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I Sat Vigil for the Souls of 9/11 Victims. 20 Years Later I Still Feel Their Presence — and Absence.

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(JTA) — Two nights after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, we were instructed to evacuate our building. There was talk of a potential attack on the nearby Empire State Building. My roommates and I covered our mouths and noses with towels to protect against the still fetid air and walked east from our midtown Manhattan Stern College apartment to get out of the danger zone. Every telephone pole was plastered with hastily printed “MISSING” signs, each with a different smiling face and a phone number to call.

When we reached the barricades, staffed by state troopers and police, we’d gone as far as we could go. And at the corner, right where the barricades met the Bellevue Hospital Center, two lines formed behind folding tables on the sidewalk.

“What are these lines?” I asked a state trooper from behind my towel. The air was thick and I could see motes of debris floating in the light of the street lamps.

“One to give the name of the missing person and check to see if they’re in the hospital. The other to provide DNA,” he said.

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Indeed, when I looked closely, there were people in the lines clutching Ziploc bags of hair brushes and toothbrushes. As the days passed, the line for the hospital names grew shorter and the DNA line grew longer. Survivors in the hospital were rare. The missing were presumed dead.

So when I traveled from the eerily empty Grand Central Terminal on Friday to spend Shabbos at the University of Pennsylvania — wracked with guilt for leaving the city a few days after the attack, but doing as my worried mother requested — I was mortified........

© The Jewish Week

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