The death of Osama bin Laden set off celebrations in Washington, D.C., and at Manhattan’s ground zero. But, though all Americans have strong feelings this week, I still suspect it means less to you and me, 3,000 miles away.
Back on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, I turned to my best childhood friend from East Meadow, New York, Dennis Morgan. We grew up together and are still close. Morgan lives in a leafy suburb just 15 miles from Manhattan. My column “It’s not over in New York” (Sept. 6, 2002) chronicled the feelings on his block after Bill, his neighbor, was killed when the World Trade Center collapsed. Bill left behind a wife, who was pregnant, a 3-year-old son, and friends who cared. I remember writing that his green Ford Explorer remained in his driveway.
I had never heard my friend so shaken, so vulnerable. He was in Manhattan on 9/11 – in Midtown – and left the island by walking across the 59th Street Bridge with many fellow New Yorkers. On Wednesday, just days after the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and shot him dead, I asked him: How does this news affect you and your neighbors?
“I’m glad he’s gone. But that doesn’t bring Bill back or Ann’s Uncle Herman,” said Morgan, 52. Ann, his wife, lost a relative she called “uncle” who was her father’s first cousin. Like Bill, Herman didn’t come home that day 10 years ago. Their family never heard from him again – not a phone call, not a memento found in the rubble, not a scrap
of clothing, nothing. Living with that kind of loss can’t be erased through a 40-minute helicopter raid and probably not even after seeing a corpse photo of the man responsible.
“It just doesn’t pack the same emotions as when I talked to you then,” he said. “This (news) is totally different. Besides, as a person, I am not big on revenge.”
Although other New Yorkers celebrated and many were buoyed by bin Laden’s death, Morgan was not. Nothing could reverse the pall cast on his life.
Ann’s uncle was in the south tower of the World Trade Center on the 78th floor. The plane plunged into the 77th floor. His wife’s family was told a vague story from witnesses who said Uncle Herman started down the staircase and then went back up to help someone. “It was the exact same thing as Bill” (his neighbor), Dennis explained. “He just never came home.”
Bill had helped Dennis install his air conditioner. He and Dennis shared lawn and garden tips. The day before 9/11, Bill had missed his usual train and was very late for work. On the morning of 9/11, Bill made an extra effort to get to the train station and was at his desk in the WTC on time.
My friend said New Yorkers held on to hope, half expecting their missing loves ones to return home. “I kept hoping he’d rode a beam down … that was the kind of thought that went through your head.”
Dennis continued working in Manhattan at the American Bible Society as chief financial officer for five more years. But the anxiety that blanketed New York City like a fog in winter took its toll. He decided to become a tax consultant and work with clients in the suburbs. The last straw was the New York City blackout of August 2003 when he didn’t make it out of the city for 48 hours.
“I went through a time … when I’d be walking to my office and ask myself `Why am I doing this? I could get killed.’ ”
Dennis only visited ground zero once, and that was by accident. A client’s office was nearby.
“It was a big, ugly hole in the ground. It was very sad,” he said.
We caught up a bit and then he told me he had to hang up. His wife had asked him to pick up some groceries and he had arrived at the neighborhood market.
He intimated that truly big events, from 9/11 to bin Laden’s death, take time to sink in and “evolve.” He was glad that our government did what it did and hopeful new intelligence gathered from the raid would stop future attacks. But in his heart, I could tell that not much had changed.
“I was walking my dog past my neighbor Bill’s house. I thought that would bring some closure …” Then my friend’s voice trailed off.