9/11: 'There's not a day that we forget'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Ten years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Kevin Boyer of Maryland Heights still remembers vividly the moment he thought he was going to die.
Boyer and a co-worker had stood staring up at the raging fires and black smoke billowing from the top floors of the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center, about two blocks away. They had made it down safely from the 70th floor of the north tower -- a slow but orderly ordeal down a stairwell jammed with tense office workers on one side and anxious emergency workers in full gear dutifully trudging up the other.
"You would stand in one section for what seemed forever," he said.
Boyer and his co-workers with the New York Port Authority had wasted no time deciding what to do that morning after American Flight 11 slammed into the skyscraper, about 20 floors above them. He had just walked back to his desk with a cup of coffee when the plane hit at 8:46 a.m. EDT.
"The building was shaking. And somebody said, 'Everybody hold on.' It stopped shaking and they said, 'Let's go.' And we took off down the stairs," Boyer said.
"I can remember looking out the window and seeing pieces of plane and debris falling off the building."
It had taken them about 45 minutes to get out of the burning structure. Once on the street, they had found pay phones to call home. Then they doubled back to look for co-workers.
As they stood watching the horrible scene they had escaped, Boyer said he was beginning to grasp the gravity of the day's events: America was under attack by terrorists.
"I remember standing with my manager looking up at the buildings," Boyer said. "People were taking pictures and video. And he said, 'If that building falls we're all in trouble.' "
Boyer said he had turned and was facing the opposite direction when his co-worker shouted that the south tower was coming down.
"And then he just took off running. My instinct was to turn around and see it. By that time, everything just smacked me right in the face," he said.
Boyer ducked behind a concrete planter during the avalanche of dust and debris that engulfed the streets around the World Trade Center as 110 stories of invincibility collapsed before his eyes. In the choking darkness, he felt people next to him, on top of him. They were frightened, some crying. He thought he was going to die.
"You're so shocked at what just happened," he said. "Everybody was just running. They didn't know what to do."
During those long minutes, Boyer said he focused on his family — his wife and two daughters back home in St. Louis — and how the only thing that mattered was getting back to them.
As the dust storm calmed, Boyer said he pulled his shirt over his face but still couldn't breathe because the air was so thick.
"I remember getting up and all of a sudden I see these three little lights. And I'm trying to reach for the lights, thinking, 'What is that?' There was a tree in the planter and it had decorative lights. And I guess they came on when it got dark," he said. "Then I thought, 'I'm 44 years old. I'm from a small town in southern Missouri, what am I doing here? It's time to get up and get out of here because this is not good. Something else can happen.' "
Boyer got up and began to walk, though he had no clue where to go or how to get there. His hotel had been near the World Trade Center, and now he was separated from his co-workers with no phone and just $5 cash in his wallet. He would walk alone for most of the day, part of the forced evacuation of lower Manhattan.
"It just seemed like I was wandering around the whole time all by myself even though you're there with millions of other people," he said.
At one point, fighter jets flew over, adding to the panic on the street.
"I will always remember the people when those fighter jets flew over," Boyer said. "Everybody started screaming again. They thought we were being attacked by somebody else."
'Even Grief Recedes with Time'
A decade has passed since those ominous hours of Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans gathered in front of their television sets to watch the horror unfold:
8:46 a.m. EDT: a nameless, merciless enemy flies a hijacked passenger-filled airliner — American Flight 11— into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
9:03 a.m.: United Flight 175 crashes into the south tower.
9:40 a.m.: American Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon.
10:07 a.m.: United Flight 93 crashes in Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 men, women and children would die on U.S. soil that morning.
A decade later, the scenes still replay again and again and again in our brains:
A Boeing 767 piercing the south tower ... the mighty twin towers collapsing ... a charred and broken Pentagon ... a debris field in Pennsylvania and early reports of some unlikely heroes on Flight 93 who unbuckled their seatbelts and fought back.
Let's roll ...
In the days and weeks that followed, Americans stood together in their shock and grief, rolled up their sleeves at Red Cross blood drives and flew the Stars and Stripes from their front porches and businesses. Remember car flags?
It was a time of national unity — a defiant show of togetherness — even as Americans feared that life as they knew it had changed forever.
Nine days after the attacks, President George W. Bush announced a global war on terror that would eventually send U.S. military to Afghanistan and Iraq. But he also reassured his nation that life would go on.
"It is my hope that in the months and years ahead, life will return almost to normal," he said in his address. "We'll go back to our lives and routines, and that is good. Even grief recedes with time and grace."
A Message for the Generations
Ten years into the "new normal" of post-9/11 America, Boyer wonders if too much has already been forgotten about that day.
"Everyone seems to have their own agenda," he said. "I just think for some reason — and I don't know why — we seem to have lost the ability to govern our country. Our political leaders seem to have lost the ability to lead."
Boyer fears that the nation's airports are still vulnerable, despite the efforts and new technology of security screening.
His wife, who waited in agony to hear from her husband on Sept. 11, gets frustrated when she hears Americans complaining about the safety precautions.
"People have forgotten what it was like," said Linda Boyer, her eyes filled with tears. "They just kind of look back and say, 'That was then, and this is now. We don't have to worry about that.' "
She recalls traveling to Florida with their grandson, then 18 months old, and being asked to remove his shoes by an airport security screener.
"Did we get angry? No. Because we've been there. The people behind you grumble and complain the whole time. I just want to turn around and say, 'Do you see this man? He almost died.' I think they've forgotten."
Linda Boyer said it is understandable that people are worried about their own lives.
"And it is a hard time because people are losing their jobs," she said. "But still, you need to remember that a lot of people died for no reason."
Boyer, now 54, says several things still stand out in his mind about those grueling hours after the twin towers collapsed.
"It was such a sad day," he said, his voice choking. "And I felt so alone the whole day. I couldn't call anybody. I had made one call home, and I couldn't do it again for six hours. Both buildings fell, and my family didn't know what was going on. If I could have contacted anybody, they could have at least let my family know."
He estimates that he had walked several miles before he heard the shouts that the north tower — where he had worked — was also falling down.
"Later that night they were talking about sending in rescue crews, and I was thinking, 'l don't see how anybody could still be alive in there.' A 110-story building doesn't fall and you have people who are still alive. Which ended up being true. It was very sad," he said.
While some survivors prefer not to discuss their experiences, Boyer accepts it as his duty. He said he accepts invitations from schools because young Americans need to know what happened. And he believes that survivors have a different perspective than those who watched the aftermath on TV.
"It brought everyone else together," he said. "It brought a lot of fear to us."
But he also remembers many acts of kindness from strangers on the streets of New York: Use of a telephone to call home. A drink of water. A place to clean up a bit and wash off the thick coating of dust that clung to his face and clothing. The sign on an office door in Brooklyn that said "Come in. We can help."
"As we walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, a man had bought a case of bottled water, and he was handing out water from the trunk of his car to people as they walked across the bridge," Boyer said. "It was a nice hot day, and everybody was pretty exhausted. That was his way of helping."
Boyer said he emphasizes those stories when speaking to school kids.
"I try to get kids to think about me being from St. Louis and all the people who tried to help me who didn't know me. They just knew that I needed help. That's something you should do. If you see somebody who needs help, you don't have to know them. They don't have to be the same color, the same race, the same religion as you. They don't have to be your next-door neighbor. They need help, and you should do whatever you can to help them out."
Boyer recalls speaking to his daughter's high school class shortly after he returned home following the attacks. He shared a message with them that he still believes.
"I said, 'You guys are going to be the generation that fights terrorism. You should remember everything about that day.' "
'there's Not a Day That We Forget'
In the 10 years since Sept. 11, life has gone on for Boyer and his family.
He is still a consultant for the New York Port Authority, working from home and commuting to New York several times a year. His youngest daughter, Katy — then a freshman in high school — is now 24 and engaged. Oldest daughter, Marissa Harper, is a teacher and mother of two. Kevin and Linda Boyer enjoy babysitting their grandchildren.
Several years ago Boyer had emergency heart surgery — another brush with death, he said.
After 9/11, Boyer said he coughed up a lot of dust, but doctors have found no long-term evidence of physical damage related to the events that day. For a time, he found himself reacting emotionally to news about Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind who engineered the attacks, but that intense reaction waned through the years as the leader of al-Qaida became nearly invisible.
When he heard that Navy Seals had killed bin Laden, Boyer said he took the news in stride.
"I turned to my wife and said, 'Well, it's about time.' Maybe it's hard to find one person in this great big world, but it seemed like it took a long time to take care of that."
He believes that killing and burying the terrorist at sea was the best course of action.
"I don't really support the death penalty, but I don't see any other way. Could you imagine if you brought him back for trial? People would've been trying to get him out the whole time. It probably would've made things worse for everybody."
Boyer said he and his co-workers were encouraged by doctors to speak about their experiences and to write a journal. He doesn't dwell on Sept. 11, but he will never forgot what he witnessed that day in New York.
He still has the clothes he wore to work on that pretty September morning: black slacks, a wrinkled white shirt stained with someone else's blood — and dress shoes that were worn-out from the miles he walked on that very long day. The clothes are in the same plastic sack from the store in Brooklyn where he bought a change of clothing the next day.
"For some reason they just sit in the same spot in the corner of my closet. Every couple of years someone will ask, 'Can I see the clothes?' " he said. "When I clean out my closet, I just lay them down and then throw them back up in the corner."
Through the years, the dust that once clung to the clothes has fallen away, but those slacks, shirt and shoes remain Boyer's physical connection to a day that is now world history.
Linda Boyer said that, as time has passed, fewer people know that her husband survived the World Trade Center attacks.
"A lot of people say, 'We didn't know that' when they find out. It's not like we advertise it. He survived. You just kind of go on with life," she said, adding. "But there's not a day that we forget about it."