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Opinion: United We Stood As 9/11 Responders Toiled And Families Searched

Recovery workers head to ground zero in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Langevin Jacques
Sygma via Getty Images
Recovery workers head to ground zero in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

My wife and I would go down to Canal Street in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks to join in the cheers for the rescue and recovery workers heading to or from the wreckage at ground zero. The city had cordoned off blocks of Lower Manhattan, and the crowd in the streets around us seemed to number in the thousands. We saw people wave American flags, Yankees caps, and hand-lettered signs: "OUR HEROES," "WE WILL NEVER FORGET," and "I LOVE NEW YORK MORE THAN EVER."

Another kind of crowd surrounded us, too. They were faces on sheets of paper, taped up on storefronts and streetlamps, of people shown in photos from weddings, birthday parties and summer barbecues, on signs that asked, "Have you seen this person? She is my wife" or "He is our father" or, "She is our neighbor," all of them adding, "Last seen, morning of September 11, 2001. Please call. Please help."

Trucks would pull up to the barricades, carrying workers in dark, heavy emergency gear, and in the blue helmets of police, black helmets of firefighters, the yellow, white and silver helmets of street, sanitation, and construction crews.

We had probably walked right past workers like those in our daily lives. Those nights along Canal Street, we saw them. The crowds cheered and clapped as they rolled into ground zero to search for those few who might still be alive and to dig out, with reverent and respectful hands, those many more who were now among the wreckage that smoldered there.

And when their trucks rolled out, after 10 and 12 hours of grueling work in a nightmare landscape, their faces looked dark, soiled and drawn. People called out, "thank you," and "bless you."

The 9/11 hijackers might have thought they would strike at the heart of America's financial and military power. But what we saw on those nights along Canal Street was a dazzling diversity of humanity — a living artwork of New York, of America, brought together in pain, pride and often prayer, on a street near where the city had an aching, smoking wound.

In time, the country's fissures opened back up and deepened. But my wife and I tell our children about those crowds along Canal Street, those moments in which so many saw America's astounding diversity and unity as an answer to those who took the twin towers from the skyline.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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