9/11 Virginia Willis

9/11 and the War of Terror

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9/11 Virginia Willis

In 2010 when I initially wrote this post, I hadn’t written a word about my experiences on 9/11 and hardly ever spoke of it. I couldn’t watch reports on TV — and still can’t. I’ve tweaked and re-posted this piece every year since I wrote it. The photo of my sister above was shot mere days before 9/11. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 16 years. My dear friend that sheltered me when I couldn’t leave Manhattan was pregnant at the time and her daughter is applying for her driver’s license next month. This friend and I are in constant contact and still very close, but on the anniversary of this day there’s always a special moment, a special memory with a call or text telling one another that we love each other.

Each and every year I am struck with sadness and fear. I suffered no real personal tragedy on 9/11 — I had no loved ones killed or maimed. I was caught in the mess of it all for a brief period of time, and it was a significant moment in my life, but in comparison to the tragedy so many others experienced, mine pales in comparison. Still, I am mournful that so many lost their lives. Even more so I am sad because this date is what changed the world as I know it. War on Terror? More like a war of terror.

This is the day that unleashed hate. It unleashed the hatred of radical terrorism on the United States and it is the day that unleashed the hatred of millions of Americans onto others. As the buildings fell fear was set loose like a dark and deadly plague onto and into our country, a pervasive poison that has seeped into nearly every corner and crevice of our existence.

This is the day that has emptied billions and billions of dollars from US coffers fighting wars that seem to have no end. This is the day that eventually killed thousands of young men and women fighting for the United States, and left children without parents, mothers without sons, fathers without daughters. This is the day that filled the trucks with gas that mowed down innocent people along the beach in France and on the esplanade in Barcelona. This is the day that instigated us barring helpless, vetted refugees from war-torn countries. This is the day that eventually pulled the trigger that shot and killed Hindu engineers having a beer at a strip mall in Kansas. This is the day that started the sinking of ships in the Mediterranean and caused lifeless toddlers to wash ashore on sandy beaches.

This is the day that the doors were shut, the gates were closed. This was the day that became Us vs Them — and it is a day all the more tragic because so many people don’t understand exactly who makes “them” and “us.”

My day in NYC on 9/11

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning. I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy. We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living. 

I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant cerulean blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty, dented cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

At that point 9/11 was just another day. I walked this walk every day —  most often amazed, looking skyward at those tall twin towers across the river directly in my sight. I lived nearly exactly parallel to the WTC on the west side of the Hudson River and they were a compass point. 

The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute of the deadly attack in the days and weeks to come. It turns out that my disgust and  irritation at the debris saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower. 

Often I would take the PATH from Jersey City to the WTC and then change on the subway to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.I’ve thought about that quite a bit in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC. I could have been right in the middle of it. By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station on 40th Street the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower. I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet.

Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, then the White House. The host of my series, Epicurious TV on the Discovery Channel, Michael Lomonaco was the Executive Chef at Windows on the World. His phone wasn’t answering. We didn’t know where he was. 

From the office, I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay. But, the offices were located in Times Square and which actually didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US and NYC was under attack, Times Square might be next. So, we walked down 25 floors of the winding dimly lit stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It simply seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down. I couldn’t get back across the river. I couldn’t go home.

I  started walking southeast from Midtown. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. It gave me chills. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying. 

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone. Just gone.

As I walked South, people flooded North, escaping the bedlam. I kept walking further south, then east. It was only three miles, but it felt like 100. I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment on 5th Street on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I took my shoes off and waited on the stoop. Seems like I remember now that my shoes were new and my feet were blistered. At the time it seemed unimportant and now, I am not certain.

My cell couldn’t call out, it was silent, but somehow a friend and colleague Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay. She called home for me. 

My friend arrived and we quietly walked up the stairs. We then watched the news, silently weeping, watching the horror, the live images, the flying shreds of paper, the dust, the people — the absence of survivors, of people — trying, all the while, to keep the children occupied in the other room.

We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I didn’t care about what might happen to me. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. My friend didn’t want me to leave. I wanted to go home. We kissed, we cried, and cell phone dead, I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a cavernous movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more noise. No radios. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. No people. The avenues were wide, empty, and desolate. An occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood. I could hear sirens in the distance. It was dreamlike and surreal.

9/11 Virginia Willis

I walked North through Union Square where two candles flickered, the very beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.The 14th station was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd. Finally, success. The station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was muted and paralyzed  in fear and shock.

We crossed under the river to Hoboken because the my regular stop, the Grove Street Station was closed. As we pulled into the station evacuees from lower Manhattan stood mute draped in black plastic garbage bags. There was no white, black, or brown. I couldn’t tell the difference between anyone. Each and every person was covered in ash and grey soot, their eyes open wide with fear. 

I don’t remember how I got home from the station. It’s completely blank. I do remember in the days and weeks following, how the city and entire nation pulled together. Chefs fed hungry first responders, fire fighters and police from across the nation traveled to Ground Zero to help with the search first for survivors, then for casualties.

As evidenced by after 9/11 and as recent as the destruction in Houston from Harvey or literally this very day, with Irma, in times of fear and suffering, we pull together. In times of trouble, it is our human nature it seems to initially, at least, to pull together regardless of color, race, or creed.

Just for a moment on this day, please consider what “Us vs Them” means to you. Is your “Them” determined by their politics? Red state vs blue state? Their faith? The color of their skin? Their country of origin? There are a lot of fine and decent people in this world with goodness in their heart and we don’t all look, sound, or even think alike.

I’d like to end this war of terror, the one that splits and divides us.

Peace be with you. Tell someone you love them. 


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Please note that this post may contain affiliate links.

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained chef Virginia Willis has foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and executed the food styling for a Super Bowl commercial seen by over 160 million people. She is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and chef for Food Network Kitchen. Virginia lost 65 pounds and has kept if off for over 3 years. Her health journey has been documented in Eating Well, as a cover story for Woman’s World, Allrecipes, and AARP. Virginia has embraced her new outlook on life and has become a cheerleader for those wanting to make their own life changes, “If a French-trained Southern chef can do it, you can, too!” Her cookbooks include Fresh Start: Cooking with Virginia My Real Life Daily Guide to Healthy Eating and Weight Loss; Secrets of the Southern Table, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Alex vs America, The Rachel Ray Show, Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Virginia has also been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52. She has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. Fans love her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and Good and Good for You Living, a real life health and wellness approach for mind, body, and spirit that includes food, fun, and fitness at www.virginiawillis.com

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