I’m 34 today, which means I was 14 when 9/11 happened in 2001.

I’m one of the luckier New Yorkers from that day. I’m here and my immediate family is still alive too, but it’s taken me about 20 years to be able to piece together what that day, the days that followed, and the entire course of life that followed means to me and those that I love.

Like many others who grew up in that time, for some it meant deployment, for others it meant guilt, many others fear, and for too many, an excess of hatred and confusion about the world.

There are probably five things I remember from the morning.

  1. I remember the high school clown/bully/moron running around campus saying something along the lines of “the terrorists blew up New York” around 9AM. It wasn’t out of character for him to say such stupid things, so I just assumed it was one of his more heinous little outbursts, and not a statement of fact.
  2. Shortly thereafter, my classmates started getting pulled out of history class. At the time no one knew why. Sadly, I now know their parents were in the Twin Towers, and not all of them were able to ever see each other again.
  3. Directly after that first class of the day, we were sent to the main auditorium, where we were informed that we were going home, something awful had happened and that our parents would tell us more.
  4. Fox News. Apolitically, I will forever remember watching the tragedies unfold over and over again on repeat. To this day, my mom wishes I hadn’t seen them in that way, but I did, and they mark a memory. It was one of the first times the world watched chaos and tragedy unfold in realtime, visually.
  5. The busy tone. My dad took the subway via the World Trade Center every morning, and we weren’t able to connect for what felt like many hours, but could’ve been just one or two hours, to know he was ok. I think everyone in New York experienced that dial tone overload that day.

Once it became clear what happened, my life was forever changed, but not nearly as much as for others. My memories thereafter are the ones I hold onto.

I remember our high school soccer team matches being cancelled on Long Island, more than 25 miles away from the World Trade Center, because of the asbestos in the air. I remember smelling the towers for weeks. If there’s anything I wish I could forget in life, it’s probably this smell.

I also remember sports.

I remember Mike Piazza and the Mets wearing NYFD and NYPD hats and jackets, just 10 days after the horror and how they played on. They played the Yankees in the most emotional game of baseball in the history of the world on September 21st, 2001.

That lead to my first feeling of true fear as a young adult, just a couple months later. I went to one of the first pro sports events back at the Garden, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if someone was going to harm me.

It’s not lost on me that not feeling that fear until such an age is privilege in many parts of the world, but I remember it all the same.

The day changed the lives of so many around us too. We, as a family, knew people who died. We also knew many with narrow escapes, and others who could no longer sit on the sidelines.

One of my very best friends, who was 13 at the time, was visiting that week before, and flew home the day before 9/11. He became a US Special Forces Operator for the Navy and actively serves to this day. It breaks my heart and makes me so proud at the same time.

Earlier this year, we were finally able to talk about the events with clarity, saying to each other that we together, experienced our last week of innocence. It’s a crazy thing to reflect on. In just one day, we went from goofy dumb suburban kids to something else forever.

We were just stupid suburban white kids who wanted to be on BET with Master P at the time. We didn’t know that our goofy and privileged way of living was on limited time, or that people reviled it so much. Once that changed, it changed forever.

Talking to my dad this week, I was amazed to be reminded of how courageous and strong it made New York, not that it wasn’t already. He and his co-workers defiantly went into the office the very next day. Reflecting now, I have so much respect for that.

Seeing the horrifyingly botched exit from Afghanistan brought all the feelings of the last 20 years stirring up to the surface. I feel for everyone involved. I feel for those who didn’t want to be involved, but are – and I’m grateful for everyone who tried to make the world a better place.

I’ll always remember that day and all those who were lost. Looking to the present and future, I’ll smile though, because 20 years on, New York bends for no one. Seeing the great city come back to life this summer filled my heart with joy.

I’ll never be able to stop through or fly out without honoring those who aren’t able to witness it, but i’ll always find joy in how resilient the city as a place, and the people as its residents are. How can 20 years still feel so fresh? 9/11, we’ll never forget.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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