9/11 mourners bemoan new attitude toward commemoration

“I remember I entered the building at 8:47 [a.m.] and the lights flickered. And I thought, this is not a good sign.”

North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Henry Gerson, 65, remembers being late for work on that fateful Tuesday morning 12 years ago - September 11, 2001.
The New York native was delayed because he had been recitingSlichot, the traditional prayers of repentance said between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
“I remember I entered the building at 8:47 [a.m.] and the lights flickered. And I thought, this is not a good sign.”
Gerson remembers that a wall of people suddenly came rushing at him, moving toward the exit. As he turned to follow, he spotted the Sbarro’s that used to occupy a space on the sublevel of one of the Twin Towers, which called to mind the bombing of Jerusalem’s Sbarro’s a month earlier, on August 9, 2001. That suicide attack killed 15 people.
“I remember thinking to myself [that] this couldn’t happen here,” Gerson said.
That was when he heard that a plane had hit the first Tower.
Gerson recalls rushing away as the second plane hit and running across Brooklyn Bridge with another observant Jew, a woman; they were both reciting Psalms. He was thinking that what was happening was “the hand of God.”
On Wednesday, which marked the 12th anniversary of 9/11, while most of New York seemed more absorbed in its mayoral race, Gerson and others at the World Trade Center observed the diminished crowds and seeming sense of apathy regarding the commemoration.
“That’s what happens,” Gerson mused, regarding the decline in the number of attendees. “Times goes on. The people directly affected will be here for years.”
As Gerson spoke, families of victims, identifiable by their blue lapel ribbons and dark sunglasses, were leaving the memorial service, which was not open to the press nor to the public. Nevertheless, the families’ supporters, some bearing posters and signs, stayed in Zuccotti Park, once the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in solidarity.
Linda Mula, 44, of Queens, returns each year with a new handmade poster honoring firefighter Michael Joseph Cawley, who “loved fishing, had a good family and volunteered at a camp for kids with special needs.”
Mula isn’t related to Cawley, she said, but she knows his family, and she comes every year so that “someone sees his picture and does something good in his name.”
Frank Gotlibowski, 45, of Rocky Hill, Connecticut, was carrying the same poster that he takes each year to commemorate Jeffrey D. Bittner, his late colleague. Both Mula and Gotlibowski said they weren’t bothered by the small turnout as much as by the police not letting bystanders stop at the NYPD barricades surrounding the ceremony and by the lack of loudspeakers that would have enabled people nearby to hear the reading of names of the deceased.
Mula recalls that in 2009, it was raining and she stood inside a department store three blocks away for shelter, but she could hear the ceremony. This year, “I couldn’t hear a thing.”
Another frustrated bystander was Greg Packer, 49, of Long Island. Packer said he has been coming to the site annually ever since the first anniversary and he was stunned by the change this year.
“Police starting telling people to move along,” he said. “It’s completely different from years past. We shouldn’t have that [change in] attitude.”
Away from Zuccotti Park and from the exiting stream of 9/11 families, fireman Thomas Dowdle, 59, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sat in full uniform, with medals and honors on his jacket. Dowdle said he has been serving as a firefighter for 35 years with the 33rd battalion, 118th company, and he plans to retire at the end of 2013.
Twelve years ago, he entered the North Tower and lost eight firefighters from the 118th that day.
He’s been on “light duty” ever since, after numerous surgeries.
“I still have a piece of glass in my eye,” he said. “It's behind the optic nerve; they can’t do anything about it.”
Ever since 9/11, Dowdle said, he has trouble sleeping in the days leading up to the anniversary.
“I lost a lot of friends that day,” he said. “I come here every year and I think, I can’t believe this happened.”
Dowdle said it was “weird” that The New York Times chose to exclude 9/11 coverage from its front page for the second year in a row.
“I check the papers every day,” he said. “It’s kind of sad.”
The new Freedom Tower stands today, gleaming in the sunlight, nearly completed and primed for its opening in spring 2014.
Just two blocks away from the stationed, unsmiling police and from the 9/11 truthers in their leather jackets, one can see tourists with cameras, businessmen rushing up and down Wall Street and parents taking children – born after September 11, 2001 – to school. Life goes on.