The Day The Music Died
My brother Andrew was one of the victims of the terrorist attack on 9.11.01. How insane it feels to write that! Even after 18 years the pain recurs again and again. To say my brother was a victim of terrorist murder puts me and my entire family into a brotherhood of man that should not exist.
I was in my office in Florida that morning when my mother called to say “Richard, turn the TV on now. Your brother’s building is on fire!” My first thought was, “how could the World Trade Center be on fire?” It’s all glass and concrete.” Of course, when I saw what was happening it became clear.
No one knew this was a terrorist attack until the South Tower was also hit by a plane. That morning, I distinctly remember hearing the CNN hosts say that it was now clear that the United States was under attack. As soon as the South Tower collapsed, I knew I had to get to New York. My parents and I immediately left for New York. We booked the auto-train but got there five minutes too late to board. Thus, we had to drive to New York.
There was an eerie sense of doom as we drove north. We had to switch from station to station on the radio as we made progress. For the first time I can remember, every station was fulfilling its public duty by covering this tragedy. This was truly the “day the music died.” There was no conversation in the car. Each of us was pondering the future and praying that Andrew would somehow survive. At that point, no one really knew the extent of this day.
Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland flew by. When we turned to get on the New Jersey Turnpike we were greeted with an astonishing sight. Thousands of cars, parked on both sides of the road, with the occupants standing by with lit candles formed a corridor for us to drive through. It went on for miles; all those people who had no other way to express their grief spontaneously found themselves in a silent vigil. As we approached New York City it all became real. The skyline had been replaced by a mushroom cloud; where the towers stood was an empty place. It was disorienting. The view we knew so well had been altered forever.
We arrived at my brother’s house on Long Island and learned that Andy had spoken to his wife four times after the buildings were hit. He first called to find out what had happened. He was in a conference room with about 70 other Cantor Fitzgerald employees. Andy was in control; he had the wisdom to collect the home phone numbers for everyone there and read the names and numbers to his wife, thus allowing her to call and say that at that moment they were all ok.
Unfortunately, being on the 104th Floor, there was no possibility of rescue or escape. Smoke was filling the room and the temperature was becoming unbearable. The jet fuel was burning at an astonishing rate, hot enough to melt the steel of the buildings. The conference room that Andy occupied was the place where we all saw many people choose to jump to their death rather than remain; they had broken out the windows using computer equipment.
For many years I could not sleep at night. Not knowing if my brother had stayed or jumped produced repeated nightmares so vivid, I was afraid to close my eyes. I had cried my life’s worth of tears already. The internet was still in its infancy and surfing was a laborious task; I spent many sleepless nights just searching for any news, any comments, anything related to this tragedy. Fact and fiction melded into a universe of theories. There was no relief to be found.
Andy’s memorial service on the Sunday following the attacks was attended by so many people that several hundred people had to remain outside the Synagogue. It was a celebration of his life and a show of love by the community that had never been seen before. Andy lived in Rockville Center, NY, which is home to many First Responders. Being one of the first services for victims was the reason so many turned out. The only thing missing from this funeral service was my brother. There were not remains to be found. In fact, to this day the remains of thousands of victims are unidentifiable. To mark his time on this world, the family established a grave site and buried some ashes there.
Soon after the service I left for home. My parents stayed behind so I took an Amtrak train back to Florida. What an astonishing trip that was. As was customary for Jewish mourners, I had a black ribbon on my shirt; this served to identify me as someone who had lost a close relative. Throughout the night, almost every one of the people on that train came up to me to express their sorrow. Hundreds of strangers hugged me and cried with me. When I went to the dining car my money was no good. So many people wanted to pay for my food and drink it was humbling. As we passed towns along the way, people were outside with candles, just like the ones we saw going north. This entire nation was grieving together.
On this 18th Anniversary, I pray not only for my brother, but also for all the families. I also pray for the future of our great nation. We can only hope to regain our national sanity once again. Perhaps it’s not too late to capture the spirit that made everyone in the United States of America members of the same family that day.
It was a long time before I could listen to music again and smile.