Photo above: Firefighters roll up a large U.S. flag that was displayed at a memorial service on Sept. 11, 2008, in Middletown, N.J., where 37 residents were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center — second only to New York City. (Mike Derer / Associated Press)
Middletown, New Jersey —
“Dozens of my classmates got pulled out of school early.”
“I’ll never forget how thick the smell of smoke was the next morning while I sat waiting for the school bus to arrive.”
“Yes, I knew people who died.”
Those are some of my boilerplate responses when people ask me about what I remember from Sept. 11, 2001. People from my town (and all of the other suburbs that pepper the greater tri-state area) all have similar responses to questions about that tragic day.
Middletown, N.J., is my hometown. It is also a commuter town of about 60,000 people located near the water, just a short drive away from New York City. Many families that live in Middletown moved there to escape city life and raise families.
The accents there are strong, and the passion of its people even stronger. There are nearby beaches that look into the eyes of the Manhattan skyline. There are fields and farmland, celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Stewart, Americana diners and more pizza places and bagel shops than outsiders would ever believe.
A flower and a charm are some of the things left after a ceremony in the World Trade Center Memorial Gardens in Middletown, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP)
Many Middletown residents follow a robotic commute back and forth to New York City. They leave their homes around 7 a.m. to get on the train by 7:30 and into Manhattan by 8:30. They walk to their office, grab a coffee and are at their desks by 9.
At 5 p.m., they do everything backward, though they might exchange the coffee for a tall-boy beer wrapped in a brown paper bag. They are home in time for dinner at 6:30.
Because so many parents, uncles and friends live within that schedule,the local school board had a big decision to make on Sept. 11, 2001.
Do we tell the students?
There was no Twitter or Facebook, and the few middle schoolers with cellphones probably only turned them on in case of an emergency.
I was in the sixth grade, just two weeks away from my 11th birthday. The memories of that day, and the reminder that 37 people from my town never came home for that 6:30 dinner, have remained with me for the past 15 years.
Like hundreds of towns across the area and the country, Middletown awoke on Sept.12 to a new world. Names of those who died began to circulate, and it soon became difficult to find people who had not been impacted by the day The smell of smoke had floated down the shore from lower Manhattan and filled the air.If you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were standing in the rubble of the buildings.
Kindergarten teacher Kirsten Fleisher's hand rests on the head of one of her students during a memorial service in New Jersey. (Mel Evans / AP)
As the days passed, the names of those who died were released, and the town began to hear their stories of bravery and sadness.
Fifteen years later, Middletown still holds on to the dark memory of that day and the 37 people who lost their lives. The town has the tragic honor of having the highest number of residents who died per capita in any town in New Jersey — and second only to the lives lost in New York City. With that morbid statistic in mind, I returned home several weeks before the 15th anniversary of 9/11 to speak with people about that day and its impressions.
Ken Tietjen was a 31-year-old Port Authority officer who commandeered a cab and drove to the burning towers. Once he got inside the north tower, he ran upstairs, brought people to safety and then ran back inside. Moments after that second trip, the world watched the tower crumble to the ground.
Ken’s story of heroism and bravery is one of many that have become synonymous with Sept. 11.
Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger spoke of the people who drove to work the morning of the attack whose cars were still parked at the train station that night; vehicles whose owners never came home. When we spoke, the mayor stood with pride at the World Trade Center Memorial Garden, a quiet and peaceful place where 37 stone structures stand, each one with a photo and bio of someone who died. It is located right next to the train station.
Jordan Hickman was a classmate of mine for four years. As a 6th grader, she went down to the waterfront with her mother and watched the smoke envelop lower Manhattan. Today, she teaches in the very district that helped raise her — instructing children who have no memory of the day that rocked their town.
People pay respects at a stone marker for Port Authority Police Officer Kenneth Tietjen at the memorial garden to the 37 residents killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center in Middletown, N.J. (Mike Derer / AP)
Kevin Cullen, now the vice principal of a local middle school, is a lifelong Middletown native who watched the tragedy unfold from inside a classroom at his college in Maryland. For Cullen, that day was spent figuring out if the people he loved in both New York and Washington, D.C., made it out alive. As a history teacher and administrator in the district, Cullen grapples every year with how much he should talk about 9/11. He believes it is of the utmost importance to remember that day and teach the next generation about the evils so many lived through.
Philip Lowery is a monsignor at St. James Catholic Church in nearby Red Bank, New Jersey. For two weeks after 9/11, he was at Ground Zero, talking to people who needed spiritual guidance and praying for the remains of almost 3,000 people who lost their lives. He spoke with great reverence of the number of funerals his parish had to hold in the days and weeks after the tragedy.
Tara Nicholas was eight months pregnant with her first child in September of 2001. Like many women that autumn, the stress of the terrorist attack contributed to an early delivery date for her daughter. With tears in her eyes, she told me of a woman she shared a hospital room with who had also given birth. That woman’s husband was killed in the attacks, and 15 years later, Mrs. Nicholas can still remember the sound of her sobbing.
Anywhere you go in Middletown, someone has a story. Every few miles, one encounters a statue, a plaque or a garden memorializing those who lost their lives. Though I have left Middletown, Middletown has never left me. So as the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approached, I needed to go home. These are some of the stories residents were kind and brave enough to share with me.
This is part of a personal, original Rare series reflecting on a national-turned-hometown tragedy. See the complete series and find full 9/11 anniversary coverage at on.rare.us/911.
The death and life of my hometown | Reflecting on 9/11, a national-turned-hometown tragedy for Middletown, N.J.
A moment in tragedy | How this train station became an unlikely symbol of healing after the 9/11 attacks
A legacy of kindness | After her brother died on 9/11, a woman found this unique way to spread peace
“Get your aircraft to the ground” | 15 years after 9/11, this pilot remembers the day air travel came to a grinding halt
A legacy of bravery, sacrifice | As the towers started to burn on 9/11, this officer rushed from his post to save as many lives as possible
Life’s greatest gift amid heartbreak | With tears in her eyes, she remembers a new mom whose husband didn’t come home on 9/11
A sobering connection | This teacher’s perspective on how many people from her town died on 9/11 will bring you to tears