When I moved from Florida to New York in 1993, I was a 23-year-old naive who wondered if I could ever find my way in this bustling city. But every glimpse of the famous Statue of Liberty in the harbor of my new home filled me with hope, assuring me that millions of people had remade themselves here and that I could too.
As my love for my adopted city grew, I wanted to share my enthusiasm so I studied and trained to become a licensed tour guide in New York City. Soon I was teaching history from the top of a double-decker bus and visiting the Statue of Liberty at least once a week. My party would spill into the 25-acre Battery Park and head for the ferry that would take us to Liberty Island. On board, I led my groups through an internal stairwell to the upper deck and directed them to the edge that would provide the best view of the statue as we walked through the harbor.
As Lady Liberty grew and became more majestic, I basked in the cheers and lively conversations in several languages ââthat unfolded all around me. As the ferry docked, I waved my flag to gather my group and walked them along the catwalk and across the long pier to the front of the statue for a group photo.
I never had to remind anyone to smile as they gathered under the massive statue that had welcomed millions of immigrants to our shores. Her beautiful green face and determined gaze inspired me no matter how many times I have been there.
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But when I walked past the Statue of Liberty on September 11, 2001, I turned away in fear and confusion. A few hours earlier, my husband and I had seen a passenger jet plunge into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Panicked, we fled our apartment in the Financial District and took refuge in Battery Park. When the towers collapsed, we found ourselves tripping over a poisonous snow globe, covered in ash and yellow grime, wondering if we would survive. We were squatting by the Hudson River, looking for pockets of clean air, when a ferry pulled up along the sea wall. Crew members without a dock or loading ramp tore dozens of us off the edge of Manhattan and were now transporting us to the relative safety of New Jersey.
Out of habit I had led my husband, who was carrying our 40 pound dog, Gaby, through the interior passages of the ferry and up the small stairs to the open top deck. As we made our way to our seats, I took stock of the other passengers. There appeared to be around 200 evacuees on board – office workers, hotel staff, women in sportswear, parents with children, mothers with babies. Some seemed unharmed, as if they had been far from the chaos. Others looked like us, stuck in the yellow dust that had enveloped us when the towers fell. A few were stained with blood, their clothes ragged and torn.
We collapsed onto a bench and Brian gathered Gaby onto his lap. As our boat cruised down the Hudson, I looked at the downtown Manhattan skyline. A cloud of dust boiled from where the Twin Towers should have been and spread beyond the end of Battery Park into the harbor.
As I passed Liberty Island, I remembered a rumor I had heard a few hours earlier: another plane was heading for the Statue of Liberty. Anyone who had smashed down the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon wanted to destroy this most visible symbol of freedom as well. I turned away, worried to witness the unimaginable for the second time that day.
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Lady Liberty is standing tall and proud months later
The worst terrorist attack on American soil left a gaping hole in our homes and hearts and claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. I spent days, then weeks, then months in mourning, not knowing where I would be in this city or even in this world that could produce such evil. I was still in shock and grief in March 2002 when I caught one of the first tour groups to return to New York. Even though I didn’t know how enthusiastically I could show off what was left of my beloved city, I needed the work.
We stopped at Battery Park, but instead of heading straight for the ferry, I led the group to a white tent and asked everyone to take off their belts and watches and empty their bags. pockets. Even though the Statue of Liberty has remained closed to tourists, no one has even been allowed to visit their island without being wanted for weapons and explosives. We regrouped after the long process and boarded the boat together.
As we traveled to Liberty Island, I remained seated as my group crowded to the edge, jockeying with other tourists for the best camera angle. As the familiar buzz of excitement mounted around me, I lifted my head to see Lady Liberty, as tall and proud as ever. She didn’t seem any more uncomfortable, despite the attacks that had occurred only a mile away from her.
I got up and leaned against the railing and looked across the Hudson River to the hole in the sky where the Twin Towers should be. Then I turned back to the Statue of Liberty, which was getting bigger every second. And I was assured for the first time in months that America’s freedom and liberty would be preserved.
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Our country had been bruised but not broken. We would survive this attack as one country, rebuilding stronger than ever. The country faced many trials and trials in the 20 years following September 11. But I’m still filled with the confidence I gained as we approached Liberty Island that day in March.
Terrorists, natural disasters or pandemics can open gaping wounds and inflict great suffering. They can demolish our biggest buildings, or even, God forbid, the Statue of Liberty itself. But they cannot take away the American spirit and our resolve to win. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11, may our memories of all that we lost on that terrible day inspire us to work for unity, mutual respect and peace.
Christina Ray Stanton is the author of the award winning book “Out of the Shadow of 9-11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation”. www.christinaraystanton.com.