Playwright, actor Van Why recounts “That Day in September”

By Samantha Greenfield, Contributing Writer ||

Every year people come together to remember what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and every year the emotions come back as if that dreaded day was just yesterday. Artie Van Why shared his story with the attendees of Common Hour on the 13th anniversary of 9/11. Van Why was an eyewitness, working just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center when the planes hit.

“Telling my story is the one way, the one gift I have to contribute to the memory of all those who died, particularly the ones that I saw die,” Van Why said.

Van Why described the Twin Towers as such a defining feature of New York City; the grandiosity and stature of the buildings was unparalleled. Every day he would sit in the Plaza between the towers and eat his lunch, looking in on the fountain in the middle that contained a golden globe. He said he marveled at the tourists, that they made him appreciate these buildings that were part of his everyday. As he described these towers, the audience knew that soon his speech would turn to the turmoil and chaos that soon brought those towers down.

On 9/11 his day began as any other day; he took the subway, went to the same food cart he went to every morning to get his coffee and to the newsstand for his paper, and then sat on the benches to read the paper until he had to go into work. He said that if you ask anyone about that day, they would say it was the most beautiful day. Fifteen minutes after Van Why went into his office for work that day, the first plane hit the North Tower. The people in his office felt the building shake as they heard the explosion and everyone was confused.

A secretary ran into his office to tell everyone that a plane had hit one of the towers. Van Why thought it was a small plane that had mistakenly gone off course and crashed into one of the towers. Out of curiosity he went out onto the street and saw that it was covered with paper from the offices of Tower One. From where he stood he could not yet see the tower or the plane that had hit it, so Van Why walked closer. When he looked up, he saw the massive billows of smoke coming from a gaping hole in the tower, an image that is burned into the minds of the American public.

People joined Van Why in the plaza as everyone stared at the tower. Then they started noticing that people were on the floors above where the plane had hit. An image of people cramming their heads out of the windows was on the projector for the audience to see. The audience could see the color of the victims’ clothes, their hands waving, and their faces in the detailed photograph. The Mayser Gymnasium was silent.

Van Why then showed a series of photos of people hanging in the air after making the decision to jump out of the tower. He showed these pictures to illuminate that these people made that choice; the choice to die by fire or by jumping. Artie read a quote that is etched on the wall of the 9/11 memorial about those people who jumped.

“You felt compelled to watch out of respect for them,” the quote reads. “They were ending their life without a choice and to turn away from them would have been wrong.”

Van Why had an immense need to get to those people who had jumped. He did not want them to be alone, if there was even one of them still clinging to life. Then the second plane hit. Debris and metal began to rain down and Van Why had no choice but to run because he was now facing life or death. There was a man that Van Why saw, laying on the ground, face down. Artie ran past him, but then turned back around and crouched down beside the man. His skull had been split open. Others came to help Van Why as they turned him over. The ambulance came and, as Van Why helped lift the man onto the gurney, he whispered in his ear.

“You’ll be okay,” he said, knowing the man would not survive.

Van Why’s biggest regret is not reading the nametag of that man. So many people became nameless in those hours of chaos. Over 3,000 people died that day. Van Why tells his story over and over to keep the memory of those people alive.

Senior Samantha Greenfield is a contributing writer. Her email is sgreenfield@fandm.edu.

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