A Mom's Story Of Survival On 9/11

Writer Allison Salerno shares the harrowing details of the day her husband had a brush with death on Sept. 11, 2001, barely escaping the World Trade Center before it crumbled, and discusses the impact it had on her young children.
Allison Salerno

Feeling safe again
After my husband narrowly survived the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, I now worry if my sons will ever again feel safe in the world. My husband, Greg, works for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in public affairs. He escaped from his office on the 68th floor of Tower One 11 minutes before the tower collapsed on Sept. 11.

When we finally connected by phone about 2 pm that day, we both were anxious about our boys -- then not quite 5 and 2. We particularly wondered about Gabriel, whose fifth birthday was the next day. As much as we wished to shield him, we knew we had to tell him what had happened; otherwise he would find out from his fellow kindergartners. Greg and I agreed his party would go on, even though Greg could not take the day off as planned. We didn't want to take Gabriel's special day away from him.

I told Gabriel that bad people had hit Daddy's building with an airplane but that Daddy was OK. He laughed. "Gee, that would be hard," he said. Relieved, I thought he saw what happened as something out of a "Power Rangers" episode.

It soon became clear he understood much more -- despite not being allowed to watch TV images of the attacks.

During Gabriel's birthday party, which he had planned with me in great detail, he sat on the floor of our family room, fiddling with his new pirate ship, while his friends enjoyed the games and snacks on our backyard patio. He ventured outside only to blow out his candles.

Greg was gone from home 18 hours a day; the boys were sleeping when he left in the morning and when he returned close to midnight each night. The phone rang constantly -- neighbors, family members, longtime friends and members of the media, all wanting to know about Greg, some not quite knowing how to ask.

"People are calling because they think Daddy is dead," Gabriel said. I tried to reassure him "No, people are worried and are so happy to hear Daddy is alive."

At bedtime he would ask me "How is Captain Kathy?" referring to Port Authority Police Captain Kathy Mazza, a friend of Greg's, who we later learned had died rescuing people from Tower One. "We don't know yet," was my answer. I didn't want to lie and lose his trust. But too much truth didn't feel right either.

Greg had begun working at the Port Authority when Gabriel was 2. Gabriel often put toys in Daddy's briefcase. Over the next couple of years, Greg had assembled on a shelf in his office quite a collection of Matchbox cars, Tinkertoys and action figures. The boys loved to play with those toys when we visited Greg at work, which we did less than a month before Sept. 11.

For months after the attacks, Gabriel would ask if rescuers had found those toys. He would scan the New York Times' photographs of Ground Zero, hoping to see them. "The bad guys broke a promise," he told me. "Daddy promised me I could have those toys in my office when I grow up and now I can't. It's not fair."

Comforting words
Some nights, Greg would lie in bed with Gabriel, answering his questions about jet fuel, the war in Afghanistan and the nature of evil. It seemed to comfort them both. Often, my own words felt inadequate. I said we could be thankful that Daddy was OK because God protected him. "But God didn't protect all the people who died, did He?" came Gabriel's response.

All year Gabriel crayoned images of fiery planes hitting the Twin Towers. I came home one day to find he had convinced a babysitter to make a book out of construction paper called "How the Twin Towers Fell." When his kindergarten teacher asked the children to write their New Year's resolutions, Gabriel drew mostly in black -- the sun, the Twin Towers, a crashing plane and an army tank ramming into Tower One. And then he drew his resolution: NO WAR. LOTS AND LOTS OF FUN.

It felt as if we all were making progress.

For a Mother's Day poem, Gabriel drew the Twin Towers again. This time, I was standing in front of them, crying. Written beneath was his message: "T is for the Tears you shed to save me." When Gabriel explained to me, "You protected me from all the sadness of that day," I felt a measure of success.

At the time of the attacks, Lucas couldn't talk yet, so I assumed he didn't understand what had happened. A few weeks ago, however, he asked why an airplane hit Daddy on the head at work and why an airplane didn't hit his nursery school. Gabriel asks us: "Why couldn't the bad guys have picked some other buildings to hit?" He has come up with all sorts of scenarios about how the plane could have been diverted from the tower -- there could have been invisible guns on the roof or a magic shield around the building.

Greg has begun to collect new toys, family photographs and artwork in his new office, on the 19th floor of a nondescript building that we tell our boys no bad guys can find. On the bulletin board above his desk is a drawing by Gabriel; the Twin Towers, tiny, and a giant Jedi looming over them. He holds a light saber, forever protecting the towers.

This year, Gabriel has traded his fascination with pirates with an enthusiasm for "Star Wars" and is planning a suitable birthday party for Sept. 12. He loves to tell us how in "Star Wars," the Jedis always defeat the evil forces. He's inviting just a few boys to our home because "that way we will all stay together and people won't go off into little groups and start fighting."

And when he turns 6, Daddy will be there.PregnancyAndBaby.com

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