9/11 ignited understanding of patriotism

Messages like the ones above were posted on every street corner, every blank space, every light poll days after 9/11. (Cathy Hobbs/WCIV)

Editor's note: The following is a commentary written by ABC News 4 News Director Cathy Hobbs. She was at Ground Zero 10 days after the September 11 attack.

By Cathy

It was the smell that I remember most that day. The smell. It's hard to explain the putrid smell that filled the area where the twin towers once stood.

Ten days later you could definitely still smell burning fuel, but the other smells mixed in, I did not wish to attempt to identify.

September 21, 2001 was the first chance I got to go to Manhattan and see in person what I had seen on the news hour after hour, day after day. I felt compelled to go and see what the terrorists had destroyed. What had brought our nation to its knees built a swell of patriotism of which I had never witnessed before in my lifetime. I wanted to thank the first responders and comfort those looking for their loved ones and experience one of the darkest times in our nation's history. There were so many things I wanted to do, but also just wanted to see it for myself.

There was so much to absorb -- the noise of the equipment moving metal beams; the sound of jackhammers breaking through debris; people walking up to police officers just to say thank you and hug them. But, it all seemed somewhat muffled as my mind just swirled, trying to understand what had happened and why.

Many people gathered at the barriers to watch the recovery mission. It was difficult to watch knowing that hundreds of people died -- many still buried in the debris. What struck me was the one piece of building which still stood. You know the piece I'm talking about. It stood crooked in the middle of all the debris. It almost seemed to exude defiance toward the terrorists.

I remember looking away and being amazed at all the dust. It was everywhere you looked and thick on the windows. People had turned the dirty windows into messages for those walking the streets. One person wrote with their finger in the dust, "God Bless America."

Thank you messages to all the first responders were popular. There were also clear warnings - "Whoever did this will pay."

What really caught my attention was a piece of paper in glass display case. It had somehow been pushed through the wall of glass. I guess it was by the force of the impact. Again, it sent my brain spinning.

How could that happen?

I looked up and dust covered windows as high as you could see, and there were pieces of debris and broken windows on the buildings 30, 50, 100 feet overhead -- many stories high. Debris lay in the window sills.

There were papers stuck to every light pole. On those papers were names and faces of the missing -- phone numbers of desperate family members looking for a missing loved one. They were mothers, fathers, sisters, children and cousins. I have to admit I tried to remember each picture and tried to match their face to someone in the crowd. But 10 days later, there really was no hope these people would be found.

The smell eventually was enough to upset my stomach. Now I understood why many of the people walking around the area were wearing white masks. The white masks caught my attention, but so did the blank looks on their faces. They weren't the New Yorkers you'd heard about all your liferude, abrupt, in a hurry. These people were in shock and dealing with an incomprehensible emotional pain. Their lives and their city would never be the same.

I decided to walk away from the area for some fresh air. It was nowhere to be found. All the air was filled with that awful smell and a ton of dust. I ended up in another area adjacent to where the World Trade Center once stood. It was an area where vehicles were entering and leaving the debris area dubbed Ground Zero. There were trash trucks and other city vehicles. When an ambulance drove out I stopped, dropped my head and said a little prayer.

The three hour drive home was a very quiet one. I didn't want to listen to music or news. I just wanted silence, a chance to reflect. I was overwhelmed with everything I witnessed that day.

When I got home, I did turn the TV on to watch the news. Coverage by media outlets noted the bodies of several NYFD firefighters were recovered from the debris. My thoughts immediately went back to that ambulance I had seen earlier in the day.

I wondered if the body of one of those heroes could have been inside. If so, I felt a sense of relief that I had quietly paid my respects.

I have no connection to New York City. I didn't grow up there and had only visited once before in my life. The experience is one I will never forget. I may never know what it was like to be a New Yorker on 9/11, but I do know this -- America became a stronger nation.

Perhaps it was part immaturity or part ignorance, but I never truly understood patriotism prior to 9/11. I think many had a better grasp of what the stars and stripes stand for -- a "united" states.

God Bless America!

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