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What we owe those lost on 9/11

A World Trade Center tower collapses on 9/11.

A World Trade Center tower collapses on 9/11. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Doug Kanter

Lately I have been noticing how frequently "9:11" is displayed when I look at the time. I realize there are only two times a day when this happens, but given how often I unlock my phone or look at a clock, why do these three numbers seem to stare back at me more than others? I have thought about this a lot as the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack approached and wonder if it could mean anything beyond sheer coincidence?

So many of us knew someone who died or was forever impacted by that day. That morning, under a clear blue sky, I emerged at Penn Station from my Long Island Rail Road commute from Smithtown, and after a quick subway ride, I walked the block toward my office on Broadway off 44th Street. I grabbed a coffee, met a colleague and exchanged happy "good mornings." I noticed people staring at the Times Square Jumbotron.

A video showed smoke billowing from a World Trade Center tower. A fire engine sped past us on Broadway, sirens blaring. Seconds later, we saw what turned out to be a second airplane crashing into the other tower. Our eyes locked for a second, unsure of what we had just witnessed. We entered our building, and the rest of the day unfurled in a surreal blur.

When I reached my office, I realized what had happened. Televisions were tuned to the coverage of the burning towers. We could simultaneously see the actual smoke from our south-facing windows. Then the horrible moments came when the towers fell. Colleagues watching on TV screamed. The smoke overtook our view from downtown. A short time later, we were ordered to evacuate.

With Penn Station closed, I walked with a colleague to another co-worker’s apartment on East 57th Street. Fighter jets flew above. Cellphone service came to a halt. Two hours later, I took the E train to Jamaica, where a midafternoon LIRR train awaited. The seats were filled, so I stood between cars. One man was caked from head to toe in ash from the towers. He stared ahead blankly. Not a word was spoken by a single passenger during the 90-minute trip.

When I finally arrived home, I hugged my wife and kids. My neighbor across the street came home a bit later, and I watched him exit his car. He was caked in ash like the LIRR rider. I went to check on him, and he broke down crying over what he experienced. I called my parents to let them know I was OK. My mom told me that Matthew O’Mahony — a Cantor Fitzgerald bond trader in the north tower — had died in the attack. He was a younger brother of one of my childhood friends who grew up around the corner in Centereach.

I called two of my closest friends, one an NYPD detective and another an FDNY captain. They both lived in Huntington and worked near the towers. Thankfully, they were off that day. Both men spent most of the following weeks at Ground Zero, and the captain eventually developed Parkinson’s disease from breathing in the toxic dust. As this anniversary approached, I thought of him and his wife and family, who have endured all this with dignity. I also think of O’Mahony — "Matty O" — and his family and friends, who mourn him to this day. And I think of the weeks after the attack, when there was a true sense of unity, resolve, patriotism and support among all New Yorkers and throughout our country. It was a fleeting Camelot moment, one that now seems so far away.

So maybe the meaning of the "9:11" appearing is a nudge. A nudge from the nearly 3,000 souls we lost. A nudge to remind us how we treated one another in the weeks after the attack. A nudge to encourage us, in their memory, through whatever small gestures we can muster, to recapture that unity. We owe them that, at the very least.

Reader Dan Martinsen lives in Westhampton Beach.