FRANK Schiff remembers the time when “nine” and “eleven” were nothing more than odd numbers.
He also remembers the moment when that changed forever.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the Denver-born and raised New Yorker was on his way to work in Manhattan, in a building across the street from the World Trade Center. He had taken his usual subway and gotten off at his usual station, named after and directly beneath the World Trade Center.
Everything seemed as normal and routine as could be.
Until he reached the street above.
A wall of panicked people were rushing in his direction. Beyond them, Schiff could see flames shooting from the first WTC tower into which, just “seconds before,” a hijacked jetliner had crashed.
Before that mad morning was over, Schiff — the son of longtime Denver Jewish community members Ronald and Sandy Schiff — would personally witness another jetliner strike the second tower.
He would witness human beings jump hundreds of feet to their deaths rather than face the inferno within the towers.
He would see both towers collapse into colossal heaps of dust and debris.
He would spend much of that day walking dozens of blocks to his home in another part of Manhattan where he would eventually discover that his wife Andrea — who worked in Building No. 7, adjacent to the WTC, which was itself destined to collapse later on Sept. 11 — had been delayed that morning by taking their son Corey to his first day of kindergarten. She never made it to the scene of the carnage.
He would also learn that his daughter Samantha was safe in school when the horrors took place.
A few days later, he received an email from a man miles across the city, in Brooklyn, who had found a piece of stationery with an email address and Samantha’s youthful writing upon it. The man realized that it had probably come from the WTC explosions and assumed the worst, offering to return it “for your memories.”
Schiff says he is eternally grateful for that stranger’s kindness and consideration; but much, much more grateful that he and his entire family survived 9/11, in spite of the fact that he and his wife came within seconds of joining the thousands of other victims on that infamous day.
A DECADE later, Schiff still lives and works in Manhattan, still works for the same firm (in a new location) and is still grateful that his entire family remains well and together.
Reached last week by the Intermountain Jewish News, Schiff — who originally recounted his experiences to this newspaper in 2001, when they were only a few days old — is remarkably low-key in describing his own experiences.
“It dims a little bit,” he says. “So many of us here in New York had those experiences that I don’t think, quite frankly, they were anything extraordinary.”
The horror he witnessed and anxiety he experienced on 9/11 have been softened somewhat by the fact that he did not lose a loved one that day.
“We were actually quite fortunate in that we really didn’t as a family know anybody directly who had perished at the Towers, which was kind of amazing, given that we’ve been here for such a long time.
“I think for those folks this thing never goes away. People like us, quite frankly, kind of remember it on anniversaries now. The city has really healed.”
When he ventures close to the former site of the Twin Towers, or yet another 9/11 anniversary is observed, “it obviously conjures up the memories,” Schiff says.
“But life, as it probably should, goes on day to day for all of us.”
Schiff, who is now 52, remembers an earlier American trauma — the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
He was just a small child, he says, “but I remember where I was. I remember how my parents reacted. I remember watching the TV.”
September 11, 2001 is much the same, he says, especially for Samantha, who was eight years old when the attacks took place.
“My daughter certainly remembers the events and is very cognizant of them,” he says. “She probably remembers much the same way that we remember JFK’s assassination. She remembers where she was, how it happened, the day. She remembers that it took her until late in the evening to get back home — but I’m not sure that she would recollect anything greater than all of the events around her as she went through it.”
AS for himself, Schiff says that 9/11 “is still a vivid, vivid memory, one of those things that will never go away.
“I can remember exactly most of the events of the day. Certainly I can remember how eerie it was well afterwards, in the night when there was no traffic in the city, no air traffic, and all you heard were fighter jets every once in awhile go across in the sky.
“That’s one thing that people don’t think a lot about, but certainly for those of us who were here, I think that’s a memory everyone will have. They’ll tell you how eerie it was and how every time you heard a plane go overhead — even after they opened up air traffic — you did a double take and wondered: Is it too low? Does it sound like the right noise? Of course, that has all dissipated with time.”
He recalls that “eerie silence” in a metropolis that never sleeps far more vividly than any notion that the events of 9/11 would irrevocably change the world we live in.
“Maybe I should have recognized that,” he says, “and that certainly was the case, but when you’re that close to it, you’re feeling so many more immediate issues, like where is my family, how do I get my kids home from school.
“You start to think about all those things you need to do with your own immediate family. You become much more reactive.”
Schiff makes the fascinating observation that the events of 9/11 might have seemed considerably more real and immediate to his parents, who watched the events unfold on their Denver television, than they were to him, standing on a Manhattan street and watching the tragedy before his eyes.
“I’ve heard this from a number of people who have been in really traumatic type of events,” he says, “that the best way to describe it is surreal. And it continues to be.
“It’s almost like you’re in a movie, watching yourself in that movie, not being able to think about exactly what is happening in front of you. It’s almost, in a sense, that if you were watching it on TV you could be more thoughtful about it. It almost has a different or a greater impact than being there.”
Interestingly — and confirming the candor of his words — Schiff used almost identical language to describe the events of 9/11 to the IJN a decade ago.
SCHIFF is also grateful that he has largely healed from the events he witnessed 10 years ago.
He has suffered no nightmares of 9/11, no Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, no “survivor’s guilt.”
On the morning of 9/11, as people were jumping from the first tower, he admits that — at first — he couldn’t turn away from the awful sight. Thankfully, he was with a co-worker who took him by the arm and led him away from the scene.
“Again, it was surreal,” he says, “and we didn’t see people land. I think that would have been really, really tough.
“But you did see the horror of people standing in windows with fire rolling out — having a choice to make. Neither choice was a good one.”
Although he remembers these events with crystal clarity, Schiff is adamant that they do not haunt him a decade later.
“I think the mind protects itself,” he says. “I can’t say that I’ve had any ill effects. No nightmares, none of that.
“Again, the only time I would think about it was when you’d hear a plane outside. That lasted a couple of months.”
He admits, however, that his own story is “just one story.
“When you speak to people who directly lost people in the Trade Center they would have a very, very different reaction to all this. Obviously, it is very traumatic for them and their families. I feel for those folks.”
Nor does Schiff engage in “what-if” speculation: What if his subway had arrived a few minutes earlier? What if his wife had gotten to work on time that day, and she found herself directly beneath the towers when the first plane struck?
“My wife and I tend to be pretty practical folks, much like the rest of New Yorkers,” he says. “You can go through the what-if scenarios. We tend not to do that. Even though I was in that last train coming into the Trade Center, I’ve never really thought about those what-if scenarios.
“I never really felt like I was that close to danger, believe it or not, even though I was right there. Even when that second plane hit the building and all that debris started coming out, I really never felt like I was in danger.
“And it has never bothered me since.”
THE changes wrought by 9/11 are manifold, in Schiff’s opinion.
“A lasting effect of this is that people are cautious,” he says. “People are quite aware of their surroundings. They’re cognizant if they see anything unusual on a subway or a bus. If you see a backpack sitting down somewhere, it does cross your mind.
“That is a lasting effect 10 years later and I think it will be here probably for a long time.”
He admits that for awhile his experiences made him suspicious of others.
“For a period of time, whenever you saw anybody of other descent, Muslim descent or whatever, you thought about it. That’s dissipated, quite frankly, at least from my perspective.”
Having survived 9/11, he says in a somewhat darker tone, has also made him something of a fatalist.
“Listen, we’ve had a number of potential attacks,” Schiff says of New York in particular. “The closest one was the bomb that didn’t go off in Times Square. It certainly could have.
“So I think the feeling of most jaded New Yorkers is, it’s going to happen.
“We are going to have another event and New York City is a likelihood.
“But it doesn’t affect your daily life. You can’t control that. From my perspective and my family’s perspective, it does not control — and it has very limited effect on — our day-to-day activities.
“We still live in the city. We still love the city. We’ll probably be here for a long time. It’s a great place to work and to be.”
That sense of normalcy — and perhaps of healing — was intensified considerably last spring, Schiff feels, when US Navy Seals cornered and killed Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, in his Pakistan hideout.
Schiff was in Los Angeles, not New York, when the news of the commando strike came out.
“I was transfixed, glued to the TV as they went through that,” he says.
“For some it was certainly a feeling of retribution.
“I think for other people, including myself, it was a feeling of immense pride, that we could carry this out, even though it was significantly after the fact. It was a great thing for justice and for the US.”
Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News