The View from Brooklyn: How 9/11 Changed Us

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It was a sunny morning in hell.

You probably remember just where you were at 8:45AM on September 11th, 2001 when American Airlines Flight #11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

If you weren’t born yet, you have been listening to the stories–from family members who were there, or friends who knew someone at the scene. It doesn’t really matter. If you were living in Brooklyn on 9/11/01, that moment of impact formed an indelible imprint that marks “before” and “after” in your timeline. It’s a time stamp that affects how we organize our experience. Reporters reference trends as starting “since 9/11” or “before 9/11.”

We are different now. September 11th changed how we see the world and ourselves.

Leading up to the anniversary, we are flooded with footage and sound bites that brings it all back. Sudden and intrusive, they flood the mind, heart and body when we least expect them. Suddenly, a flash frame can disrupt our concentration until the images dissolve, releasing tension.

Unless you are Rocky Robinson, 78, founder of Bed-Stuy Save-a-Life Ambulance Corps, you cannot prevent memories from rushing in almost daily. “I was on dialysis the morning of 9/11, watching TV as the plane hit the tower,” he says. “I took the bloodline out of my arm. The nurse screamed, ‘You can’t do that.’” Racing down the hall, Robinson shouted back, “I’ve got to get to the city.”

Lights and sirens blaring, his ambulance rocketed across the Brooklyn Bridge towards mountains of black smoke as the first tower collapsed. “People were screaming and running away,” he remembers. A section of Tower Two collapsed onto Robinson’s ambulance’s roof, injuring a crew member. But that didn’t stop them. Working five days straight, Bed-Stuy Save-a-Life rescued more than a dozen people.

“9/11 changed me a lot,” says Robinson, whose wife Doris later died of cancer. “She was in the ambulance with me that day. The toxins caused her death,” he says. Five team members lost their lives after working the pile. “Being out there and seeing the destruction let me know that not everybody’s good,” Robinson pauses a beat before continuing. “But it doesn’t mean that everybody’s bad, either. 9/11 made me aware that if I can save a life or change a life, that’s what fuels me.”

Attorney Andrea Michaelson believes September 11th changed us forever. “That was going to be the day,” she remembers. “My co-worker and I were waiting to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We were going to walk it after work.”

An attorney for the Appellate Division’s 2nd Department on Montague Street, Michaelson was at her desk when a co-worker came in crying. “When she got off the subway, she said it looked like a big plane had hit the North Tower,” she says. An office mate insisted that “that’s ridiculous…they don’t let big planes get that close…had to be one of those touristy planes.” Chaos spread quickly. A third co-worker confirmed it was a huge plane and the World Trade Center was on fire.

She evacuated to the courthouse where the FDNY was evacuating the building. “May God be with you,” a fireman said. From the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, Michaelson says, “People were coming over covered in dust. Screaming. Crying.” Earlier in the day, she had walked to Pierrepont Plaza. “There were tons of people. But it was dead silent. All we saw was the smoke billowing towards Brooklyn.”

Back at the office, everyone was gone.

Seventeen years later, Michaelson remains hypervigilant. “September 11th revealed our vulnerability. There’s a sense of vigilance we didn’t have before,” she says. As a commuter, she feels “the innocence is gone.” Terrorist threats may go unreported but she always rides in the subway car with the conductor. Just in case. “In the event of an emergency, the conductor’s doors open first.”

Staying alert, connected and helpful to those around her are positive changes Michaelson attributes to the events of September 11th. “If it showed us anything, it’s that we never know what’s going to happen. Here in Brooklyn, we know that whatever happens, we can count on each other.”