‘It’s something you always kind of flashback to’
The south tower of the World Trade Center begins to collapse following a terrorist attack on the New York landmark Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. — AP Photo file photo
Jerseyside native Thomas Belbin watched the 9-11 tragedy unfold, and with each horror, thought the worst was over.
But it wasn’t.
“When the first plane went in, you think, ‘Well this is a tragic accident. Something has happened,’ and then, ‘It couldn’t possibly get worse than that.’ And then, all of sudden, you’re two planes into it. Then you think, ‘Well, now we’ve got two planes, it couldn’t possibly get worse than that.’
“And then one of the towers collapses and kills thousands of people, ‘It couldn’t possibly get worse than that.’ And then the other tower collapses. So, each time in your mind, you think it can’t possibly get worse than what I just saw.”
The Telegram is running a series on people’s 9-11 memories.
The events of that September morning are etched in Belbin’s mind forever.
He was at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx looking across at Manhattan through a window.
He had just arrived at work when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Someone came into their lab and broke the news. Everyone went to the window for a look.
“As we were watching, the second plane hit. We kind of saw everything from there on.”
What they witnessed came as a shock. Belbin thought he must be dreaming.
“And, of course, there’s a whole fear that came with it. Most of us who were looking had people we knew were in (Manhattan).”
Belbin’s wife, Elizabeth, was working in Times Square.
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“You’re looking in at this place where there is smoke going everywhere and you’re thinking, ‘Our loved ones are in the middle of that.’ So there is obviously a lot of fear of that, and of what is going to happen next.”
It turned out Elizabeth, who’s from St. John’s, was safe.
One of Belbin’s colleagues wasn’t so fortunate. His wife died in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower.
“You see people everyday here that are not only touched by (9-11) because they live in the city, because they lost loved ones. They lost their spouse.”
The tragedy occurred on a Tuesday and Belbin went to where the Twin Tower stood that Saturday. He got a few blocks away and could see what was left.
“Just basically a 10-storey pile of rubble, a 10-storey pile of twisted steel,” he says. “It kind of renewed that fear in your mind of the things that are capable of happening.”
Ten years later, Belbin thinks the people of his adopted home have coped well. New York is a resilient place that “keeps rolling no matter what,” he says.
“I’ve always believed they could get through anything. It certainly tested their strength. I think they’ve come through it pretty well.”
Still, he knows most New Yorkers will carry 9-11 with them for the rest of their lives. Everyone still thinks about it, he says.
“I know I do, at least a couple of times a week or sometimes every day. It’s something you always kind of flashback to.”
“When the first plane went in, you think, ‘Well this is a tragic accident. Something has happened,’ and then, ‘It couldn’t possibly get worse than that.’ And then, all of sudden, you’re two planes into it. Then you think, ‘Well, now we’ve got two planes, it couldn’t possibly get worse than that.’ “And then one of the towers collapses and kills thousands of people." Thomas Belbin
Besides the memories, there are constant reminders for New Yorkers to be vigilant and aware from a security perspective.
For example, Belbin says TV commercials still remind people to say something if they see something unusual, like an unattended brief case.
“You never know if somebody is going to try to get us in a terrorist attack,” he says. “Chances are they’d pick someplace in the middle of Manhattan somewhere. That’s always in the back of your mind.”
But he doesn’t let it stop him from going places. Life must go on.
He and Elizabeth moved to New York in 1999 after they had graduated from Memorial.
The events of 9-11 two years later never made they them question whether or not they should stay.
They’ve since moved from the Bronx to an area called Westchester. Belbin is now an associate professor in the Department of Pathology at the college and Elizabeth is a stay-at-home mom to their five-year-old daughter.
“It’s a great place to live,” he says. “It’s a little different from St. John’s, but a nice place to live.”
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