Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9/11: A journalist looks back on day of terror


Ryan Songalia is a contributing writer for GMA News Online. He is also a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a writer for the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City.

In this article, he shares what he experienced as a teenager in the United States on September 11, 2001, when a series of four coordinated suicide attacks were carried out in New York City and Washington D.C. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.

I wasn't one of the unlucky souls whose lives were cut short tragically on 9/11, nor did I lose any relatives that day. Still, my life was deeply impacted, and truthfully, it has never been the same.

I was 14 years old at the time and was living in Union City, New Jersey. My house on Mountain Road overlooked New York City's Financial District, with the Twin Towers jutting out prominently from the skyline.

I had just moved into that third-floor apartment months earlier with my Mom and remember explicitly thinking how enviable my view from the outer deck was.

The morning of September 11, 2011 was supposed to be my first day of sophomore year of high school. I woke up early, had my chicken cutlet sandwich ready to go and waited for the bus. It was supposed to arrive at 8:00 a.m. but it never came.

At around 8:30 a.m., I walked to the board of education office to ask why my bus never came, but upon arriving I found that no one was in the mood to discuss transportation.

Everyone in the office at Emerson High School were transfixed to the television set, watching the horrific images as they played out. The people speaking in the office all were hopeful that it was an accident, however unlikely it seemed.

I left immediately and headed home, unsure if my mother, who worked just around the block from the World Trade Center at the World Cafe at 50 Trinity Place, had gone to work. I peered in her room and was glad to find her fast asleep.

By the time I had turned on the TV to follow news updates, it had become very clear that this was no accident. The second plane had hit, and suddenly my chest began to sink.

Until that point in my life, I hadn't really been affected by any traumatic world event in my life. I still remember that UPN was the last TV station playing non-WTC coverage.

I stepped out onto the patio to see the towers, and quickly retreated inside. That was the last time I ever saw the towers erect with my own eyes. I woke my mother up to tell her what happened and she immediately ran out of the house to check on friends who worked in the World Trade Center area.

I left too, and headed to my sanctuary, the Cliffside Park, NJ library. I jumped on a bus but was the only passenger. The driver had the radio tuned to the Spanish talk radio station, which I assumed was covering the attacks.

Almost near our destination, the radio started blaring out of control. I didn't know what was being said but the bus driver informed me that he had to leave now and that I had to get out.

I didn't know what happened until I walked past an elementary school and overheard a female teacher tearfully informing the schoolchildren of the news over a loud speaker. The first tower had just collapsed.

That night was the loneliest night of my life. I stayed at home watching news coverage by myself as my Mom had not yet returned from checking up on friends.

After sunset, I decided to walk the streets just to be around people. My neighborhood was almost exclusively Hispanic in makeup but I recall hearing someone playing "Only Time" by Enya from a radio out of the window.

For weeks, the smell of burning filled the air from across the Hudson River to my apartment. It aggravated my asthma and caused me to fall ill.

I became depressed, as the feeling of security that I enjoyed growing up was gone. And so was the innocence of my childhood. I felt dead inside, depressed and hopeless. I couldn't sleep as the images played over and over in my head.

Ironically, the one thing that helped me cope best was listening to "The Howard Stern Show." Unlike other shows like Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, Stern never strayed too far from his usual gimmick of being a jerk on the radio.

It may not have been the most appropriate considering the events but it was in a way therapeutic to know that Stern was still Stern.

It took at least a year for me to snap out of the cloudy feeling that overtook my body, the lack of clarity that led me to choke on feelings that I wouldn't let out.

Ten years later, one thing that I feel certain about is that, at least for me, the world will never regain the sense of rosiness it once had.

As a journalist, I'm supposed to detach myself from world events that I may end up covering but I'll admit that at least one corner of my mouth was raised when news came in of Osama Bin Laden's death.

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