would I do? How would I go about it? And as I watching, I see the other plane hit and when that happened, the first thing that popped in my mind was that this was an act of terrorism.”
“Then, a half an hour later, the school called and they said they’ll let school out. After that, I talked to your mother about whether or not I should drive down there. I called the Firehouse and they said that the rescue unit was already gone and they said right now they won’t need any other people but if they do, they’ll call. The rest of that day, I was watching it on TV and listening to it on Imus, because Walter Wolf , their sportscaster, lives near the WTC and that he saw the first [plane hit], so he was giving first hand news and updates,” said my father.
My father then talked about what the next few days were like to be a fireman in southern New York.
“Later on, some of the buildings in the area had been damaged and they were sending fire departments out to knock glass out so it wouldn’t fall on people. The NYC Fire Department was down at Ground Zero, and the other fire departments were knocking glass out, which is called overhauling, to take away any hazards that might fall on people,” my father said.
What he described even more, were some of the other firemen in his station that day and what they did to help out. One of which, Arthur Young, is his best friend.
“Me and Arthur worked the same shift, so when he was off, I was off. Though he was in New Rochelle at the time, he went to the FireHouse, but NYC was trying to limit the amount of people going down there because it’s hard to control that many people,” my father explained.
“One thing when you have a big incident is that you have to have command and know where everyone is. If you have people coming all around the city from different departments, you don’t know where they are, what they doing, and someone could get hurt and you wouldn’t know it.”
Other firemen went to the water to get into the city to help out any way they could.
“One guy had a boat, and because it was so hard to get down there by car, some guys took their boats. He picked up some guys, and came down through the Eastern River. New York City guys were the ones at Ground Zero, the other guys were on the periphery helping outside,” said my father.
It was a long time after 9/11 before I asked my dad about that day and heard this story. We had moved from Connecticut to Charlotte. At that time, I was a freshman in high school, and he had just landed his first teaching job in North Carolina.
It was a Saturday night and we were watching college football my parent’s bedroom. My mom was working that night in SouthPark mall in Charlotte. In two piles on the edge of the bed, were half-sheets of paper.
I was helping him grade the quizzes he gave earlier that week to his young students. And during those Saturday nights, we would talk a little about everything: The game on and other sports, our classes, his childhood, my childhood, his siblings, my siblings, the country, race, politics and his time as a fireman.
One Saturday night watching college football, I finally asked. “What would you do if you were working in New York on September 11th?”