On Sept. 11, 2001, the rising sun unknowingly birthed a day of infamy.
Americans were going about their normal routines – commuting to work, dropping their children off at school, sitting down to eat breakfast – when a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:45 a.m. Just 18 minutes later, a United Airlines Boeing 767 struck the south tower.
Less than two hours later, an American Airlines plane slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a United Airlines flight crashed in a field near Shanksville, Penn., after passengers and crew members thwarted the hijackers’ plan of hitting an unknown target.
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The events of 9/11 resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 people from 78 countries, according to History.com.
Now 20 years later, the infamous day of terrorist attacks remains a painful scar on the United States and its people.
But for two Clevelanders, the events of 9/11 didn’t play out from the safe confines of a television screen or radio. Jeff Resnick and Keith Levy felt the soot, heard the eerie quiet and watched New York City crumble.
Jeff Resnick: Trying to get back to normalcy
One year into the new millennium looked as if it could only bring good things to Jeff Resnick.
The Shaker Heights High School alum had graduated from business school in June and moved to the bustling metropolis of New York City in August to start training for a brand-new banking job.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Resnick, then 30, was in a hotel conference room in Times Square, waiting for that day’s job training to start. Whispers started spreading that a plane hit the World Trade Center.
While shocking and disheartening, Resnick said he and his 40-some associates “brushed off” murmurs of the possible plane crash.
Time started to pass. No instructor entered the conference room.
“The mood just seemed to quickly change, like something else was going on, something bigger was happening, but no one really knew what,” Resnick, a member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, told the Cleveland Jewish News.
The anxious tension in the conference room hit a crescendo when someone informed the associates that the class was canceled and they could leave for the day.
Resnick made his way downstairs to the hotel bar. Like moths attracted to light, the bar was packed with people huddled around glowing television screens. Then, Resnick read the headline: “World Trade Center on fire.”
Outside, Resnick noticed smoke filling up the sky. Times Square – usually flooded with cars – was empty aside from a sea of office workers walking around and studying the horizon. The sophomoric cellphone network was inundated, leaving curling lines of people behind pay phones. The power cut out. There was no car honking, no buzz of excited activity. There was a new smell permeating around Manhattan that would linger long after the day that Resnick couldn’t describe aside from “destruction.”
“In New York, you usually see people walking down the sidewalk very determined and knowing where they’re going,” Resnick said. “But on that day, no one knew what the hell was going on and what to do, or how dangerous or not dangerous the situation was.”
Resnick caught up with a fellow Clevelander also attending the job training – Jamie Feldman, who grew up in Beachwood. Moments later, the men watched as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on TV.
“At this point, it’s like, ‘Holy crap, this is serious. We’re under attack,’” Resnick said.
The duo booked it to Resnick’s apartment to call their families. All forms of public transportation were halted, leaving on-foot travel as the only option.
The realization struck the two that Resnick’s apartment – located across the street from the United Nations building – could be in the vicinity of another possible attack site. They headed downtown to see if they could help others.
“We started seeing people walking uptown who were closer to (the World Trade Center) than we were,” Resnick said. “They were covered in soot; they looked like they had just gotten out of a war and were in a daze. At that point, we realized it wasn’t probably safe to go downtown.”
The men went to Resnick’s apartment, and Feldman eventually made the trek back to his apartment.
With a smoky sunset came a small sense of reassurance, Resnick said. The attacks were clearly over, and any concerns Resnick had regarding his safety dissipated.
But now came the longest battle for New York City and the nation: recovering.
“It was just a really dismal time to be in New York in the weeks and months afterward, for a whole variety of reasons,” Resnick said.
“... At some point, you started up again and tried to get back to dealing with the aftermath, get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Keith Levy: A need for his synagogue
On Sept. 11, 2001, Keith Levy and his now-late father, Jack, were at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s west side. The father-son duo was set to travel home that day – to Beachwood for Jack and Solon for Keith – once the five-day wholesale trade show they were a part of came to a close.
A little before 9 a.m., Levy, then 44, got a troubling call from home that “something was going on in New York and that the World Trade Center was hit with a plane.”
Levy walked to the front of the Javits Center and peered through the building’s glass atrium.
“I’m looking straight at the Trade Center, and I see flames and smoke billowing from it,” Levy told the CJN. “It was quite a shock.”
The situation became more shocking when Levy and his father witnessed the second plane strike the south tower.
Everyone inside the Javits Center was told to leave, as Levy recalled security being fearful the attackers would target heavily populated buildings. Levy and his father had to leave behind their booth and everything in it, like samples and old photographs they would never see again.
Stretching along the avenue in front of the Javits Center was a long line of firetrucks speeding to the World Trade Center. Levy recalled thinking aloud to his father that evening wondering how many of those firefighters never came back home.
Safely getting home became Levy and his father’s mission. Once they got to their hotel, they could plan a way out. Levy found someone to drive his 74-year-old father to their hotel numerous blocks away while he walked back with some fellow exhibitors.
Leaving the center, Levy saw people who had been close to the World Trade Center covered in dust and police cars seemingly smothered in smoke. The World Trade Center was ablaze and spewing smoke.
“When we got to Times Square, there was just this eerie sound of silence,” Levy said. “It was as if the Earth stood still.”
For the remainder of the day and those that followed, Levy, like the entire nation, stayed glued to the TV screen. He remembered having no option but to sit around his hotel while he and his father devised escape options.
Being that it was near impossible to find a car to drive back home, Levy said he and his father called every car rental place in the city numerous times until opportunity struck Thursday, Sept. 13.
“(The car rental associate) said, ‘A guy just dropped off a car,’” Levy said. “‘I’ll give you 20 minutes. You can rent it if you’re able to get here, otherwise I’ll give it to the next person.’ So I ran and picked up the car, and we took it home.”
On that Saturday after he returned to his wife and four kids in Solon, he recalled attending a service at Park Synagogue. Hearing words of comfort from Rabbi Joshua Skoff was one of the things Levy said he wanted to do most when he came home.
“I’m not a religious person, per se, but there are moments where, in something like that, I just felt the need to be in synagogue and a community to feel that things will be OK,” Levy said.
Twenty years later
The events of 9/11 still feel hauntingly vivid to Levy and Resnick. Both men said that despite it having happened two decades ago, the day lingers as if it was just a year ago.
For Resnick, now 50 and a divorced father of two living in Shaker Heights, the day is a marker of time to him: events in his life are either before or after Sept. 11, 2001. He can still picture the swathes of missing persons posters, covering the city in an ocean of heartbreakingly smiling faces. He constantly thinks about how he or a loved one could have been in the World Trade Center that day for some reason.
But while 9/11 washed over the nation with a maelstrom of pain and destruction, the events left Resnick with a lasting lesson of gratitude.
“I learned to be more thankful for what I have and less wanting of what I don’t have because you can see how easily things can turn, and for absolutely no reason,” Resnick said. “It just really helped me to focus a little bit more on what’s important.”
For Levy, now 64 and a grandfather of three, the harrowing day showed him the strength in coming together with others. Now, during such a difficult time of dissonance within the U.S. on issues like COVID-19, and racial and gender equality, Levy said he hopes that by remembering 9/11, Americans also recall a time of putting aside differences to help one another.
“9/11 was the one moment in my lifetime that I saw people – no matter their opinion – unite to work together,” Levy said. “Unfortunately, it’s these kinds of events that make people put aside their differences. I wish it was easier than that to have that kind of cooperation. I just hope for the better.”