Editor’s Note: Opera singer Helen Todd, a Watseka, Illinois, native, was in New York on 9/11. She called her hometown paper, the Iroquois Times Republic, at that time a five-day daily, shortly after the terrorist attacks and shared an emotional testimony with her fellow Watsekans. A classmate of hers, John Whitman, who worked at the Empire State Building, was also in town that day. The Times Republic published both Todd’s and Whitman’s accounts of 9/11 in the Sept. 28, 2001, edition. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary, the paper reached out to both for further insights. We are republishing Todd’s original piece as well as her present reflection. Together, the two pieces create a historical record of a midwesterner who witnessed a defining moment in American history through the sensibilities of an aspiring young woman who went to the Big Apple in pursuit of her career, and two decades later, took a moment to contemplate the aftermath of the tragedy and its long-lasting impact.
It is hard to believe that 20 years has passed since the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. When this anniversary occurs each year, I try not to watch TV.
When people or newscasts post footage from that day of burning buildings, it takes me directly back to that day in New York City and still fills me with fear. When I see the footage, I think of the mothers and fathers who died in those buildings and the footage to me is an active record of their death.
I had hoped that years later the world would have respect for those people who died and that this footage would not be shown as it further traumatizes their family members to see each year.
Instead, I wish they would talk to those who lost loved ones and ask them who they were and what they meant to them.
That is the kind of remembrance that we should all do on 9/11. Remember the incredible and the simple lives of the people who died on that day, NOT of the final terrorizing moments they spent on earth.
Even though I did not have a family member in one of the towers that fell, I was in NYC to sing at Lincoln Center and I feared that the city would be bombed and I would not see my husband and family again.
It took many hours before I heard their voices on the other end of the line as helicopters and planes flew over Manhattan. The anguish of New York City will never leave me and the heroism of New York’s FDNY and police will be with me forever as they were the only trucks on the streets.
The rest of the world watched the pain on the news.
But I was in NYC and felt the pain and saw the pictures posted to fences and poles all through Manhattan.
New York City was a loving place after 9/11 and it reminded me of what happens when unimaginable tragedy brings people together.
This feeling lasted a few months in America but unfortunately for all of us, it did not hold forever.
Tragedy either brings you closer or pushes you further apart.
I pray that this year as we look back at 9/11, we pause for a moment to find the ways we can come closer together.
Our world desperately needs us to do this. Life is an incredibly delicate and fragile gift.
I learned from 9/11 that tragedy can be an opportunity to heal each other.
I learned that unless you see the pain you might not understand how deep the pain goes.
And I learned that real heroes are the ones who don’t have the spotlight. I strive to be one of those.