20 years later: Reflecting on 9/11 through three different lenses

What that day in 2001 meant to a Port Authority employee, a new reporter and an Iranian American schoolgirl
Mourners pause at the north reflecting pool as flowers are placed in the names of the dead at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Credit: John Minchillo/AP

Credit: John Minchillo/AP

Mourners pause at the north reflecting pool as flowers are placed in the names of the dead at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Sept. 11, 2001, is one of those days in history when people remember where they were as the horrific events of the day unfolded.

These are accounts from three such people:

One is a Port Authority worker (now a University of Georgia official) who was lucky enough to escape One World Trade Center shortly before its collapse but still mourns the loss of colleagues and others who weren’t so fortunate.

Another is an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist who was about to start her first job as a full-time reporter in New York City and suddenly found herself writing about people who went off to work on a regular day that soon turned tragic.

The third is a Report for America corps member who covers immigrant communities for the AJC. After the 9/11 attacks happened, she was an Iranian American teenager trying to make sense of why her country considered her a threat.

For those who witnessed the attack — either at the scene in New York or watching on television — memories of the World Trade Center and what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, remain vivid, even 20 years later. (Courtesy of Steve Mack)

Credit: Steve Mack

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Credit: Steve Mack

An escape with just minutes to spare

More than anything, Greg Trevor wants us to know that no one can do anything truly alone. We succeed when we look out for and care for one another. That’s the message he hopes the youngsters on UGA’s campus take from the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year.

Trevor, the University of Georgia’s associate vice president for marketing and communications, is a 9/11 survivor and frequently shares his story with UGA students and other groups around the country. In past years, he’s spent the anniversary speaking at and attending remembrance events and has given tours at ground zero. He has also proposed making 9/11 a national day of discussion where people can come together across their various divides and attempt to find common ground.

On this milestone anniversary, Trevor plans to get off the grid and go on a vacation with his wife and two dogs in the Shenandoah Valley.

“I recognize that PTSD and survivor’s guilt will be with me for the rest of my life,” Trevor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I try to deal with it on a daily basis. There is still a lot of sadness and a lot of loss from that day.”

On Sundays at church, he prays this prayer for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the victims of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi. He’ll be adding to his prayer list the victims of the recent attack on the airport in Afghanistan.

“May their bodies find eternal rest, their souls find eternal joy and salvation, and their families find eternal comfort.”

What follows is an excerpt from an essay Trevor wrote soon after the 9/11 attacks as part of his therapy for PTSD. Versions of the essay have been previously published.

Greg Trevor, associate vice president for marketing and communications at the University of Georgia, often shares his story with students. (Courtesy of Dorothy Kozlowski)

Credit: Dorothy Kozlowski

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Credit: Dorothy Kozlowski

By Greg Trevor

On Sept. 11, my co-workers and I escaped One World Trade Center at 10:18 a.m. The building collapsed seconds before 10:29 a.m.

I owe my life to three things: a knit tie; a quick-thinking Port Authority Police officer; and the foresight of the architects and engineers who designed the World Trade Center strong enough to withstand direct hits from jets — and enable an estimated 25,000 people to escape.

When the first of two 767s hit the Twin Towers at 8:46 a.m., I was standing behind my desk on the south side of the 68th floor of One World Trade Center, in the Public Affairs Department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

I was nearly knocked to the floor by the impact of the first plane, which slammed into the north side of Tower One more than 20 floors above me. I heard a loud thud, followed by an explosion. The building felt like it swayed about 10 feet to the south. It shuddered back to the north, then shimmied back and forth.

Out the window I saw a parabola of flame fall toward the street, followed by a blizzard of paper and glass. Then I heard two sounds: emergency sirens on the street, and phones ringing across the 68th floor — calls from reporters wondering what had happened.

Within a few minutes, we (department leaders) gathered the staff, threw files and notepads into our bags, and prepared to evacuate the floor. It began to fill with grainy smoke.

For more than an hour, we joined thousands of fellow World Trade Center workers who patiently descended the emergency stairwells.

I wasn’t scared at first. My initial feelings were disorientation and disbelief. When we entered the stairwell, all we knew was that a plane had struck the building. It didn’t make sense. (How could a plane hit a 110-story building on such a clear day?) Because we were in the stairwell, we didn’t feel the impact of the second plane hitting Two World Trade Center.

I tried to call my wife, Allison, several times by cellphone, but couldn’t get through. Fortunately, I reached my colleague, Pasquale DiFulco, through my interactive pager.

Pasquale, who began the day on vacation and was watching CNN, called Allison to let her know I was safe. He also used his pager to tell us what was really going on.

Despite this news, our long walk in search of safety remained calm and orderly. We had conducted regular fire drills, so we knew what to do. Every few floors, we would stop, move to the right of the stairwell and make room for injured people walking down — and firefighters and Port Authority Police officers running up.

Then we reached the fifth floor just before 10 a.m.

We heard a loud rumble. The building shook violently. I was thrown from one side of the stairwell to the other.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Tower Two had just collapsed.

Our stairwell filled with smoke and concrete dust. Breathing became difficult. The lights died. A steady stream of water, about 4 inches deep, began running down the stairs. It felt like we were wading through a dark, dirty, rapid river — at night in the middle of a forest fire.

The smartest decision I made that day was to wear a knit tie to work. I put the blue tie over my nose and mouth to block the smoke and dust. To keep from hyperventilating, I remembered the breathing exercises my wife and I learned in our Lamaze classes.

We descended one more flight, to the fourth floor, when I heard someone say: “Oh (expletive), the door’s blocked.”

The force from the collapse of Tower Two had apparently jammed the emergency exit. We were ordered to turn around and head back up the stairs, to see if we could transfer to another stairwell.

For the first time, I was afraid we wouldn’t make it. I whispered a quick prayer: “Lord, please let me see my family again.”

Then I closed my eyes, and made mental pictures of my family’s faces: Allison’s beautiful brown eyes; our 5-year-old son Gabriel’s deep blue eyes and dimples; our 2-year-old son Lucas’ blond ringlets.

I remember thinking: Their faces will keep me calm. And if I die, they will be the last thing on my mind.

Workers and heavy machinery continue the cleanup and recovery effort in front of the remaining facade of One World Trade Center at ground zero in November 2001. The clearing of the debris took months. (File photo)

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During this ordeal, Pasquale sent me a series of frantic pages that didn’t go through.

10 a.m. page from Pasquale:

Please tel me u r ok

Please respond. Another explosion at wtc

10:02 a.m.:

Part of 2 wtc has collapsed. Is evryone ok???

10:06 a.m.:

Plwesse repsond

10:12 a.m.:

Where are you? 2 wtc justcollapsed???

I don’t know how many minutes it took for emergency workers to clear the exit. But when they did, thank God that Port Authority Police Officer David Lim was there.

David is a K-9 officer whose partner, Sirius, was killed in the attacks. He was later trapped in the rubble for nearly five hours. David had the presence of mind to figure out a way to get us all turned around and headed back downstairs. Over and over, he shouted: “Down is good! Down is good!”

The emergency exit led to the mezzanine level of Tower One.

The mezzanine was filled with dull-beige concrete dust — on the floor, in the air, caked against the floor-to-ceiling windows. It felt like we were walking through a huge, dirty snow globe that had just been shaken.

It was even worse when we walked outside, near Six World Trade Center. The plaza was a minefield of twisted metal, covered by a layer of concrete dust several inches thick. I am grateful for that dust, because it means I didn’t see any bodies.

As we were leaving the building, my pager buzzed with a message from Al Frank, a reporter with the Newark Star-Ledger who has covered the Port Authority for years.

10:17 a.m. page from Al Frank:

are you okay?

I replied a minute later, as we were walking along the outside of Six World Trade:

We’ere out of the building. Everyone is fine.

Relieved but fatigued, we sprinted down the stairs between Six and Five World Trade, then turned up Church Street and headed north.

I looked back at the Trade Center. The upper third of Tower One was on fire. There was so much smoke and dust, I couldn’t tell that Tower Two had collapsed.

We continued walking north toward the Holland (Tunnel). A few minutes later, we heard an NYPD officer shout: “Run for your lives!”

We ran north for several blocks. We felt a deafening rumble, followed by a thick cloud of black smoke and brown dust. One World Trade Center had stayed up for more than 1 hour and 40 minutes after the first attack, enabling thousands of us to escape.

We walked the remaining blocks to the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. Military jets flew overhead.

Our clothes, hair and faces still covered with dust, we crammed into Port Authority Police cars, which took us to our temporary offices in Jersey City.

About an hour later, I wrote the first draft of our first statement after the attacks on the only form of communication I had left — my interactive pager.

Our hearts and our prayers go out to the families of the countless people — including many members of the Port Authority family — who were killed today in this brutal and cowardly attack. All PA facilities are closed until further notice. We at the PA are doing everything within our power to assist the families of the victims, and to co-operate with federal, state and local authorities to capture the perpetrators of this attack and bring them to justice.

Our department worked out of Jersey City for more than two months — at first, in rotating 12-hour shifts.

I returned to ground zero four days after the attacks. The experience was unnerving and humbling — not because of what’s there, but what used to be there. I looked up at the hole in the sky where our offices used to be, and thought about how easily we could have been trapped up there.

Nedra Rhone

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A lesson in valuing every story

By Nedra Rhone

I moved back to New York on Sept. 5, 2001, a few weeks before I was scheduled to start my first job as a full-time reporter.

I was anxious, according to my journal entries at the time. I didn’t like the feeling of being unsettled. I wondered what my new assignment would be at the newspaper and I was ready to get started.

A week later, the deadliest terrorist attacks in the history of this country would take place miles from where I was installed in temporary housing, and suddenly my inner turmoil seemed a lot less pressing.

The AJC’s Nedra Rhone was a reporting intern in New York before returning to the city for a full-time reporting job just a week before Sept. 11, 2001. (Courtesy of Nedra Rhone)

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This was my second time living in New York after a yearlong detour to the West Coast. It was cold that year and on Sept. 11, I woke up obsessed with returning the rental car I had been using since my arrival. When I finally connected with a representative on the phone, she sounded harried.

“I wouldn’t worry about it with everything going on,” she said.

I turned on the television just in time to see United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. I jumped in the rental car and drove to the office, where I spent the day typing firsthand accounts of reporters who were close to the scene.

I wasn’t officially “working,” none of my new employee paperwork had been processed, but at that moment, I couldn’t imagine not working.

Every journalist, every person, remembers 9/11.

It is etched in our collective memory, and for so many of us, it became a point of change.

This photo shows the skyline of New York City without the Twin Towers just a few months after 9/11. (Nedra Rhone / nedra.rhone@ajc.com)

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For me, the experience altered my career path in ways that would only become clear much later. I had always wanted to tell stories about interesting and remarkable people, but after spending the next few months writing profiles of the men and women who perished in the tragedy, I emerged with a different understanding of exactly what constitutes a remarkable life.

On Sept. 12, my first assignment was to interview passengers riding the train from Long Island into Manhattan. Most of them were in shock or afraid as they got their first glimpse of the post-9/11 skyline. They felt empty. They didn’t know what to expect.

The subways could not pass Times Square so I exited the station and did something I had never done before and have never been able to do since. I stood in the middle of the street at the intersection of Seventh Avenue, 42nd Street and Broadway, I closed my eyes and I listened. I vowed to use whatever talents I possessed as a writer to help people who were suffering the most.

The next story I wrote was about Ira Zaslow, a financial analyst from Lehman Brothers whose family spent the High Holy Days hoping for his return. It was the most somber Rosh Hashana in recent memory, said a local rabbi, but Zaslow’s family vowed to observe with turkey, brisket and puddings in the freezer, a home in perfect order, an empty setting at the table and prayers that Zaslow would return home safely.

That was the first of many stories I would write about people who went off to work on a regular day that soon turned tragic.

Twenty years later, I remember so many of them — Harold Lizcano, a newlywed who wooed his wife by bringing her a rose every day at lunch; Elizabeth Farmer, an underappreciated jazz singer who never gave up on her dreams; and Myrna Yaskulka, a clotheshorse whose collection of 100 pairs of sunglasses was legendary.

A makeshift memorial to the Twin Towers just months after 9/11. (Nedra Rhone / nedra.rhone@ajc.com)

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Writing those stories taught me so many important lessons about journalism and about life. I had started my career wanting to write stories about the famous or the infamous, but my experience during 9/11 would leave me with the well-intentioned belief that I can write a compelling story about anyone.

I learned to never devalue the story of another human being. I learned to look for the quirks and habits that make each of us unique.

Spending time with so many people in such a deep moment of grief was a reminder that no matter how different we are on the outside, on the inside we want for ourselves and those closest to us to live a life with meaning, to connect with others and to be remembered and regarded with love.

Nedra Rhone is a columnist with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Paradise Afshar and her dog, Iverson, cover Hurricane Irma in 2017 at WPLG, Miami’s ABC affiliate. Afshar joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s newsroom in June. (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

The heartbreak of feeling like an outcast

By Paradise Afshar

Two days before the war in Afghanistan began, I picked up a black Sharpie and began writing in my Winnie the Pooh journal.

I started the entry by scribbling: “I hate those (expletive) terrorists,” on top of the page. Less than a month had passed since 9/11 and I was still processing it. I know people look back on the days after the attacks as a time of unity and comfort, but that wasn’t my experience as an eighth grader in South Florida.

As a 13-year-old Iranian American teenager, I didn’t understand how my country’s acceptance of me became conditional. I was somehow deemed a threat, and it didn’t make sense.

Paradise Afshar on her way to her eighth grade dance in Weston, Florida. (Courtesy of Paradise Afshar)

Credit: Paradise Afshar, AJC

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Credit: Paradise Afshar, AJC

In the wake of the attacks, my classmates brought up internment camps, and I got called a “sand N-word,” along with other slurs. Teachers and my friend’s parents started making “jokes” about bombing the region, and using words like “barbaric” to describe people from the area.

I also started getting called upon to make presentations about Islam in some of my classes. I had to answer questions about the religion, which I still find funny because I’ve never declared myself to be a Muslim.

To prepare, I would read up on the religion and keep close tabs on the news. I didn’t want to leave a question unanswered, or allow for lies to be spread.

All these details of my childhood came flooding back when I picked up my journal, and it hurt seeing the tear marks on an entry made on Oct. 5, 2001. It was heartbreaking, seeing sentences like “how can people hate each other,” and “why is the world like this,” written in shaky handwriting.

The next few entries were no better. They consist of me worrying about how the economic impacts of the attacks were hurting my parents’ business, and this fear I had of opening a letter with anthrax.

And it turns out, I wasn’t alone in this pain.

For the past few days, I’ve been talking to Muslim millennials about 9/11 and their feelings about the day. Many of them said they felt they had to grow up too soon, and they also felt like outcasts.

Those feelings of fear, helplessness and uncertainty still linger within Muslim communities.

And while the airport is associated as being the backdrop of most of this anguish — with people with ties to Muslim countries being pulled aside for extra security screenings — the reality is that everyday life became difficult.

The FBI reported a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes following 9/11, which includes assaults and acts of intimidation. As a result of this, some Muslim women stopped wearing their hijabs in public. Others began flying American flags to show their support for the country, almost like a shield.

I started to feel uncomfortable when people asked me about my background, because I knew things could turn violent. I still get uneasy when I’m asked that question, especially from strangers.

Jalal Afshar with Paradise Afshar, who's now an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, during a layover in England, on their way to the United States. (Courtesy of Paradise Afshar)

Credit: Paradise Afshar, AJC

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Credit: Paradise Afshar, AJC

Being Iranian American, I was already aware of the history of anti-Iranian sentiment in this country stemming from the 1979 hostage crisis. I knew we started calling ourselves Persian to avoid racism, and that President Jimmy Carter cleared the way for a national registry of Iranian students.

I was just naive enough to think that was all in the past.

When the George W. Bush administration enacted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System in 2002, which required all males 16 and older who were noncitizen visa holders from 25 majority Muslim countries to register with the government and regularly check in, I knew it was history repeating.

So, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for a Muslim ban in 2017, I was shocked to see protests against the ban at airports and other ports of entry. Moments like that give me hope, that maybe there is some progress to be made in the face of discrimination.

Then again, there is currently a debate over Afghan refugees, and if they should be welcomed in the country. I can’t say how much progress is being made. What I can do is journal and continue to cover immigrant communities and tell our stories, and just like I used to do in school, I’ll keep informing people about the world around them.

And yes, I really still hate those terrorists.

Paradise Afshar is a Report for America corps member covering immigrant communities for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.