I first saw the smoke while crossing the Verrazzano Bridge.
It was a couple days after the collapse of the Twin Towers, and I was on my way back to New York.
I remember feeling strange inside, like my heart and mind were in combat, dread and nerves colliding before my first glimpse of the scene, as I drove over the bridge toward Brooklyn. And there it was, the smoke, off to the left. It was not a plume at that point, more of a heavy cloud blanketing the southern tip of Manhattan, shrouding the details of the awfulness behind it.
I was in the Midwest, a sports reporter on assignment for Newsday, when the planes hit.
At first, sitting in a hotel dining room in Chicago eating breakfast and watching a small TV screen perched high on a faraway wall, it was difficult to comprehend what was happening. Then, as the truth of that day became clear and the towers came crashing down, it was difficult to comprehend how so many people around me could seem so unaffected.
There were urgent phone calls home, first to my wife and then to my sister to make sure that her husband, who often worked in and around the World Trade Center, was OK. Then I canceled my appointment for later that morning and drove down to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to do an interview with a football player who also came from Long Island. It was comforting to see someone else who understood the pain.
By then, it was clear that flying home would not be possible. The airspace had been shut down, so I got in the rental car and drove to Long Island. The radio was filled with voices of confusion and fear and theories both sensible and wild, the highways flecked with rental cars bearing license plates from all over the country as people scrambled to get to wherever home was, all of us deliberately passing those signs about avoiding New York City.
And then, the smoke.
As the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks approaches on Saturday, each of us comes to the date with our own memories, our own tales of trauma, our own catalogs of loss.
We all have images we've stored away. For me it's the way the towers once pierced the blue sky, the long-ago trip to their 110th floor observation deck with my brother, 12 years my junior, buffeted by the wind as we gaped uptown and downtown and all around town, and much later that smoke, the monstrous pile of rubble, the flyers on the streets begging for information about loved ones, and the trips to the memorial that now occupies that hallowed space to gaze into the void of the reflecting pools and pay tribute to the names etched in bronze.
The images cross my mind at various times of most years. I suspect that's true for many New Yorkers who were alive that day. They gnaw more persistently as the date draws near.
It's important to have those memories, and healthy to recall them. We need to tell and retell our stories, not quash them; evoke what we remember, not hide it away.
There was so much lost that day, and since. And so much learned, and remembered. It's easy to measure the losses, harder to tally the gains.
We can hope we've honored the men and women who didn't make it through that day by keeping them in our hearts and minds and becoming better versions of ourselves. We can continue to be grateful for those who keep us safe before and after these calamities are unleashed.
And we can remember what we saw and what we felt, and hope we never see and feel that away again.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.