A personal reflection
By Mary-Justine Lanyon
September 11, 2001.
Ask any American alive on that date where they were when they heard the news and it is almost guaranteed they can tell you.
The news, of course, was the attack on the United States by 19 terrorists from al-Qaeda who hijacked four commercial airplanes, crashing two into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon. The hijackers on the fourth plane were foiled by the passengers, who fought back; that plane crashed into a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
As for me, at the time I lived in Oradell, N.J., located in Bergen County in the northern part of the state. I was in my kitchen. The Today Show was on the little black-and-white television I had there.
Suddenly, a news alert interrupted the regular programming. It was hard to comprehend what had just happened. And then the second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later. The news continued to be more and more horrific: the third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, followed by the fourth plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania field.
Like so many Americans, I was shocked, stunned, in disbelief.
My phone rang. It was my daughter, Amanda, then 16 and a junior in high school.
“I want to come home,” Amanda said. I left immediately to pick her up.
We sat glued to the television, watching the scenes unfold.
My husband, Armand LeSage, was the golf course superintendent at the local club. His crew was made up of men who traveled across the Hudson River from Manhattan and other New York boroughs every day. All bridges across the Hudson were immediately closed following the terrorist attacks so these 20 men were unable to go home. One man had never spent a night away from his 5-year-old daughter.
Armand and I gathered up blankets and pillows and brought chaise lounges to his maintenance shop from the pool area by the clubhouse. He cleared out a large area where the men could sleep that night. We bought burgers and side dishes and provided the men with a barbecue dinner that night.
They had to stay a second night as well.
Over the following days, we learned that the brother of one of Amanda’s classmates perished in one of the towers, as did the granddaughter of a good friend from our church. Another friend from church, who had been in one of the towers during the 1993 bombing, did not wait to be told to leave. She walked down all those flights of stairs as quickly as she could and lived to tell the story.
As the days unfolded, the unity of the American people was apparent everywhere you went. Nearly every car was flying an American flag. People were greeting one another warmly. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” was on everyone’s lips.
My phone rang again. It was one of the girls from our Girl Scout troop. “Ms. Lanyon,” she said. “There is a woman in town who is pregnant and her husband died in the Twin Towers. We have to help her.”
I got the woman’s name and address and sent her a letter, offering the help of these 16-year-old young women. She replied that her mother had come from Texas to help her but she could use help walking her two big dogs.
The members of Girl Scout Troop 978 sprang into action, made up a schedule and walked those dogs every day. When the baby – a little girl – was born, we were all invited to her christening.
Every year on the anniversary of 9/11, I think of this phone call and my girls. My pride in them knows no limits.
I worked for a consulting company in my town. Our work required us to go into Manhattan at least once a month.
Frankly, it was a scary journey at first. National Guard troops were posted at every bridge. To enter a parking garage, troops examined the trunk and ran a mirror underneath the car to check for bombs. To enter any building, including hotels, you had to be searched and show a photo ID.
Things eventually went back to somewhat normal, although there was always heightened security in the area.
In 2002, Armand moved to Lake Arrowhead. I followed him in 2003, after Amanda graduated from high school.
A few years later, I got a message from Dean Powelson, a sixth-grade teacher at Mary Putnam Henck Intermediate School. He invited me to the 9/11 tribute his students were putting on for the other sixth graders.
Mr. Powelson, who passed away on Aug. 29, 2021, created the 9/11 memorial program for a talent show at Lake Gregory Elementary School in 2002. When the sixth grades were moved to MPH, he asked for and received authorization to present the program there.
I had the honor of attending several of these programs, some of which were also attended by local firefighters.
As his students prepared for the program, they learned about the events of 9/11 and shared what they learned with their peers.
The respect shown by these youngsters was impressive. They filed in quietly and took their places on the floor of the multi-purpose room. That respectful attitude continued throughout the assembly.
Mr. Powelson first showed a PowerPoint presentation, showing the students what took place on 9/11 through photos of the towers, the Statue of Liberty, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania field, the destruction that resulted from the terrorist attacks and today’s 9/11 memorial in New York City.
The towers, he told the students, took six years to build and only two hours to destroy.
Some of his students then carried an FDNY helmet and cap and an NYPD cap to the stage, placing them on a table. Other students brought up a photo of the Twin Towers.
After holding the photo upright on the table, a student slowly lowered it, representing the towers’ fall. Other students then carried a large American flag to the stage. They held it over the table with the helmet, the caps and the photos. Slowly they lowered the flag, covering the items and, in essence, creating a flag-draped coffin.
The audience then heard a 21-gun salute followed by Taps.
A student dressed as the Statue of Liberty lit the “torches” on the stage and welcomed other students bearing the flags of the branches of the U.S military.
When Mr. Powelson invited me to the first of the 9/11 tributes I attended, he was unaware of my connection to the terrorist attacks or how meaningful his students’ presentation would be to me. I am very glad I shared my experiences with him and was able to offer him my thanks for what proved to be very healing for me.
My hope is that another teacher at MPH will carry on this heartfelt tradition.