An Alexandria son living in NYC when the towers fell reflects on 9/11Dust spewed from immense clouds as unfathomable tragedy befell America. As a country that had not experienced war on its soil in more than a century, the violence of September 11, 2001 was a horrific assault against the nation, claiming nearly 3,000 lives and shaking its foundation. But it would not destroy it.
By: Wendy Wilson, Alexandria Echo Press
Dust spewed from immense clouds as unfathomable tragedy befell America.
As a country that had not experienced war on its soil in more than a century, the violence of September 11, 2001 was a horrific assault against the nation, claiming nearly 3,000 lives and shaking its foundation. But it would not destroy it.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
In 2001, Alexandria native Jack Gaffaney, a Jefferson High School graduate, was 20 years old and in his sophomore year at New York University (NYU), studying management and marketing.
Gaffaney worked part time at a store located directly across the street from the World Trade Center, Brooks Brothers. He was inside the store working on September 10, and was scheduled to work on September 12, but he wasn’t there on September 11.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Gaffaney was at NYU a half-mile away from the twin towers. As he left the classroom, he heard a plane had hit one of the towers. “We were on the street, looking down Broadway, and then… heard a big gasp,” he said.
They looked up and saw a large dust cloud spanning hundreds of feet. “A feeling of terror took over,” he said. “You couldn’t tell where it was coming from or why it was happening.”
People were running and crying out, trying to escape the shroud of dust.
All buildings in the vicinity were evacuated, including Gaffaney’s dormitory. “Everybody was able to get out quickly,” he said.
The subway was not functioning and transportation was difficult. “Everyone is at the mercy of the subway system in the city,” he said. “I, luckily, had a wallet and my cell phone.”
People feared for the safety of loved ones. “We had friends that knew family members or relatives that could have been working at the site,” he said.
Gaffaney later learned that Brooks Brothers was used as a temporary morgue for victims in the attacks.
Cell phone service was unavailable for 24 hours following the attacks and payphones were barraged with long lines.
Gaffaney’s mother, Mary Lou Thunselle, was getting ready to go to work that morning in Alexandria when she heard on the radio that a trade center tower had been hit. She immediately thought of her son’s school schedule.
“I thought, ‘It’s Tuesday. I think he’s supposed [to be in class], because if he weren’t he would be right across the street [from the attacks],’ ” she said. “Talking about it now, it kind of brings back that frightening feeling…We tried to get a hold of Jack and could not.”
At that time, Thunselle was working at Douglas County Hospital. She told hospital personnel she would return to work when she learned her son was safe. “We both [Thunselle and her husband] stayed glued to the TV,” she remembered, and recounted the numerous messages she had left on her son’s phone. “I was trying to leave these non-crazy-mom voicemails.”
She waited for news. “It was very, very chilling,” she said.
After the collapse of the first tower, at 10:21 a.m., Gaffaney was finally able to send an e-mail to his parents. “I’m OK,” the subject line read. (See related sidebar)
“There was a lot of fear and a lot of anguish and just kind of a general disbelief as to what had gone on that day,” Gaffaney said.
He described the physical moments and surrounding imagery as feeling almost like something he had seen in a disaster film. “Families were desperately trying to get a hold of their loved ones,” he said.
The trains in the area were not running, so Gaffaney stayed with some friends temporarily. His dorm reopened about a week later.
Immediately following the attacks, Brooks Brothers found shelter for people and placed employees at other locations.
The building was demolished; but just one year later, on September 11, 2002, the store reopened, completely rebuilt. “It was kind of a special moment for the company and the city, as well, to have something reopen just a year later in the direct vicinity of where the event occurred,” Gaffaney said.
While some employees refused to return to the store, Gaffaney continued to work there for about another year. “I felt like I was doing something right – [something] that should be done,” he said.
As the area was rebuilt, it began to thrive again. “The streets are busy,” Gaffaney said. “It’s only a matter of time that the buildings will open up and it will be a center for remembrance and daily life. I think they took this tragedy to heart and made sure they did it right in respect for the lives lost.”
“When it comes to the New York mindset,” Gaffaney said, “there is a certain resiliency and a certain bounce-back quality that the city and the people have. It’s not something necessarily that we talk about with each other.”
Gaffaney recognized the effect the attacks had on his parents. “For me, the emotion of my parents being so far away in Alexandria, not knowing what was going on, having so much worry,” he said was difficult.
The family shared numerous e-mails back and forth before they were actually able to talk on the phone.
“I think it is something that you live through and you come to terms with it,” Gaffaney, 30, said, acknowledging thankfully, “I didn’t have any family or friends or loved ones that lost their lives due to the tragedy.”
Now, whenever he hears a patriotic song or sees a firefighter, police officer or military personnel, a feeling of emotion sweeps over him.
His mother reflected on the attacks: “I’m old enough to have been in high school when Kennedy died…It’s like that. “I don’t think any of us could really believe that those towers could come down.”
In her den, Thunselle has pictures of the twin towers before the attacks. On one side is the building in which her son had worked.
She recalled seeing the towers before they fell. “I remember lying down on a concrete bench outside the twin towers and taking what I thought would be a wonderful photo of [them],” she said.
She was grateful her son was safe, but mourned the others who were lost. “It’s sad, like war is sad. Someone lost their beloved – lots of people did all at one time…They were not in a war. They were not meant to be soldiers there.”
This year, on September 11, the country will join to unveil the 9/11 memorial as a tribute in remembrance, gratitude and recognition of those who lost their lives in the destruction and those who fought courageously to save others from the attack. It will symbolize the unity of a great nation of people who will continue onward with strength, vigilance and resiliency.