Remembering the ‘first yahrzeit’ of 9/11

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Last week, solemn services were held at the new Freedom Tower at #1 World Trade Center to commemorate the terrorist attacks on Sept.11, 2001.  In the course of that horrific day, 2,996 Americans died at the hands of the 19 Al Qaeda hijackers who flew jet passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  A third plane, which the terrorists intended to hit either the White House or Capitol Building, was thwarted when brave passengers overpowered the hijackers; the plane crashed in the ensuing struggle, killing everyone on board over Shanksville, Pa.

The Jewish Light’s edition of Sept. 12, 2001 ran a special Page One article headlined:  “America attacked; Israel mourns,” containing immediate stunned reactions to the tragedy.  An editorial titled “Dates of Infamy” linked what has become known as “9/11” with the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Oct. 12, 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Jews of Spain, and even with the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av—Tisha B’av, the date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem.

Events as overwhelming as 9/11 take a long time to process, and in the Light of Sept. 11, 2002, the lead story was headlined “Sept. 11:  The first yahrzeit.”  The article, with the sub-headline, “A grim anniversary on the New Year,” asked, “How can the St. Louis Jewish Light properly observe the first yahrzeit since the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, and do so in the spirit of the Jewish New Year 5763?”  Noting that any attempt to pay proper tribute to the nearly 3,000 innocent Americans who lost their lives that day would inevitably fall short, “We decided that the words of some members of our own community could most eloquently express the deepest reflections on the impact of last year’s violence.”

The three members of the St. Louis Jewish community whose stories were selected included Scott Cohn of Chesterfield, then a buyer for Famous-Barr Co. in St. Louis, who was in New York the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 at the apparel firm of Evan-Piccone. Its 11th floor window provided a clear view of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. 

Jack Croughan, a St. Louis psychiatrist who was in Jerusalem with his wife, Patty Croughan (she will now become the next Chair of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis) as part of a local delegation to the Jewish Federation Solidarity Mission to Israel. Ironically, they were there to comfort Israeli families who lost loved ones during the “Second Intifada,” a month-long campaign of suicide bombings and shootings that claimed over 1,000 lives.

A third Jewish St. Louisan, Army Lt. Col. Richard Kotch, was at work at the Operations Center of the Pentagon and “never left work” during the entire evening of the attack. He worked just a few floors below the point of impact.

Each of the three St. Louisans wrote personal reflections on their experiences. Cohn’s article recapped an email letter he sent to his son, Adam, who had celebrated his first birthday the previous August. Disclosure: Scott Cohn is my son, and Adam Cohn, who turned 13 last month, is my grandson.

Wrote Cohn: “As I walked through Times Square, I looked up at the TV monitors overlooking the Square to see smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers. I thought it was a preview for some terrible disaster movie.  As we know now, it was not.”  He rushed off to his appointment in one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan, at 1411 Broadway.  He joined everyone at the meeting who were staring out the window at the horrors unfolding only blocks away.

From their vantage point, they could not see the plane, but did see the explosion, which was “terrible and scary.  Much worse than what it looked like on TV.” His wife Julie called to be sure he was OK.  “I hung up and the nine of s who were in the Evan-Piccone showroom were in total shock.  Most were crying and I felt like I was going to throw up.”  Cohn then recounts his harrowing hours after leaving the building down 11 flights of stairs and the eerie, slow motion way in which New Yorkers were walking about like stunned automatons, and yet were remarkably courteous and supportive to one another.

“It was the most powerful experience I ever had,” he continued.  “I don’t think the full impact has hit me. I’m just glad to be home (he left the day after the attack).  As Americans, we have always thought that we are safe and that terrorism like this only happens elsewhere.  Our view of our country will forever change due to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.”

The Croughans learned about the attacks around 4 p.m. Israel time (9 a.m. New York time).  They were “gripped with dread” because their married daughter, Sarah, and her sister Rebecca’s fiance, Mike, worked just feet apart at the World Financial Center, the building with a triangular roof that was directly adjacent to the World Trade Center.  It would be agonizing hours before they found out that all four of their children who lived in Manhattan were safe.  The Croughans, who had come to Jerusalem to offer comfort, found comfort from the Israelis during their hours of agonizing waiting and uncertainty.

For Kotch, Sept. 11 started off as another already stressful day working at the Pentagon’s vital Army Operations Center.  He was working just two floors below when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing 125 passengers and crew.

“We were on 24/7 duty immediately after the impact of the American Airlines flight,” Kotch wrote in the Light.  “I was working at the Army Operations Center, which immediately spun up into what we call a CAT, a Crisis Action Team.  It became a focal point for all Pentagon activities, since it is in a relatively secure area. We were among the very few, if not the only groups, not to be evacuated.”

He added that his two major memories were how “surreal” it was to be working in the Pentagon building while it was under attack, and once outside on the debris field, “the absolute devastation of the airplane.” A piece of metal with the American Airlines logo was one of the few tangible signs of the entire aircraft.

Kotch expressed satisfaction that a year after the attack, the damaged wall of the Pentagon was fully repaired, erasing the physical signs of the only major attack on America’s military nerve center.  “When I now see an airplane flying over the Pentagon, I just say, ‘God Bless America.’  That’s the best way I can tell you about my feelings after that very sad day.”

So it was that three Jewish St. Louisans, one in New York City, a couple in Jerusalem and one in Washington, D.C., directly experienced the horrors of 9/11, and gained a new appreciation of their nation and the value of responding with compassion in the aftermath of a calamity.