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09/11/2012

Re-visiting my visit with uncle Steven, who escaped the south tower on 9/11

6a00e54f7fc4c5883301543555a827970c-350wiAbout a month after the 9/11 attacks I was sent to NYC to cover the Yankees/Mariners ALCS series. Still one of the most memorable sporting events I ever covered.
On that trip I visited uncle Steven Engel, who took me to Ground Zero; he had access to a building that was off-limits and he took me up to get a better view. Surreal is the only word, and painfully sad.
The morning of 9/11/2001, Steven was at work in his office on the 54th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center.

One year later, on 9/11/2002 I wrote about my visit with Steven.

This is the story ... 

NEW YORK - I watched, read and listened to the personal horror stories from Sept. 11, but it wasn't until I was in New York on a warm October day that I understood.
I was standing with my uncle, Steven Engel, in a vacant building at ground zero.

The debris still smoldered. The smell I had heard so much about was pungent. The streets were an ashen gray. The dust was in every crevasse, crack and pothole.
I looked out at the twisted remains of the World Trade Center, and wondered what Steven felt when the United Airlines jet hit the second tower, 20 floors above his 54th-floor office.

We were preparing to leave when I asked one of those questions you immediately regret: "Could you hear the plane? I mean, what did it sound like?"
I will never forget the sound of Steven's breathing, his shaking voice or the expression on his face as he stared down at the carpet. This was the face of a man, my uncle, who had believed he was going to die.
"Mac, it was the most awful sound you can imagine," he said. "It was so loud; the metal twisting and grinding. Then you could hear it crashing down through the floors above."
Hearing the stress in his voice, and wanting to unplug the tension, I didn't press. He continued.
"I had been in Vietnam, I was here in '93 [when a terrorist bomb killed six at the towers], and I knew I had been to the well too many times," he whispered. "I thought that was it. All I wanted to do was see Marilyn [his wife] again."

His pain cut me in half. But I understand now, and for that I am grateful. Today isn't about buildings falling or an attack on ideologies. At its core, today is about a tremendous sadness that is managed, at best, but never overcome.
Nothing prepared me for the undeniable reality of seeing Steven's reaction that day. Standing before me was a relative who, for no reason other than luck, survived one of the world's greatest tragedies while so many around him did not. 

He apologized for his emotions. Feeling like a fool and not knowing what to do, I told him it was OK, gave him a hug and told him how grateful I was that he lived.
I felt so small, like an ashamed child searching for a couch to hide under. But nothing was big enough to shield me from the onslaught of emotions I felt.
Sympathy. Sadness. Guilt. But guilt did me no good. I have no idea of what genuine guilt is like.

"Some of my co-workers and I have talked about that, the guilt," Steven said. "You start reliving it all over again. You think about some of the people who were calling for help but didn't make it out of the elevator. It's a matter of luck."

I have asked once or twice if there is anything I can do. To my surprise, listening suffices.
"I know everyone was affected, but I don't think anybody, unless you were there or lost somebody, can really feel this," Steven said. "It was a little like when the Oklahoma City building blew up. I watched it and I felt very bad for all of those people, but I couldn't feel it."

My uncle lived to tell me his story, and I am grateful.
I am grateful that he got to see his wife Marilyn again, that he can enjoy their strolls through the city, his dog, his weekends, his life.
And, today, I am also grateful that he let me understand.

@MacEngelProf
tengel@star-telegram.com
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Comments

Michael Goulding

Nice article. We take so much for granted every day.
I was at the South Tower observation deck 3 weeks before 9/11. It still boggles the mind.
Be grateful for life's blessings.
Michael

Janet P.

Really good article.

Bob Rayel

Thanks Mac for sharing such a personal moment. Very meaningful.

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