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Never forgetting, as if we could

Memories of 9/11 are fixed in the public consciousness, though the exact recollections seem to be a function of where and how someone witnessed the nightmare. Watching it outside our windows, close enough to cough on the dust after we felt the rumble of a tower collapsing, we at Restaurant Business had a Cinematic viewpoint. We knew that friends and family had likely died, as had all the members of our industry who worked in Windows on the World, the restaurant atop Tower One. We had just featured pastry chef Heather Ho on our pages. We assumed, rightly, that she was among the dead.

I promised myself that I’d never let a September 11 pass without writing about the horror and sorrow of that day. Letting time desensitize the memory is like opening one of those souvenir shops that peddle NYPD hats to tourists who want to see where a real-life “Die Hard” scene unfolded.

So forgive me if I take a detour from talking about restaurants, a business that was scarred along with everyone else 12 years ago. Today, I wanted to get personal, since the most telling memories from 9/11 are the ones that affected us intimately.

One of the most terrible moments, for instance, was our inability to contact a staff member’s sister-in-law who lived literally in the shadow of the Towers. Neither the woman’s husband nor our co-worker could raise her on her mobile phone, and she wasn’t in the apartment (the husband bulled his way back to check.) As the time passed, we on the staff steeled ourselves for the likelihood that the woman was dead. I remember rehearsing what I’d say to our colleague if her relative was indeed dead.

She would be found in a hospital about three days later, recovering from a blow to the head. Failing debris had knocked her out as she was walking the dog. The Golden Retriever was found a few days afterward in a veterinarian’s office, being treated for its own head injury.

Then there were the fighter planes that seemed to materialize in a flash over the skies—too quickly, many of us thought, to be our own defense craft. People were hugging the exterior f buildings in case those fears were justified.

Outside our building was a steady stream of people marching up from Ground Zero, covered in white powder, gratefully accepting offers of water from fellow pedestrians.

At the time, we were in a news blackout because of our location. No phones, no TV, and internet service that was too jammed with use to deliver any reports from the outside world. As far as we knew, the attacks were still underway.

My wife worked across the street from Penn Station and down the road from the Empire State Building, two obvious targets. Yet her office had managed to cadge a few pizzas from a shop nearby, and food became something you had to consider. I managed to coax her out of the building, ostensibly to get lunch, but no restaurant would serve us; they were hoarding food, not knowing when the next delivery would come.

So we camped in her office, the uptown outpost of the Thompson financial information service. Much of its operations were across the street from the World Trade Center towers. There was no word about how those people had fared. But, as we munched on pizza, they started showing up at the midtown office, saturated with dust, many crying. They were received with the most heartfelt hugs I’ve ever witnessed, because they were alive.

Eight people never showed. You’ll hear them remembered on today’s commemorations.

Because of Restaurant Business’ proximity to Ground Zero, our offices were shut for the remainder of the week. Before the National Guard soldiers would allow us inside, we figured out a way to sneak into the building and send an abbreviated version of the daily e-letter we published at the time.  It consisted of an explanation as to why readers wouldn’t be getting a transmission for awhile, and one three-paragraph story about how the New York restaurant industry had already rallied to feed the rescue workers at Ground Zero.

We received about three dozen e-mails, from as far away as Australia. All had the same message: “For God’s sake, just be safe.”

Meanwhile, the discoveries continued. Our managing editor was puzzled because he couldn’t reach a boyfriend, a computer consultant who did a lot of work for financial firms. We tried to take a positive view, speculating that the missing man was focused 24/7 on re-plugging customers’ computer systems back into the internet. Then our M.E. checked the last e-mail he’d received from Roy. It’d been sent from the guest log-in of Cantor Fitzgerald.

You’ll hear Roy’s name read at Ground Zero today, too.

Similar experiences would continue for months. The New York Times ran profiles of every victim. It wasn’t unusual for the people in the office to hear from distant friends or high school classmates who’d seen a profile on someone we’d known in common. Did I see that Bob Baierwalter was one of the victims? How about Timmy Coughlin? Or Tom Langone? You remember, he was that guy who went to high school with your sister? His bother worked in the post office?

But the surprises were sometimes like a Disney movie. On 9/11, I figured that the victims would certainly include Michael Lomonaco, the chef at Windows on the World, with whom I’d had dinner at a Culinary Institute of America event. We were looking for a house, and Michael had just found one in a New York suburb. He’d invited us to come see the place and scope out his new town. Now, I figured, he was dead, the result of showing up for work that day.

But the news would emerge that Michael stopped that day at an optician’s shop on one of the Tower’s ground because his new glasses were ready. He escaped unscathed.

There are so many emotion-laden other memories from that time: People passing cell phones around on the train, so ash-covered commuters whose batteries had died could let loved ones know they were safe. Or the day months later when a few dozen mobile phones, including mine, rang simultaneously on a crowded commuter train.  Everyone on the train looked at each other, fearing the worst. Sure enough, there was a new report of another airplane hijacking; family was calling to let us know, and to see where we were. It was, of course, a false report.

There’s no shortage of memories, for all of us. Today, and for as long as we live, it’s incumbent on us to recall those times so we, as an industry and a nation, never, ever forget.

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