2009-09-11 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

This column originally appeared as From The Editor's Desk in the September 15, 2001 issue of The Wave. I reread it this week, and thought that I would like to share it with you on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

I never thought that I would see the day when F-14 Tomcats from Navy aircraft carriers would be flying combat air patrols over our city, but that day has come.

Just as it was nearly 40 years ago, when word of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy came over the television wires, the memories of Tuesday's tragedy will be made up of vignettes, snatches of memory, real and perceived.

In November of 1963, my ship, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard undergoing a major refit. I took the subway home to Wavecrest Gardens, turned on the television set and heard, "The president then slipped down in the seat of his car." "Damn," I remember thinking, "he must have hurt his back again."

It was only then that I heard that he was shot. Like others, I was glued to the television set that weekend.

On Sunday morning, I was at the Woodmere Bowling Alley, bowling in the Knights of Pythias League with my father. It was between frames and I was in the lounge drinking a coke and watching the tube when Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, live and in living black and white.

Those memories remain almost forty years later.

So will these memories. I got to The Wave office and heard the news that an airliner had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

"Damn," I thought. "How did an airliner get so far off course."

I turned on the police scanner to the citywide Emergency Services frequency.

"Central, we are under attack here," the disembodied voice practically screamed. "Tell them to close the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks, we are under terrorist attack."

Only minutes later, the second plane flew directly into the other World Trade Center building and made it clear that we were at war.

The memories of this disaster will also come, in time, as vignettes.

I'll remember forever getting a call from my police sergeant son to come and take my grandson so that he could report to Manhattan and get on with doing his job. While he did not want to talk about what he saw there, he would later say. "I saw things that I never thought that I would ever see."

I'll remember forever, getting a call from my daughter, who works for a Jewish organization in Manhattan that her building had just been evacuated and she was going to attempt to "walk out of Manhattan."

She eventually walked from 55th and Lexington, joined "thousands of people" who were walking over the 59th Street Bridge and then several miles to Woodhaven Boulevard before she could get transportation to Rockaway. Because cell phones were not working and because there were few working pay phones and they were mobbed, she was out of touch for several hours and the wait was interminable. To a certain extent, I was more worried for her than for my son, who I knew was close by the collapsing, smoldering buildings.

There are thousands of stories such as hers and those who lived them will remember them forever.

I'll never forget walking up on the boardwalk at Beach 87 Street and seeing the aircraft carrier that bear's Kennedy's name, "The Big John," standing off Rockaway, ready to repeal unwanted and deadly aircraft.

I'll never forget the first word I got that the Broad Channel Volunteer rig that responded to the scene at the first call had been flattened by the falling tower.

There was no word of the volunteers who manned the rig, however, for several hours until they turned up in a New Jersey Hospital, safe but plagued with broken bones and abrasions.

I'll never forget the scenes of the local precinct setting up barriers to close off the Cross Bay Bridge. To my mind, that brought home more than anything else the way that terrorists could close up a city and make it afraid for its very survival.

I'll never forget the quick feeling of fear at 10 p.m. at night when, at home, we heard aircraft flying over the building. After a tinge of fear, I looked out and saw a large military Skylifter flying over, obviously bringing the National Guard military police battalion and its equipment into JFK.

I'll never forget the anger I felt when I heard on the police scanner that a group of young men were attacking Arab shopkeepers on Rockaway Beach Boulevard nearby Beach 116 Street. The disaster was obviously not their doing and they were being targeted simply because of who they were.

I'll never forget my growing sadness as the list of those Rockaway residents who were "missing" grew from one to two, to many. There is not a community in this city, indeed, in this nation, that was not touched by the attack on New York City.

I'll never forget the electric sign on the Long Island Expressway at Queens Boulevard that simply said, "Manhattan is Closed."

I'll never forget the scenes of the Palestinians dancing in the streets of Nablus, celebrating the attack. Perhaps they are the first that should be attacked in retaliation. It is hard to dance without any legs.

I'll never forget the story of mayoral candidate Mike Bloomberg, quietly and without public notice, setting up his office building to care for firefighters, police and EMS workers, serving food, providing telephones and a place to get away from the horror for a moment.

I'll never forget the story of the drug store owner on Queens Boulevard who stood outside his store, handing out free bottles of water to people who were attempting to walk out of Manhattan.

It was only the day after the attack that I focused on the cancelled primary election, an election that had been my primary focus in the past week or so. It is amazing how my interest in the election paled next to what had happened on the day many are now calling "911," after the date and the emergency number.

Everybody will have their own memories of "911 Day," just as those who were alive at the time remember where they were and what they thought on December 7, or the day that Roosevelt died (my first "political" memory), or the day Kennedy was killed.

Those memories will live forever, and so will the stories of heroism and giving.

What happened on "911 day" will forever become part of the fabric of America.

It has always been so when America is faced with death and disaster.

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