The New York Times broke a story Tuesday about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The piece alleges that Bill Baroni, Chris Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority, gave out pieces of the wreckage from 9/11 to twenty mayors who were being wooed for their endorsement of Christie. Twisted steel, scorched metal, pieces of a moment in our country’s history that still brings tears to our eyes, used as souvenirs, “swag” if you will.
Normally, I would write with my usual snark, listing quotes, using links, proving how incredibly scummy this is. But I remember September 11, 2001. We all do. Many people believe this will be our generations’ JFK moment, like the Challenger accident. For many of us on the East Coast, it was a day filled with terror and loss, pain, anguish, rage, and sorrow that ate through our very bones. I want to tell you a story.
September 11, 2001, was a gorgeous day in northern Virginia. Clear blue sky, still a slight nip in the air, and the leaves were starting to transition from green to reddish gold. Driving from Sterling to Vienna in the always awful traffic, my son and I sang silly songs, laughing as we crawled along. I was the administrative assistant for Town and Country School of Vienna, and my son was a preschooler there. We pulled into the parking lot a little before 7:30, parked, and I walked him down to his classroom. After a kiss, and a quick chat with his teacher, I headed back to the office to grab my hand-held stop sign, and begin my morning routine of supervising drop-off. Waving at parents, greeting students, all while marveling at the beauty of the day.
I had my favorite parents, and my favorite students. Colonel Grant was one of the parents who always made me smile, and his children were a delight. We were also honored to have a United States congressman’s children attending, and he and I spent a few afternoons out on the grass, talking about politics. Colonel Grant worked in the Pentagon, with Special Forces. That day, just like all the others, that’s where he was.
At about 8:50 or so, my mom called. She told me a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. I was shocked and saddened, trying to figure out what could have gone wrong. But it was apparently a tragic accident, and there wasn’t anything I could do, so I went back to work. Less than half an hour later, she called back.
“Another plane hit the other tower,” she whispered.
“We’re under attack.”
I dropped the phone, asked the office manager to find a radio station, then went to pound on the door of our principal’s office. She opened the door, frowning at me. I pulled her into the hall.
“Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center. I think we’re under attack.”
She stared at me, and I could see her thinking. She nodded, turned, and explained to the parent with whom she was meeting they would have to reschedule. This was about 9:30. Seven minutes later, the Pentagon was hit.
That entire day was horrible. Children who were old enough to understand what had happened were hysterical, while teachers tried to keep the little ones calm and away from the horror. We went into lockdown, along with every other school in the area. Langley School evacuated and closed, due to their close proximity to the Pentagon. Colonel Grant’s kids clung to me, terrified their father was dead. When he walked into my office to pick them up, I hugged him so tightly, he told me I might have broken his ribs. A third grade girl found out her uncle was working in the World Trade Center. We all died a little inside.
Driving home was surreal. Everywhere I looked, drivers and passengers were pale, with red eyes, shell shocked. I didn’t know what to tell my son: how do you explain 9/11 to a three-year old? We got home, I fixed dinner, and refused to watch the news. We watched “Zoboomafoo,” my son laughing at the Kratt Brothers, while I just stared at the wall. After dinner, I noticed a group of people standing on a corner across from our condo. Some of them had candles, and they were singing. I grabbed a candle, lit it, took my son’s hand, and we walked over to the group. My son was so good; he didn’t really understand what was going on, but he was respectful and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at the top of his lungs. Several women, and a few men, hugged him and told me how proud I must be. It was an extraordinarily powerful and profound moment.
We organized a teddy bear drive, donated blood, the Washington Post published a full-page graphic of the American flag for people to cut out and tape to their windows. We mourned, we waited, we cried, and we wondered if America would ever be the same.
And in Hangar 17 at Kennedy Airport, fragments large and small, memories of the Twin Towers, rest alongside smashed firetrucks and crushed police cars. The physical evidence of 9/11, embedded with the ghosts and ashes of the dead. From this sacred place, Bill Baroni took pieces of our hell, and gave them away as political favors. What Bill Baroni did is shameful and utterly obscene. His actions border on sociopathic, especially given where he lives. Those are not just pieces of a building, they are pieces of our hearts. They are pieces of our trust, our sense of safety, and our lives. They do not belong to Bill Baroni, they belong to America. He had no right to use our collective pain as political bargaining chips.
On September 11, 2001, 2,977 people lost their lives because they went to work, or got on a plane. Over a decade later, Bill Baroni, a Chris Christie appointee, showed America exactly how much he cares about those 2,977 people.