For Montclair Local

Nearly 20 years ago, a major terrorist attack happened in our own backyard, resulting in profound loss of life, devastating economic consequences and that which have cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives — wars that created the very acute and serious challenges we’re bearing witness to in Afghanistan today.

But we also witnessed the best of who we are as a species and as a country. Those of us old enough to remember, remember the beautiful, neighborly camaraderie that persevered in the days following the attack. Never have I felt so connected to and in the care of complete strangers, neighbors. The desire to serve, to rebuild, to thrive was underpinned by an unshakable foundation of hope and belief in what we as a nation were capable of.

Many of us also remember how quickly that glimpse into what humanity could be like evaporated as we returned to our consumption economy with our heads down and factions forming. 

But what has remained constant is the spirit of service and selflessness that our first responders demonstrated back in 2001 and demonstrate on the job today.

I was 21 at the time. After watching the attacks on TV and catching my mother as she literally fell to the ground in complete despair for the city we were born in and all of our fellow Americans who died, I boarded a train (against her wishes) for New York City, determined to help. For two days, I worked alongside first responders – first, transporting supplies from hospitals and Chelsea Piers to ground zero and then working the supply depot, organizing supplies and passing out shovels, gloves, flashlights, hardhats and first aid kits to hundreds of first responders working in and around “the pile.”

I probably saw too much and frankly and honestly, have struggled with some post-traumatic anxiety and some mild respiratory issues ever since. And that was just two days. I can’t imagine the depth of trauma those at “the pile” experienced over the weeks and months.

While I was in this war zone, I saw heroes. I saw countless, completely exhausted people walking past the pop-up McDonald’s and back into the pile. I saw dead bodies and people with severe injuries. I saw men and women with their faces covered in soot with tear streaks on the cheeks and bloodshot eyes.

Growing up, I looked up to comic book superheroes. But it was this experience following 9/11 that showed me the real ones. When you agree to take that job and put that uniform on — whether you’re a cop, EMT, firefighter, doctor, nurse or any other first responder — you’re signing up to be exposed to trauma and to put your life at risk. Clearly, these last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been proof of this once again.

On this 20th anniversary, we mourn the loss of the nine Montclairions who lost their lives that day as well as all those around Essex County, the state of New Jersey and the country. Their children, spouses and loved ones are in our thoughts and prayers. I salute the continued bravery of those who have dedicated their lives to protecting us then and today. 

Peter Yacobellis is a Montclair Township councilman at-large.


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