9/11, 15 Years Later: The Untold Story of How Sept. 11 Changed These 5 Lives Forever
How we’ve changed.
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With ash still clouding the sky, the American Red Cross organized food and water lines near Ground Zero.
Retired social worker Ken Lee flew from Honolulu to New York three days after the attack to deploy as part of the American Red Cross response team. He handed out food and water relief to other workers, counseled others and helped coordinate volunteers, dropping 15 pounds along the way.
Now 72, he looks back at his first stint at Ground Zero as the toughest of his career. “I left a day early. I was burnt out. I came home to lick my wounds,” he says.
But after about eight days home in Hawai‘i, he was ready to go back “and help train thousands of people clamoring for training so they could help.”
He says the trips there convinced him that the world had changed forever. “We have to constantly be a little more aware of our surroundings in our situational awareness, all part of looking for the unexpected,” Lee says. “I think we need to certainly improve efforts to identify terrorists to prevent future attacks.”
But Lee stays positive. “I have been left with a much stronger and enduring sense of the spirit and strength of human beings and their ability to adapt, cope and be resilient,” Lee says.
Rob Jones, working as an EMT for the New York City Fire Department.
Photo: Courtesy of Rob Jones
Connecticut native Rob Jones was a New York emergency medical technician visiting his brother on O‘ahu on Sept. 11. He flew back to the city days later—as soon as flights resumed.
“I took the subway to Chelsea. I smelled that damp fire scene smell, like when a fire has just been burned out, and I was looking around for the building that must have just burned,” Jones says, then realized it was actually the smell of the World Trade Center, almost 3 miles away.
As an emergency medical services technician for the Fire Department of New York, he went back to work in Harlem. But he also signed up for overtime shifts at a temporary morgue at Ground Zero: “We would go in and recover the body part or whatever it was, equipment.”
Jones remembers strangers leaving “Thank you FDNY” notes on his car. And people cheering when they saw crews. “When Sept. 11 happened, I think the nation got a first-hand look at what first responders are expected to do and what they do, and they got a deeper appreciation for it. I don’t think that will ever change. “
Jones stayed with the Fire Department another year but realized he was interested in police work and applied to departments in New York and Honolulu. When both called, he moved to O‘ahu.
It was a career path he would not have predicted. Back in college, he wanted to be an outdoor guide majoring in wilderness-based education and sought emergency medical training simply to build his résumé.
Jones explains that the volunteer time on an ambulance changed his life. “I realized how rewarding it was and what a unique opportunity you have to save a person’s life and to make a real big difference in such an acute way. And that really evolved into police work and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he says.
Now 47 and a detective who investigates sex crimes for HPD, Jones feels he’s where he can make a difference. “It’s a really good job; it’s interesting work and very gratifying.”
He says Sept. 11 did change things: “New York was just a different place, you know, after that. I guess it changed me.”
For the Ho family, the anniversary of 9/11 has been a good reason to get family and friends together in honor of their missing family member. Though they think about Heather year-round, they gather on her birthday or 9/11 as a way to remember what’s important.
“I think we need to just keep on living,” Sargent says. “I think Heather’s dying was a real good example in our lives, for the people that love her, of, you just keep on living and you enjoy your life and you enjoy the people who are important to you. You just love deeply.”