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National Unity Day

When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters: one representing danger and the other opportunity. It is our responsibility to future generations to face crises and resolve them and prove that through strength and perseverance we shall prevail.

September 11, 2001, was a horrible day, certainly one of the worst days in the history of this nation. But as is often the case crisis can lead to opportunity and fortuitously it gave us September 12, the morning after when we exercised not only nationally but internationally an opportunity to pull ourselves together in a defiant moment of reconciliation to unite against the horror of terrorist extremism and collaborate against what can nearly unanimously be described as pure evil. September 12 should be a national holiday to celebrate our ability to withstand such unmitigated atrocity and deliver a calculated rebuke, militarily, and from a moral perspective. If for only one day September 12 should be remembered as a symbol that humans can rally to defend our ideals and defeat barbarity, with little to no regard for political, religious, cultural or geographic differences.

As fate would have it I flew into NYC early on the evening of September 10, 2001, worked my way into Manhattan from JFK Airport and checked into the Marriott at 49th and Lexington on the upper East Side. At the time I was representing the Screen Actors’ Guild as its director of governmental affairs and we were holding a meeting at Sotheby’s that evening to discuss conflicting views on the issue of runaway economic production, an issue which had split the membership and would play a huge role in the upcoming SAG Executive Board election.

The weather was warm and the tension inside the meeting was heated. I was scheduled to meet with Richard Dreyfuss for lunch the following morning and thus did not have to rise early. The actor was filming the television series Max Bickford on Staten Island and he had arranged for me to meet him on location, thus my morning would accommodate trying to catch up on jet lag.

As fate would have it I flew into NYC early on the evening of September 10, 2001, worked my way into Manhattan from JFK and checked into the Marriott at 49th and Lexington on the upper East Side.

I was planning to cooperate fully, and awoke at 8:30 a.m. and proceeded to turn on the television just as breaking news that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center was being broadcast. That in itself guaranteed that I would be glued to the tv set, however even though I was on the 19th floor the rising cacophony of sirens filtered skyward and the worsening realization that the situation was changing dramatically as the minutes passed anchored me to the edge of the bed in stunned disbelief.

My wife and two boys (aged 9 and 7) were resting comfortably in Santa Monica when I called and alerted her that as best as I could tell we were under attack, the Twin Towers had been hit, the Pentagon was in flames, and a plane was down in rural western Pennsylvania. Under no circumstances did I want the boys to attend school that morning as the extent of the attack was still very much unclear and I was taking no chances.

Watching the catastrophe unfold on tv while I could hear the sirens incessantly reflecting through the concrete canyons of Downtown Manhattan forced me to shower and find my way to the streets. The eerie emptiness of Lexington Avenue where you could actually walk down the middle of a major thoroughfare that normally on a weekday morning would be wall to wall yellow cabs jockeying furiously was like something out of the Twilight Zone.

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Like a moth drawn to a flame I meandered towards the lower end of the island where the attack had taken place. The streets were closed off south of 42nd street so I walked to the town square, Times Square, where I knew I would find a crowd and a multitude of huge television screens to keep us informed. As the bizarre reality of the moment played itself out over the course of what was an absolutely perfect early fall day with an azure sky now devoid of commercial aircraft betraying the chaos and disaster at ground zero, I would find myself watching the coverage on the screens and turning to gaze down Broadway and 8th Avenue to see in reality the rising trail of black smoke emanating from where the World Trade Center until a few hours ago had defined the Lower Manhattan skyline. At some point during the morning the winds shifted and ashen papers fell from the heavens like a professional movie set emulating a snow storm

I decided to make my way to the nearest blood donation center, which was up on 67th Street, and when I reached the center the line of potential blood donors wrapped around many blocks. After waiting about an hour or so we were advised that the center could not possibly accommodate the number of donors and were asked to come back tomorrow. At this point I felt helpless to how I could be of any assistance and amazingly reached by cell phone Richard Dreyfuss assistant, Audrey, who was based in his apartment on the Upper West Side and we arranged to meet for lunch.

As I walked cross town without the normal street sounds of traffic and car horns that normally dictate the background of a walk down the sidewalk in the Big Apple, I was drawn to the sound of two fighter jets flying above and at one point peeling off as if to cover both ends of the island that at this point required military defense given the uncertainty of the moment. Such a strange sight and sound, to have military aircraft circling New York City to ward off potential attack! That nearly more than anything else is imprinted in my mind to recall the tremendous importance of the day.

Audrey and I met for lunch and spent several hours walking around the city pondering the significance of the moment.The Island had been closed off, no one in, no one out. Bridges, tunnels, train service, the subway system, ensured that both inhabitants and visitors to Manhattan were in a virtual prison until the situation was stabilized.

Drawn to Times Square I had dinner by myself at TGIF’s that evening in a restaurant that was way too quiet for the amount of people assembled. My stay in NYC was growing by the minute. The next day Richard found a way to get back into the city and we met for lunch on the Upper West Side and spent several hours discussing what we were living through.

As it turned out my stay lasted three days as I finally was able to get a NJ Transit train to Trenton, where my brother, who lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania across the river resides while I would struggle with figuring out a way to get back to the West Coast. By Saturday I had secured a seat on a flight to LA but not before a delay on boarding the flight due to suspicious passengers who were escorted off the flight, putting a final exclamation point on the notion that life would ever be the same again. Everybody was on edge at that point, but I would do anything to get back to my family and hug my kids and could not get home fast enough.

The one remarkable sight that will forever be sketched in my mind is upon emerging from the train tunnel that connects New Jersey and New York one is treated to a magnificent view of the NYC skyline on the left side of the train heading south and into Jersey City, Elizabeth, Seacaucus, and Newark. On that day leaving NYC my face was glued to the window as the skyline appeared to be listing to the left as the two large landmarks had disappeared and acrid black smoke filtered skyward to remind us of the destruction that had recently robbed the skyline of its balance. As the train made its way southward the skyline narrowed and narrowed and disappeared altogether, as though the final scene was giving way to finis. 

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Regardless where you were that day it will always have a powerful impact of how precious each day is and how we take for granted the freedoms and liberty that serve as the cornerstone to our democracy. Several years later I coauthored an article in Huffington Post advancing the idea that September 12 was a day when we all came together and ought to be a national holiday. It was true then and very well may be more essential today as we are immersed in the quagmire of divisiveness that characterizes our contemporary society.

Lance Simmens