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Who can predict — or prevent — what triggers a memory? High heels. A handkerchief. A string of rosary beads. For those who witnessed the attacks of Sept. 11 up close, or for those who watched the horror unfold on television screens from afar, it could be sights, smells, words, or sounds that immediately call to mind that incongruously bright Tuesday morning of loss and lingering grief. The Inquirer’s Opinion Team asked residents of the Philadelphia region to share their recollections of 9/11 and the everyday objects that unfailingly bring them back to that day.

The Inquirer strives to present a diverse range of views from a wide variety of writers on our opinion platforms. Our goal is to elevate civic — and civil — discourse.

Interviews by Abraham Gutman, Elena Gooray, and Erica Palan. Quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

My dad was older, born in 1935, and he always carried a handkerchief in his back pocket. When I was a kid, the handkerchief would come out to wipe my nose, or clean my hands or wipe sweat from my forehead while I was playing.

In my mind, it became the story of my dad always having the handkerchief to help his family.

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. September 11th, 2001, was my second day of high school. I remember it being a really beautiful day, unlike the very rainy day before. I think it was my first-period English class when a kid came running down the stairs yelling “Kamikaze.”

Our teacher turned on the television. We were all sitting and just watched for a while. At some point he said that if any student needed to call anyone, if we had family down there, we could go to the main office. My parents ran a music program for infants and toddlers and they had just opened a studio in Tribeca — a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I thought to myself, “They’re probably not there.” As the morning started to unfold, I got very worried. I went down to the office and tried to call them but couldn’t get through.

Ultimately my parents hitched a ride uptown, covered in dust, and picked me up. We got home and they told us what happened.

They were evacuated from the subway, and started walking to their Tribeca studio. By this time, the towers were hit. Suddenly, a cop appeared and told them to run for their lives. They dropped all the instruments and everything they were carrying and started running. As the towers imploded, a ton of debris and smoke came down on them. My mom said that she couldn’t even see her hand right in front of her face.

In my recollection of that story, it was always that my dad gave my mom his handkerchief to put over her face to help stop the smoke. But talking to my mom, 20 years later, it was actually my mom telling my dad to take out his handkerchief and use it himself.

My dad passed away in 2016 of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is a lung disease most of the first responders and firefighters have suffered from. It probably helped my personal narrative — my dad giving a little bit of his life to my mom while the world was crumbling around them. But it was my mom, as always, looking after him. At the end of the day, it’s also just a handkerchief that he held over his nose.

I mostly carry a handkerchief in my back pocket as well. Now that I have kids, I pull it out and use it with them when I can. It reminds me of my dad and of that day — a mixture of happy and sad.

— Sebastian Weinberg, Philadelphia

It was Fashion Week, one of the most fabulous times of the year [for a fashion and beauty journalist]. I was in New York City to cover it for a national magazine as well as one of my hometown papers.

When I got to Bryant Park there were hundreds of members of the press. We were all standing in line, waiting to get our seating assignment for the fashion show.

All of a sudden, security personnel started frantically running all over the place, saying that a plane hit the World Trade Center tower. Barricades went up. We didn’t know what was going on. People poured onto the streets from office buildings. It was madness. People were running and pushing and knocking each other to get out of the way. Grown men were crying. It was devastating.

Meanwhile, I was dressed in a beautiful peacock pink striped dress and I had on pink skinny stiletto shoes.

In all the commotion, I lost my eyeglasses. I had to get off my stilettos and take off my bra. I put them in my backpack, and got into reporter mode. I headed down to Macy’s to get a pair of reading glasses and sneakers.

After that I didn’t take life for granted anymore. When I got back to Philadelphia, I proposed to my boyfriend. I called my brother who was a minister, and I told him, “Be at my home next Friday, I want you to marry us.”

— Cheryl Ann Wadlington, Philadelphia

[9/11] was such a burst of my bubble about what the future would be like. At that point of my life I was traveling almost every day — and I loved it. I love the change. I love knowing that every week I was going to be in some place different, learning about it.

I used to travel with a three-inch beautiful stainless steel knife. It was a gift that I got from the first company I worked for. I used it all the time. I carried that in my bag through the airport 500 times. Never once was I questioned. Obviously that’s a pretty simple thing that I was never going to do going forward.

I still tell some of my younger coworkers when we’re all in the airport, if someone gets stopped, that there was a time when you wouldn’t believe ... I flew with this knife a million times. That knife was more significant than the box cutters people used to hijack the planes. We just took all that stuff for granted. We shouldn’t have, obviously, but it just never occurred that somebody would do [such a thing].

— Richard Segrave-Daly, Chester Springs

I was a small child in the country of Gambia in West Africa and we right away knew about [9/11] and who was responsible for it. We knew that there were Muslims who would be blamed for it and I realized that I myself being in the middle of a small country in Africa would be impacted by this, in terms of my faith being related to such an atrocity. I wondered: What’s going to happen to Muslims?

Before I came here in 2017, people here told me that a lot has changed. Americans in general were more tolerant toward them before 9/11 and Muslims were seen as regular members of the society. But 9/11 changed the approach of regular Americans. Islam being associated with terrorism became the norm. So even myself, whenever I have to talk about Islam, I feel like I have to almost be on the defense and say, “Hey, I’m not a terrorist.” It’s a daily struggle.

As somebody who cares for this country, as somebody who is hurt by that attack on innocent people who didn’t deserve to die — that pain I share with every American. Every year on 9/11, to commemorate and celebrate life, we [in my mosque community] donate blood to those who need it — to take away that stereotype. I have T-shirts and banners that say “Muslims for Peace,” “Muslims for Life,” and “Muslims for Loyalty” to show that Muslims are for life, not against life. Those shirts and banners and fliers keep reminding me that I have to keep telling people I’m loyal to this country, I love this country, and I’m against extremism.

— Abdullah Dibba, Philadelphia

I’m an investment adviser in the Philadelphia area. Beginning in 1985, I worked closely with a group of analysts at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, whose offices were located on the 85th floor of the World Trade Center. The guys at Keefe were great, and I looked up to so many of them as brilliant thinkers. On the morning of 9/11/01, when the first tower was struck, we received an email telling us they were OK. Fifteen minutes later, after the second tower was struck, they were gone.

One guy, who I spoke to quite often ... when his wife created an obituary for him, I read that he was a lifelong fan of Yes, the band, which I am too. I saw them in concert when I was 16 years old. I was so sad that for all those years, we were both quietly fans of this music and we never talked about it. That made such an impact. We’re walking around like robots in the financial world when we can be enjoying so much more.

Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to change my way of interacting with people professionally, and to keep it a little more real. It’s been so much better for me.

— Susan Barrett, Haddon Township

What first comes to mind were the extreme, conflicting emotions — all within the first days. The anger I witnessed toward Muslims or any non-American was atrocious. Much of it still exists.

But love was prevalent too. I was the VP of Students at SUNY Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y., so it was my job to provide comfort. I got this Rockland T-shirt during the new student orientation that took place a few days before 9/11.

Rockland County was a bedroom community of NYC, so there were lots of people who lived in the community and worked in the World Trade Towers. We had a number of get-togethers in the college quad, gathering those who had potentially lost loved ones. It was a waiting game for about two weeks, then there was one funeral after another. Often you found yourself hugging someone that you didn’t even know. It was quite comforting and very surreal. There were so many people with missing relatives in those towers, who continued to hold out hope that they had survived.

The final memory I have from the aftermath was waiting for the ambulances. Rockland County Community College was about 30 miles from ground zero. On our campus sat the second-largest arena on the East Coast. We received a call to prepare the center for the expected triages given the number of people in those buildings. Of course, no ambulances ever came. There were no survivors.

— Donald Guy Generals, Philadelphia

Twenty years ago, I was pastor of Way of Life ministries church in the Mill Creek section of Philadelphia, and the advocacy organizer for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, who had an office in the Share Food Program on Hunting Park Avenue. I remember going into work that day and noticing everybody huddled around the TV in this little break room. There were trucks, cars everywhere, people lined up waiting to get their food, some people crying.

When the second plane [hit], I think we were looking at the television. People were trying to reach relatives they had in New York and northern New Jersey. Steveanna Wynn, the executive director of the Share Food Program at the time, asked me: Hey, would you be willing to offer some prayer? So we invited volunteers and workers from both Share Food and Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger to come into the lunch room. And we offered prayer and reflection.

So whenever I think about September 11, I think about food for hungry folks. There were crates of fruits and vegetables, and dry goods and everything all around me in that moment. And I remember Steveanna, when [the prayer] was over with, said: Everybody, even though we’re trying to figure out what’s going on and there are folks suffering in New York, there are people in Philadelphia suffering right now. We need to get this food out to them. And then she instructed everybody to get back to work.

— Bishop Dwayne Royster, Philadelphia

On 9/11, I was in the United States Army. I was on active duty, and I had just begun teaching constitutional law to firsties. At West Point, I was also a lector at the local Catholic church, called Most Holy Trinity.

I have a pair of Irish rosaries with shamrocks on them. I actually brought those rosaries on my two deployments.

On the night of 9/11, I said prayers. We didn’t get a lot of sleep. We’re just about three to five miles north of the World Trade Center, so we were on high alert about if there was gonna be another terrorist attack. We had to provide security and I was doing checkpoints that night at 3 a.m., 5 a.m., checking guards that would come in and out to make sure that there wasn’t anyone carrying a bomb or weapons.

I remember I started saying the rosary that day and praying for my best friend — another altar boy who grew up with me. He lost his girlfriend and her father in the World Trade Center. I had a college buddy who was also killed. It was definitely a dark day. I still try to say the rosary at least once a month and I say at least one Hail Mary every day.

— Former Congressman Patrick Murphy, Philadelphia

Staff contributors
Reporting: Abraham Gutman, Elena Gooray, Erica Palan
Editing: Elena Gooray, Erica Palan, Rich Jones
Photos: Monica Herndon
Digital: Patricia Madej, Kerith Gabriel, Jessica Parks