A father-daughter moment, 10 days after 9/11

September 10, 2022 8:00 am

The ‘Tribute in Light’ memorial lights up lower Manhattan near One World Trade Center on September 11, 2018 in New York City. The tribute at the site of the World Trade Center towers has been an annual event in New York since March 11, 2002.Throughout the country services are being held to remember the 2,977 people who were killed in New York, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Sunday is the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Ten days after the World Trade Center fell, I took a train to New York City from our Annapolis home to visit my daughter Liz, who worked for a cruise line that shuttled tourists around Manhattan Island.

She was in her late 20s at the time. On Sept. 11, on her way to her work on Chelsea Pier, she drove past the Trade Center site just minutes before the first plane struck the north tower.

Since the towers collapsed, she had been on the front lines of a massive shuttle effort by ferries and cruise ships to get stranded New Yorkers off Manhattan Island.

My train trip was the first chance I could get to New York to see her since the attack. After our visit, I sent an email to others in our family and some of our friends. My email to family and friends is reprinted below.

September 21, 2001

Friends and family — I write this after a most extraordinary 24 hours in New York City.  It was a way of bringing family support to an amazing young woman who typifies how so many New Yorkers are responding to the terrible events of September 11.

As my Amtrak train approached New York, I could see out the coach window through the mist and the rain that, in fact, the World Trade Center was gone!  I realized that television, instead of bringing reality to us, actually diminishes it. So it was when I looked across the harbor into the hazy sky I finally accepted this was not a nightmare. The towers were gone, and what we had seen on TV had been real, just as I had feared.

Disembarking at Penn Station, I hurried as quickly as I could out of that place, feeling real fear that it was “not good” to be in such crowded spaces anymore. Outside Madison Square Garden, the street at midday was busy, but somehow the people had lost that New Yorker edge. Small American flags were everywhere, policemen conspicuous on corners, a “God Bless America” on the girder of a construction site … my foreign cab driver had taped a paper American flag on his dashboard (as if to ward off American backlash?)

A light south breeze carried an acrid scent as it drifted up from the Financial District.

Short cab ride to Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River side at 23rd Street, where my daughter’s cruise line, Spirit, is headquartered. Her company has been engaged in a massive project at its own expense, using its flagship boat, “Spirit of New York,” as a floating kitchen and safe harbor for the thousands of volunteers who have been picking through the mountain of mortar and twisted steel.

At Chelsea Piers, another of the Spirit boats, Spirit of New Jersey, is set up as a commissary, and tons of donated food supplies, from cases of frozen lasagna to Gatorade, are staged to be ferried to the end of Manhattan Island to the kitchen of the Spirit of New York. A boat is the only way to get there.

Liz is in a meeting with Red Cross volunteers and reps from the NYPD and FDNY when I get there.  She steps out for a quick hug and goes back to the meeting. She’s the busy one now, and I am visiting her workplace — a role reversal for us.  I go down another deck and am put to work setting up folding chairs for a Red Cross orientation meeting for new volunteers.

Things seem pretty screwed up. I learned that I had arrived at the first moments of a handoff of this project by Liz’s company which has been competently sustaining the feeding effort out of its resources over to the Red Cross. A small company serving as many as 20,000 hot meals a day! (Why has it taken the Red Cross 10 days to show up here?) I watched the Red Cross leadership duking it out among themselves over who’s in charge while volunteers off the street stand by waiting to be put to work. I recall similar horror stories about Red Cross inefficiencies.

Finally, Liz gets out of her meeting and strides onto the lower deck.  She has a command presence, all 5 feet, 3-and-a-half inches of her, and quickly whips the confusion into an orderly effort. Soon the new volunteers have loaded a shuttle boat with several tons of food stuffs, forming a bucket brigade to hand the food from the deck of the New Jersey onto the smaller boat; then some 30 volunteers, including Liz and me, don ponchos and climb into the open boat for a shuttle to the end of Manhattan. It is now pouring rain, and the wind has picked up from the south. Ours is the only civilian vessel on the water. A dozen others are either Coast Guard or police. In the distance, in the mist, I can see the Statue of Liberty. (She must be weeping.)

I am not prepared to enter the tiny harbor at the end of Manhattan. The smoke I saw on  TV is real smoke now. And the twisted buildings and bombed-out windows are real destructions now. We are a block away from where thousands of people are entombed.

In the pouring rain, I start the volunteer unloading brigade that snakes out of the shuttle boat into the hold of the Spirit of New York, offloading food for the volunteers. Pitching in, working, and doing something feels right. And it is a way of off-putting the sadness, fear, and anger … mostly anger.

Then Liz and I scrambled onto the crowded cruise boat turned Volunteer Center. The exhausted firefighters and policemen are real-life people now, not figures inside a 27-inch screen. They sit slumped over their hot meals at the cruise ship tables — places where tourists used to sit enjoying cocktails while taking in the magnificent New York skyline. In the center of the dining area are makeshift massage stations, and burly men are giving equally burly men neck and back massages, easing out some sore muscles from picking through the debris, and God knows what else.

I see two fire department chaplains consoling each other.

I go on the ship’s top deck with Liz and look north across the little harbor into what the world now knows as “Ground Zero.” Liz tells me the archbishop of New York has urged New Yorkers to call it “Ground Hero.”

He is right. There are many heroes in New York today. I put my arm around one of them and gave her a hug from her family,

Richard Gilbert, September 21, 2001

About this column

This column was originally published by “Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck” and is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Richard Gilbert
Richard Gilbert

Richard Gilbert is the former owner of the Eagle Grove Eagle newspaper and was president of The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company. He is an occasional contributor to "Julie Gammack's Iowa Potluck," a blog on Substack. Gilbert, and his wife, Julie Gammack, live in Des Moines, Okoboji, and Punta Gorda, Florida.