9/11, Ten Years Later: Rabbi David Cohen Remembers His Brother-in-Law
Surviving family will have a special swim in their home town to remember Andy.
With a small, sad smile, Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Sinai holds up a picture of his brother-in-law, Andrew Alameno, 10 years after the 9/11 tragedy. As he describes the moment he realized Andy was in the World Trade Center towers, his sentences are scattered with emotional pauses.
"I was just like everyone, agape at what was happening and just watching it and wondering what this was going to mean for the country. Then it sort of hit me like a bolt out of the blue, like, 'Oh my gosh, wait a second, that’s where Andy works,'” Cohen said.
While they had lived on separate coasts, Cohen on the west and Andy on the east, these men were just beginning to build a strong familial bond. Only one month before 9/11, Cohen and his family had spent a week with Andy and his family.
"Really was sort of the most intense good time that we had spent together with him," Rabbi David recalls.
Flashback to the tragedy
Just like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, everyone knows exactly where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, when they learned about the attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
Cohen remembers dropping his children off at school and then going to work at the congregation, just like any other day. However, instead of the typical staff meeting scheduled for that day, Cohen says the rest of the day everyone was glued to the television just like millions of other Americans.
"We were just riveted," he said.
Then it clicked. Cohen remembered that his brother-in-law Andy worked in the towers, but he couldn't remember which one. He spent the next few hours racking his brain to figure out which of the two buildings Andy was in, and if he had possibly had time to escape.
"I spent a lot of time trying to do the math in my head whether he would have had time to run out, get out of the building from the floor he was on before the tower had collapsed," Cohen said.
Cohen says they later learned that Andy was in building one and above the area where the first plane hit.
"There was really no way for them to get out," Cohen recalls. "It cut off any possibility of getting down. Very scary and very troubling to imagine what those last minutes or hours must have been like for the people.
"And completely understandable why people were jumping."
Cohen said that Andy did not make any calls before he fell victim to the attacks. However, about a month after the attack, Andy's wife got their cell phone bill. The bill showed a call at 9:03 a.m., just minutes after the planes hit the tower.
Andy had left his cell phone on his desk when they began to evacuate the towers and that gave one family a bit of closure.
"One of his colleagues came by, picked up his phone and used it to call his wife to tell her what was going on," Cohen said. "But Andy didn’t get a chance to call and leave a message."
The healing process
Everyone has a different way of processing tragedy. Cohen says it's a matter of putting the emotions in their box and dealing with them when he can, even 10 years later.
"It took several years to be able to compartmentalize it and be able to put it in that box in a sense and be able to take it out," Cohen said. "Deal with it with some kind of equanimity and put it back. My sleep was very badly affected for a few years by it. Now, when anniversaries come around or when there’s certain celebrations in the family where Andy is acutely missed, I’ll feel that tug."
However, the tragedy on 9/11 was unsual, Cohen said, because it was about more than just the families of those who were lost, it was something that brought the entire country together.
"There were people I knew who lost loved ones in the hours and days following 9/11 in ways that had nothing to do with 9/11," Cohen said. "And their experience was particularly sad because they got totally lost in the national tragedy and mourning. At least, in my sister’s case, and my niece and nephew, there’s a sense that the country was all in it together and there was some comfort and consolation in that."
While Cohen said he received many phone calls and inquiries for interviews on the first anniversary, he did not do anything. On the second, he began to participat in different memorials and 9/11 remembrances — made easier by the entire country's connection to the tragedy.
"There was solace," Cohen said. "I felt it then, it was comforting to know that everyone’s on the same page."
Was justice served?
For some victims' families, the death of Osama Bin Laden has brought solace, but for Cohen, his feelings really didn't change because it doesn't alter history.
"The truth is, life goes on," Cohen said. "And while on some cosmic scale, justice has been done, it doesn’t change the day-to-day. It doesn’t change what happened, it doesn’t bring anybody back."
Andy is survived by his wife — Cohen's sister — Sally, and their two children, Nina and Joe.
Cohen says Sally and the children will not be participating in the memorial services in New York, however they will be involved in their own memorial service.
Andy grew up in Wildwood, NJ. There is a yearly memorial swim in the ocean for Andy, usually on Jan. 1, but in honor of the 10th anniversary, they will do the swim on Sept. 11.
"She’s going to be part of a large group, but a large group that’s going to be focused on Andy and not on 9/11 per say," Cohen said.
And while both the children were very young when their father died — Joe, 4 and Nina only 2 — they will never forget their father, even when Nina only learns of him through stories and pictures.
Even after the tragedy that destroyed so many lives and brought a multitude of Americans together, Cohen says it's a positive effort to rebuild the towers.
"That’s a good thing that the buildings are going up so that there will be another place on the skyline that isn’t empty," he said.