Images of the 9/11 attacks are burned into the minds of all Americans old enough to remember it. But 20 years later, people in New York City that day remember the odors: of the water, of burned wires, of lost humanity.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists associated with Al-Qaida hijacked four commercial airplanes and intentionally flew two of the planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. A third plane smashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the fourth spiralled into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, near Shanksville, after passengers and crew counterattacked, according to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
The attacks killed 2,977 people — the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil — and 441 first responders, the greatest loss of emergency responders on a single day in American history, according to the memorial.
Some Columbia and Greene county residents were in the city the day the World Trade Center burned in a jet-fueled inferno and collapsed in toxic heaps of smoke, steel and glass.
The impact of that day is ingrained in their memories, they said.
Dick Brooks, 79, of New Baltimore had just retired after 38 years of teaching in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District and was on a field trip with a group of 7th graders from Rensselaer, Albany and Bethlehem. He was standing on the deck of the Half Moon — the replica of the ship captained by the explorer Henry Hudson on the river that bears his name — anchored in the water between the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty when he heard a loud boom”
The first plane crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., but he couldn’t see it from his angle, he said.
But he saw the second.
“About 15 minutes later another jet plane came down, flying really low along the Jersey Shore, crossed over the Statue of Liberty over us, turned, banked his wings a little bit,” Brooks recalled Friday. “You could hear the turbines wind up and flew into the side of the Twin Towers. That one we saw all the way in.”
Brooks said the students handled witnessing the tragedy better than a group of adults. One of the girls stood on the deck, looked at the smoke, and put her hand on the knife the children had to cut rope if needed. Her next words were ones Brooks would never forget.
“Somebody’s going to pay for this,” she said.
After the second plane hit, the captain of the ship unanchored the Half Moon and headed north, Brooks said. Police tried to stop the boat and direct it to the New Jersey shore, but the captain refused as he had a crew of school children.
“We were probably the only thing that went out of the harbor that day,” he said.
Two decades later, Brooks said the memories creep back in this time of year.
“Little memories come back, like I can smell the ocean. I can feel the boat rocking a little bit. I’ve got a crystal-clear photograph in my mind of that plane hitting the building, but the only effects that I’ve had was if I hear a jet winding up or winding down, I get a funny feeling,” he said.
On land, former Hudson mayor Rick Rector, 69, had slept in that morning after a night out in his West Village apartment on Grove Street. After an urgent phone call from a friend, he turned on the news and rushed to 7th Avenue, where he could see that the first tower had been hit.
“I kind of went back and forth between the two streets, and then I’d go home and watch the news and try to catch up with what was going on in the rest of the world with the Pentagon,” he said. “But it was, you know, just an incredibly surreal experience being a block from St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they set up the first triage center.”
The next day, Rector said he woke up at 5 a.m. to get the paper and began heading toward Ground Zero to survey the damage.
“One thing that I’ll never forget: that smell,” Rector recalled. “There was a smell in the air of burnt wires and rubber and papers and God only knows what else — I would say the smell of burning souls, that was there for weeks after,” he said.
But something else Rector carried with him was the feeling of collective humanity.
“There was just a genuine feel that went on for a long time that we’re in this together,” Rector said. “It was not red or blue or political. It was all in this together.”
Melanie Lekocevic, 54, of Coxsackie and a reporter for The Daily Mail, lived on West 67th Street, just a few blocks from Central Park. Just as she was about to head to the subway to get to work, the first plane hit.
“When that tower fell, I cried - all I could think of was, ‘Thousands of people just died. How many thousands of people work in that building?’ It was horrible,” she said.
Outside, Lekocevic saw people people in business suits carrying briefcases, covered in soot. They had just left the park after walking uptown from the towers. Lekocevic and her husband thought the country was under attack, so they packed the car and fled Manhattan before the city could shut down the roads, she said.
New York City was tense for weeks afterward, she said. Weeks after the attack, Lekocevic stood on a silent subway platform, and when someone dropped something, everyone jumped and gasped, she said.
“For weeks, people wore face masks because the smell outside was horrible,” she said. “I lived about 50 blocks away from Ground Zero, but we couldn’t open our windows. New York City smelled like death,” she said.
Vic Deyglio, 59, of Catskill lived in New York City his entire life, but on 9/11, everything changed.
Deyglio lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the time and saw the second plane hit. For him, although the odor was horrible, the sounds were the worst part of the day.
“It was the way it sounded — the sirens and the crumbling, but the silence around it was deafening,” he said.
Deyglio and his wife left the city for the country in the next five years.
“Immediately, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life trapped in New York City like that,” he said. “I felt super-vulnerable without control of my own fate.”
Deyglio said what he witnessed that day stayed with him — it’s something he carries all the time, but the impact was something he recognized right away.
“I knew that I was seeing like Pearl Harbor all over again and something completely evil and out of the ordinary,” Deyglio said.
The Twin Counties are hosting a number of events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Germantown is hosting a ceremony Saturday at Palatine Park and visitors can assemble at the monument at 8:30 a.m.
The FASNY Museum of Firefighting in Hudson is opening an exhibit Saturday called “Touchstone: Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of 9/11.”
Following the annual firefighters’ dress parade in New Baltimore on Saturday at 2 p.m. will be a ceremony marking the anniversary.
In Kinderhook, a 5 p.m. parade with 13 local fire companies on State Farm Road will be followed by the annual 9/11 ceremony at Volunteer Park.
Greenville, Windham and Durham in Greene County will also host events.