A tribute to life after 9/11

Lewis recalls the pain of families visiting the site weeks later

Photo provided: Air National Guard Major Erin Lewis stands with other members of her unit at Ground Zero, weeks after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

TAYLORS—In 2001, when Erin Lewis was serving as a member of the 105th New York Air National Guard, she was assigned to the perimeter of “the pit,” where the World Trade Center collapsed. She recalls that even two weeks later, the temperature there was still hot.

Now married and the mother of five children, the Greer resident and Prince of Peace parishioner remembers the 9/11 attack and its aftermath, right down to the smell of burning, twisted metal.

“It was surreal,” she said. “There were still fires burning. Ash and soot fell from the sky like snow, covering us, our boots, our faces.”

Lewis remembers seeing pieces of clothing caught in trees covered in ash, and human teeth scattered on the ground.

“It was haunting,” she said, “like seeing the destruction of a city that has experienced a nuclear bomb.”

Lewis was in her senior year at Iona College north of New York City the morning of the terrorist attack. She was between classes at the school when word came of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. The Iowa native said her college roommates, both from the New York area, thought it was an accident and told Lewis not to be concerned, that such incidents “happen on occasion.”

Then, as she watched on television and a second plane hit the other tower, Lewis said she immediately contacted her National Guard unit’s  master sergeant, who ordered her to report to the closest fire station for possible deployment to the World Trade Center.

“I was fortunate that I was not in the first wave of personnel that went to the city,” Lewis said. 

Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Eric J. Tilford

Instead, she was sent two weeks later to work perimeter security around Ground Zero, and to escort families of victims to a viewing stand erected near the pit, “so they could better understand why so many bodies were never recovered.”

Lewis said the viewing stand quickly turned into a memorial as people left flowers, notes “and Teddy bears from their children.” It is another haunting memory she’ll never forget.

“I never had trouble maintaining my military bearing,” the now-retired Air National Guard major said, “but I found it impossible not to cry while watching the devastation of these families, especially of the young children crying for their mommy and daddy, and leaving their favorite stuffed animal.”

Her demeanor was challenged again when she completed her three-week assignment at the pit and returned to Iona College. Lewis was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection that required six months of treatment. She later learned that a woman her age, who was at Ground Zero at the same time and for the same duration, died a few years ago from cancer.

“To this day, I worry that I will receive a cancer diagnosis due to my breathing in the toxic air at the World Trade Center,” Lewis said.

She received the State of New York Meritorious Achievement Medal for her service at Ground Zero and is currently working on her master’s degree in theology. Lewis said she is primarily a “stay-at-home mom” who helps her husband, Kevin, at his Greenville Spine Clinic, where he is chief executive officer and director of clinical services. The family moved to South Carolina in 2005 and has been active at Prince of Peace and St. Mary Magdalene Churches.

On every 9/11 anniversary, Lewis takes a moment to reflect on the painful loss suffered by the families she met on that viewing stand 18 years ago. She is particularly mindful of the fate of those young children who lost their mothers, fathers, or both. She said her faith in God helped her deal with the devastation and its painful consequences, even though at the time she may not have had a full understanding of the relationship between faith and suffering.

“I was 21 years old, and my reaction was age-appropriate for my intellectual understanding of faith and suffering,” she said. “I have always been able to accept a given reality as coming from our Lord and to just repeat ‘I trust in you, Jesus.’ Over time, I have come to accept and embrace our Church’s teaching of redemptive suffering.” 

Lewis and her husband traveled to the 9/11 memorial for the first time two years ago. She describes walking up and out of the subway toward the memorial and experiencing the same scent of burning metal that filled the air during the days she served in 2001. Her husband told her he couldn’t detect the same odor.

“My memory of that smell was so strongly tied to the World Trade Center that I imagined that same smell more than a decade later,” Lewis said.

Despite the painful memories, Lewis said she’s glad she had the opportunity to see and experience the memorial.

“The memorial was well done. It honors both the people whose lives were lost, as well as the first responders who served afterwards,” she said. “I felt so honored visiting the memorial, that I was able to serve in such a small way and to be a part of our American history.

“Every American wanted to help, and I was able to do so,” Lewis said.