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One event can change our world

POSTED: September 13, 2009 1:00 a.m.

He was a little boy about 4 years old. I don't know his name, but his face is forever etched in my mind.

We met in a converted pier in New York City, just a week after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. He was with his mom, who was seeking help. The pier, on the west side of Manhattan, had become the clearinghouse for everyone who was a victim of 9/11.

The woman's husband worked for a financial services firm in the upper floors of the World Trade Center. He was killed in the tragedy. However, in those early days after the attack, no one was quite ready to say the word "dead." The search was still on for those who could have been trapped in the rubble.

The young mother had been temporarily unable to access her husband's accounts and was in need of money to sustain them for a few days.

The little boy was fidgety and picked up everything in reach on the folding table that served as my desk.

"Are you going to help me find my daddy?" he said, staring at me with big brown eyes. The question took my breath away. I really don't know what I said. His mother's eyes welled up with tears.

I was able to get them a check from the funds that had been made available. When they left, I went to a curtained-off area that was designed for volunteers to have a quiet place to go. By the time I went through the curtain, I was sobbing.

An imam who was one of the chaplains at the site saw that I was visibly shaken and came and wrapped his arms around me. There we were, a Baptist and a Muslim, and I was grateful for his comforting touch.

I went to New York as a volunteer and was forever changed by the experience. They told us not to get emotionally attached to those we help because the number would be great.

But I still think about that little boy. He's 12 now. Most kids that age have no real memory of 9/11, but he will never forget it. I've thought about his mother. I've wondered if she remarried or if they even live in New York anymore.

There are others I think about. The Caribbean woman who accidentally left on her street shoes and had to go back to the basement to get her work shoes. Her co-worker, who went ahead to the upper floors of the tower, was killed.

I think of the Chinese man who spoke no English but had his new set of dentures crushed when he was trampled by the pressing mob rushing to exit. I helped him get money for new teeth. I've thought about his new teeth and the old ones in crumpled pieces in a plastic bag.

I also think of Edna Stephens, a Gainesville native who was killed at the Pentagon. I have visited her memorial bench and left a stone there to show I was there.

It has been eight years. Sometimes it seems so long ago. I wonder sometimes if the events of 9/11 have changed America, other than more security at airports.

I know I will never be the same.

Harris Blackwood is a columnist for The Times. His column runs every week in Sunday Life.



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