The events of September 11, 2001, reverberated across the globe. The horrific images of the destruction of the Twin Towers are seared in our collective memories. In the following days, months, and years, all of us found our private way to healing.
All around us, in communities in New Jersey and New York, the losses were personal. Fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and friends perished – so many lives were forever changed by what happened on that Tuesday morning.
9/11 was deeply personal for us, the people of the Port Authority, as well. Many employees fled for their lives, just as some had after the bombing at the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. Memories of that day in 1993 made 9/11 even more harrowing for them.
It was not an easy task to mourn the loss of 84 individuals who worked for the Port Authority, including the 37 members of the Port Authority Police Force who died on 9/11, the single greatest loss of life for a single policing event in U.S. history.
But the people of the Port Authority – an extraordinary collection of individuals who become one in the face of adversity – pushed through grief and pain and began the process of rebuilding the World Trade Center campus, a process that has offered healing to the region.
In the following 21 years, a poignant memorial and museum to the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11 and those who perished in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was created. The names of the dead are engraved in bronze around twin waterfall voids that outline the footprints of the North and South Towers.
Each 9/11, ceremonies are held on the World Trade Center campus to honor the dead and the sacrifices made. The reading of each name remains as powerful today, as it was more than two decades ago. There is healing in such large gatherings broadcast across the globe. But there was also a need to do something intimate and more personal for the people of the Port Authority – current employees, retirees, and the families of Port Authority employees who died on 9/11 and 1993.
Last year, the Agency began what I and my valued partner at the Port Authority, Executive Director Rick Cotton, hope will be a long tradition: A rose ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial. Many of us gathered near the footprint of the South Tower where each attendee was given a rose with a name attached of a Port Authority employee who died on 9/11 or in the 1993 bombing and the specific location where that
name is inscribed along the pools, and then they placed their rose on that person’s name.
This year, on September 7, we conducted a similar ceremony. Unlike 9/11’s brilliant blue sky, it was an overcast morning, befitting a somber tribute – a few words were spoken by Rick and myself, a prayer was offered by a rabbi, followed by the plaintive sound of bagpipe. The simplest of actions resonate the loudest.
Many of us have experienced the rush of emotions of placing a rose at a gravesite, a gesture that offers comfort, while also leaving behind a physical sign that someone acknowledged that departed person.
Roses are prized for their beauty. Poets comment on their fragrant smell and vibrant colors, while noting the thorns on the stems, a reminder that pain and beauty often are linked.
I know for myself and for Rick, as we laid our roses, in that moment that person became real. No longer a name in bronze, but rather a colleague neither of us had never had the good fortune to know. The feeling stayed as I paid my respects in the small garden behind the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine that is dedicated to the first responders and recovery workers of the Port Authority who died or are ill due to their heroic efforts.
Healing takes time. For some, the pain remains. For all of us who remember that day, our memories still are vivid. But that will change with time.
We need to put action to words to make memories live, not just for us, but for the new people who join the Port Authority, some so young they have no living memory of 9/11. They will see in the faces of senior co-workers who lay a rose, the faces of those lost.
In short, we are remembered by how we remember those who came before us. As members of the Port Authority, we chose the beauty of a rose.
That is how we remember.
Kevin J. O’Toole is the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.