Despite growing up out west, I spent quite a bit of time on the east coast during my youth. I visited my aunt and cousins almost every summer in order to escape Arizona’s oppressive heat, if only for a few months. Although now I dread the idea, I once dreamed of living in The City. I always felt at home in New York. It’s myriad of sights and smells were always a welcomed break from the sterility of the desert.

I was a freshman in high school on September 11, 2001. I had gotten up early in order to lift weights in my garage before getting ready for school. My stepmom came into the garage to tell me the World Trade Center was on fire. Thinking nothing of it, I finished up my workout and headed into the house. I joined my stepbrother in front of the television, watching in bewilderment as one of the Twin Towers burned. The TV anchors began mentioning that there were reports a plane had hit the building. Having seen them in person many times, I couldn’t imagine how someone managed to accidentally fly a plane into one of the buildings. My stepbrother and I then watched in horror as a second plane hit the other building, flame and glass cutting through the blue New York sky. Both of us stood there speechless, trying to figure out how to process what we just saw. “Oh, shit!” yelled my dad from the next room. He was immediately on the phone with family back east, making sure everyone was out of the city.

The next call was to his friend, whose brother worked in the World Trade Center. His buddy was in a bit of a panic, as he was unable to contact his brother. He spent the entire day making calls until finally getting a hold of him that night. As reports of multiple other hijacking began to trickle in, it was clear that something unprecedented was taking place. As I walked to the bus stop that morning, I wondered about the hundreds of lives I watched get extinguished in an instant. Later in the day I watched in total disbelief as the towers collapsed. It was unfathomable to think that they could come down. Terrorist attacking New York was one thing, but the ability to bring down two iconic towers produced and entirely new level of shock.

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Watching the smoke fill Manhattan as people ran for their lives is an image that will never leave me. Watching grizzled firemen and police break down and cry while still finding strength to run into burning rubble to pull out whoever they could is something that will never leave me. The empathy that I hold for my fellow humans, regardless of religion, nationality, race or ethnicity is something that will never leave me. We are only given a short time on this beautiful place we call earth. Let’s spend it loving each other.

These photos were all taken by fifteen year-old me with a disposable camera in the summer of 2002. I had just visited New York in July of 2001, and this was the first time I had been back. You could still smell smoke while standing at the edge of the wreckage. I still break down and cry looking at the photo of the makeshift memorial wall.